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Steve Huff: Did a Good Deed Lead Pastor Jonathan Ayers to his Death?

Photo: Pastor Jonathan Ayers, left.

Crimesider is proud to present renowned crime blogger Steve Huff to the website. Steve is well known online for his shoe-leather reporting and insightful analysis on crimes around the country.

Story contributed by Steve Huff.

LAVONIA, Ga. (CBS) Pastor Jonathan Ayers had a question for paramedics as they treated him for bullet wounds on Sept. 2. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Ayers asked, "Who shot me?"

Ayers' words give rise to questions about what really happened in the moments leading up to a law enforcement officer's bullet putting an end to the 29-year-old minister's life. Did Jonathan Ayers know that the men who swarmed his car were Stephens County sheriff's deputies?

The physical details of Ayers's shooting seem clear.

The young pastor parked his vehicle in front of a Toccoa, Ga., convenience store and went inside. Surveillance video showed Ayers entering the store clad in khaki pants and a red tee shirt.

Security camera footage of the gas pumps caught the drama as Ayers attempted to leave. In the video, an unmarked black SUV skidded to a halt behind Ayers' vehicle and men exited, guns drawn. Ayers backed up anyway, and the video shows an agent hanging onto the trunk of Ayers' car before falling off as the preacher shifted into drive. Multiple officers could be seen, guns out, chasing Ayers out of the frame.

CNN video shows Pastor Jonathan Ayers' final moments.

Ayers was shot in the liver and later died in a hospital operating room. Before he died, he was able to speak to his wife Abby, who was 16 weeks pregnant. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution quoted Ayers' words to his wife. "I didn't do anything wrong," said the preacher, "I love you. Take care of yourself."

Early reports about Ayers' death seemed to point to him as an innocent bystander. An article published online by WYFF TV in Greenville, SC stated that prior to entering the convenience store, Ayers gave a ride to a woman who was the target of a drug investigation. According to investigators who spoke to the TV station, no drugs were found on Ayers' person or in his vehicle. Georgia Bureau of Investigation spokesman John Bankhead said that the woman, who has not been named, has been jailed pending charges of cocaine possession.

The reaction from those who knew Ayers was pure shock.

Daniel Parker worked with Ayers before the pastor was called to preach at Shoal Creek Baptist in Lavonia. Parker told The Northeast Georgian that Jonathan Ayers was "truly like a brother to" him. He also said, "I don't think I've ever known a greater man."

Parker also alluded to a possible motivation for Ayers' giving some kind of assistance to the unnamed woman targeted by Stephens County authorities. "[…] He was the kind of guy who would do whatever he could to help you, that would give you what you needed and never complain about it," he told The Northeast Georgian.

Jonathan Ayers had a blog, titled "New Beginnings."

In his first blog post in July, 2008, Ayers wrote that he intended to make his blog "a place of new ministry" for himself and that he hoped "to be a source of encouragement to all who read."

Many of his entries were attached to messages in sermons, but some posts made it clear that Ayers had a genuine enthusiasm and joy in his small but growing church.

He wrote these words about a Sunday service in late September, 2008. "Well yesterday was awesome!!! We had great services and the choir knocked it out. But the high light of the day was two people coming forward to join the church."

In late August of this year, Ayers and his wife Abby returned from a mission trip to Zambia. Ayers wrote in part, "We were there for ten days and it [sic] amazing! I am so humbeled [sic] right now by what I saw! I have been preaching for almost nine years and I have the oppritunity [sic] to lead around hundred people to Christ! But this week I saw God move in a way that topped anything else I have ever seen!"

Ayers also mentioned his wife Abby frequently. He wrote these words in February: "I am loved by my wife! The love that she shows me goes beyond any earthly love that I've ever experinced. She [loves] me in spite of my imperfection. In the words of Etta James [it's] a 'Sunday kind of love, it's a love that goes past saturday night.'"

All the officers involved in the incident that led to Ayers' death are on leave. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation is investigating. A spokesman, John Bankhead, was unavailable for comment on Friday.

Crime journalist Steve Huff has written for the Crime Library, Radar Magazine, Village Voice Media and True/Slant. He lives with his wife Dana and their kids in Roswell, GA.
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