Chantemekki Fortson, left, the mother of slain airman Roger Fortson and Trial lawyer Benjamin Crump stand at his casket during his funeral at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, Friday, May 17, 2024, near Atlanta. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Hundreds of people gathered at a megachurch near Atlanta on May 17 to honor the life of one man: Roger Fortson. Weeks after the 23-year-old U.S. airman was shot and killed in his Fort Walton Beach, Fla., apartment by a sheriff’s deputy, family, friends and comrades remembered the upstanding young man his family says he was.

His killing has been deemed unjustified by his family, attorneys, and members of the American public. It has also spurred fierce calls for justice and added another unfortunate tally to the number of Black men and women slain at the hands of law enforcement.

‘He was executed’

Friday, May 17, Mr. Fortson lay inside a partially open casket during his service at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, dressed in his Air Force uniform. Those who paid their respects were visibly shaken by pain and grief and hugged one another for comfort. The Rev. Jamal Bryant delivered a powerful eulogy, asserting that Mr. Fortson was murdered.

FILE – This photo provided by the U.S. Air Force, shows Senior Airman Roger Fortson in a Dec. 24, 2019, photo. A Florida deputy’s fatal shooting of a U.S. service member has jarred the former top enlisted officer of the Air Force. In 2020, Chief Master Sgt. Kaleth O. Wright warned that his greatest fear was waking up to news that police had killed a Black airman. (U.S. Air Force via AP, File)

“He died of stone-cold murder,” Rev. Bryant said. “And somebody has got to be held accountable. Roger was better to America than America was to Roger.”

Mr. Fortson was shot six times by an Okaloosa County Sheriff’s deputy in Florida’s panhandle. He grew up in Atlanta but was living in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., where he served as an AC-130J Ghostrider gunner with the 1st Special Operations Wing.

“That’s the heartbreaking thing,” Ben Crump, a civil rights attorney representing the Fortson family, told The Final Call. “He fought to protect the constitutional rights for all Americans and yet his constitutional rights were not protected and cost him his life.”

Deputies showed up at the apartment complex on May 3 after receiving a call about a domestic disturbance. During a news conference May 16, Atty. Crump read the transcript of an exchange between a woman at the leasing office and a deputy.

The woman at the front desk told the deputy that “the fighting happens frequently” but this time it’s getting out of hand. She told him it’s between a man and a woman, and expletives are often used. When the deputy asked for the apartment, the woman said she was not sure which one it was, then eventually said 1401, which belonged to Mr. Fortson.

Atty. Crump also replayed police dispatch audio, where a dispatcher says, “Uh, don’t have uh, any further [information] other than a male and female. It’s all fourth-party information from the front desk at the leasing office.”

This has been the basis on which Mr. Fortson’s family says deputies showed up at the wrong apartment.

“[Roger] was in his apartment by himself, on FaceTime with his girlfriend and his dog,” Atty. Crump told The Final Call. During the news conference, he also stated Mr. Fortson and his girlfriend were making plans for a weekend visit. “That was all the people in his apartment. … Do not try to say that this young man, this patriot, was in a dispute with somebody on that premises.”

According to his family, Roger never had any issues with domestic abuse and does not have a criminal history. Roger’s mother, Meka Fortson, says the sheriff’s office is smearing her son’s name when they say they went to the correct apartment.

“The same way you guys made a press interview and made some statements about [Roger], I want you to make a press interview … and say that he was wrongfully killed,” she said. “They killed a young man that should have been alive today. They killed a young man that had a long life ahead of him.”

The sheriff, Eric Aden, asserts that deputies did go to the correct apartment.

Body camera video shows the deputy walking down the hall of the fourth floor, without any sound of there being a disturbance. He pounds on Mr. Fortson’s door without identifying himself, then steps aside, out of view of the door’s peephole.

He pounds again, then yells, “Sheriff’s Office! Open the door!” The door opens and Mr. Fortson comes into view. He has a gun pointed directly at the ground in his right hand, which he legally owned.

His dog Chloe is at his other side. The deputy shouts, “step back” then fires six rounds. It isn’t until Mr. Fortson is on the ground that the deputy tells him to “Drop the gun! Drop the gun!” Mr. Fortson was pronounced dead at the hospital.

