Florida Airman Was Shot by Deputy Within Seconds of Opening Apartment Door, Body Cam Footage Shows

Chantimekki Fortson, mother of Roger Fortson
Chantimekki Fortson, mother of Roger Fortson, a U.S. Air Force airman, holds a photo of her son during a news conference regarding his death, with Attorney Ben Crump, right, Thursday, May 9, 2024, in Fort Walton Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

A Florida deputy fired the six rounds that killed Senior Airman Roger Fortson within seconds of the airman opening the door, police body camera footage released Thursday reveals.

The footage shows the unidentified deputy firing into Fortson's chest as the airman opens his apartment door and appears to be holding a handgun at his side. The Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office deputy shoots Fortson, who was assigned to a special operations squadron at Hurlburt Field, immediately after telling the airman to step back -- giving him virtually no time to respond.

Only as Fortson is lying on the floor of his apartment fatally wounded does the deputy tell him to drop his weapon, a firearm that was legally owned, according to an attorney for the airman's family.

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The footage was released by the Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office during a press conference Thursday as questions swirl around the May 3 death of Fortson. Officials say they were responding to a call of a disturbance that led them to the apartment, but the body cam footage raised more concerns about the deputy's use of deadly force and the vague second- and third-hand information that led them to Fortson's door.

The sheriff's office has not identified the deputy who shot the airman but said an investigation is underway.

Okaloosa County Sheriff Eric Aden did not take any questions after releasing the footage at the press conference. In a prior statement, he said he had placed the involved deputy on leave and also asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, as well as the State Attorney's Office, to conduct an investigation.

Fortson's family has claimed he was home alone and there was no disturbance in the apartment. His mother said in an exclusive interview with Military.com on Thursday that the airman was "murdered."

The 23-year-old lived in an off-base apartment in Fort Walton Beach, in the Florida panhandle, and was assigned to a special operations squadron that flies AC-130J Ghostrider gunships.

"In the four-and-a-half minute, heavily redacted video, it is very troubling that the deputy gave no verbal commands and shot multiple times within a split second of the door being opened, killing Roger," Ben Crump, a renowned civil rights attorney retained by Fortson's family, said in an emailed statement Thursday.

In the footage, shot by a camera on the deputy's uniform, the officer can be seen knocking on the door without announcing himself and then standing off to the side, apparently out of view of the door's peephole.

The deputy knocks again and announces he's with the sheriff's office. Fortson then opens the apartment door.

The following series of events happen within seconds.

Fortson can be seen standing in the doorway, holding a gun in his hand with his arm down by his side. Immediately, he is told by the deputy to "step back" and then -- without a pause -- a rapid succession of shots rings out from the officer's gun.

The airman falls to the floor on his back. Only then does the deputy tell him to "drop the gun." Fortson weakly responds that he doesn't have it.

"As the officer didn't tell Roger to drop the weapon before shooting, was the officer trained to give verbal warnings? Did the officer try to initiate lifesaving measures? Was the officer trained to deal with law-abiding citizens who are registered gun owners?" Crump said.

The information that led police to Fortson's apartment also appears to have been questionable.

Publicly available police radio chatter from that day reveals the information about the disturbance came from several sources in the apartment complex. In the body cam footage, a male at the front office of the complex and a woman who spoke with deputies both said they were reporting secondhand information about a potential disturbance.

"Don't have anything further than a male and female; it's all fourth-party information from the front desk at the leasing office," a deputy said on the radio, Military.com previously reported.

When the deputy asks a man in the front leasing office "what's going on," he replies, "I'm not sure" and that he had been told to call a woman if deputies came by.

"So, there's a fight going on or something?" the deputy asked the man. "I wasn't present for that," the man, whose face is blurred out on the video, responds.

The deputy then walks over to an unidentified woman in the parking lot of the apartment complex building and asks, "So, are they fighting or something?" She responds, "She was saying it happens frequently, but this time it was getting out of hand."

The deputy then asks "which door?" The woman responds, "I'm not sure."

The woman tells the law enforcement officer that she was walking by an apartment two weeks earlier and heard a verbal fight but "wasn't sure where it came from."

But the officer asks "which room is it?" and the woman responds, "1401." She adds, "But the girl sounded scared, the one who called."

It's not clear who originally reported the disturbance. Crump said Fortson was home alone on a video call with his girlfriend when police came to the apartment.

Meka Fortson, Roger's mother, told Military.com in an exclusive interview Thursday that her son had always wanted to serve his country and had dreams of becoming a pilot. She said he had recently returned from a deployment overseas, only to die in his apartment.

"It's a disbelief. Every day, I try to go to sleep early to wake up like it's a dream," she said. "He just came back from deployment from fighting for us. With everything we got going on in our country, he's fighting for us and he came back to be murdered, slain like that so violently."

Crump told Military.com on Thursday no gunfire was exchanged and that Fortson was a model citizen who did not pose a threat. There was no returning gunfire shown in Thursday's body camera footage.

"The reality is he was the best of us. He was the person who you would trust with a firearm. I mean, he was military trained," Crump said. "So, for them to put out a statement claiming self-defense is just misleading because they're trying to suggest that what they did was justified."

In a statement Wednesday, Crump cited an account by the girlfriend who was on the video call, saying that Roger Fortson didn't see anyone when he looked out the peephole and that "police burst through the door."

Following the release of the video, Crump detailed in an emailed statement, "The girlfriend acknowledges that, even though she initially thought the door was forced open by the police, that she stands by her emotional recollection of what happened.

"We remain adamant that the police had the wrong apartment as Roger was on the phone with his girlfriend for a substantial amount of time leading up to the shooting, and no one else was in the apartment," Crump said in a statement.

The girlfriend, who has not been named, is reportedly planning to hold a press conference in the near future.

During a portion of their FaceTime video, which was recorded by the girlfriend and shared with Military.com, Fortson can be heard groaning and saying "I can't breathe." The deputy yells, "Do not move, stop moving."

The Sunshine State has prioritized the ease of buying and carrying firearms in recent years, including special carve-outs for service members that simplify the process further, such as not requiring troops to take safety courses in order to qualify to carry concealed weapons under a 2023 law.

Ann Stefanek, a Department of the Air Force spokeswoman, told Military.com on Thursday that leadership at the wing where Fortson served is in contact with and supporting his family. She added, "The Air Force is also actively working in conjunction with local authorities to thoroughly investigate this incident and gather all pertinent facts related to this terrible tragedy."

Pentagon Press Secretary Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters Thursday that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has not reached out to the family and that they were "saddened" by the loss of a service member.

"We certainly never want to see our airmen or any military member, or any part of our [Department of Defense] family be put into a situation like this," Ryder said.

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