While laying her son to rest, Ms. Fortson said, “You’re going to give me justice whether you want to, Sheriff Aden, or not.”

The identity of the deputy who shot Mr. Fortson has not yet been released. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is investigating and the deputy has been placed on administrative leave. Atty. Crump says, the Fortson family is ready to pursue any litigation necessary to get justice for Roger.

Although Roger was a patriot who fought for his country, Atty. Crump says this fact did not matter the moment his life was taken.

“He had a right to the Second Amendment. He had the right to bear arms. Why is it when Black people have a gun that the NRA (National Rifle Association) doesn’t come to champion their right to the Second Amendment?” he said. “There needs to be accountability on every level.”

The Okaloosa Sheriff’s Office has had issues in the not-so-distant past. A deputy shot at a Black man who had been searched, handcuffed and placed in a patrol car because he mistook the sound of a falling acorn for a gunshot. This happened last November. The man, Marquis Jackson, was not hit by the gunfire but said the incident left him traumatized.

Furthermore, the Associated Press reports LaTanya Griffin filed a federal lawsuit against the Sheriff’s Office in August, under allegations that deputies used a battering ram to enter her home in 2019 while serving a search warrant.

Ms. Griffin said she had been asleep, naked and was ordered at gunpoint to walk outside and remain nude in front of officers and the public. She was never arrested or charged with a crime.

Atty. Crump says Mr. Fortson’s case is reminiscent of Botham Jean’s, a Black man who was shot and killed in 2018. Amber Guyger, a White former Dallas police officer, testified that she mistakenly walked into Mr. Jean’s apartment, thinking it was hers, then opened fire, thinking Mr. Jean was a burglar. She was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Although places such as Florida, where Roger was killed, and Texas, where Mr. Jean was killed, have a long history of racial bias, Atty. Crump says the discrimination of Black men and women by police officers everywhere is the same.

“Malcolm X said, he’s been told that they discriminate against Black people in the South. Well, his definition of the South, he said, was anything beneath the Canadian border,” the attorney said. “Because last time I checked, they discriminate against Black people all over America. And the police in Fort Walton, Florida, [acted] like police departments all over America when they killed Roger.”

‘Roger was a beacon of light’

As Roger’s family continues to fight for justice, Ms. Fortson says they are doing as well as they can be.

“I don’t even think we’re coping,” she said. “I think we’re working and I guess we’ll breathe once we finished working for Roger. … We have to put our pain to the back. We cry when we can cry. But right now, we have to work and be in pain at the same time. They have to give my child justice.”

Roger joined the Air Force while in Atlanta. He became a senior airman, serving in combat zones overseas and was stationed at Hurlburt Air Force Base in Fort Walton Beach. Ms. Fortson says he was her gift.

“He was the gift that kept on giving,” she said. “People say you can’t make your children your friend. Well, that was my best friend. … What that sheriff’s department took away from this community, from my family, from people on other continents, was a light. [He] was the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Roger’s family says he was always striving to make his life better for himself, and his younger brother and sister. He desired to get his mom a home in Stonecrest and was an example for his whole family.

“He survived so much to help so many people,” Ms. Fortson said. “I’ve had some of the hardest people in our community come to me with tears in their eyes because of the loss of him. … People that you may be scared to walk by. Those people are grieving, too.”

Servicemen across the world have come together to grieve Mr. Fortson.

“As you can see from the sea of Air Force blue in front of me, I am not alone in my admiration of Senior Airman Fortson,” Col. Patrick Dierig said before the congregation at Mr. Fortson’s funeral service at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church. He commands the 1st Special Operations Wing at Hurlburt Air Force Base.

“We would like to take credit for making him great, but the truth is that he was great before he came to us,” he said.

Roger’s family is determined to get justice for him, to magnify the beautiful young man he was, and to keep his story before the masses.

“Once [the sheriff’s office] own up to what they have done and what they are doing, instead of thinking that all Black mothers are afraid of them, all Black mothers are illiterate, all Black mothers are drug addicts, we’re not raising our kids, we’re not watching our kids, and they do right by us.

That’d be justice for me,” Ms. Fortson said. “That’s justice, when the sheriff’s department own up to what they did, and put the real story, the real truth out there about Roger.”