Elmore family still struggles with death

Walk a few steps into Cherry Tree Crossing and it's clear the memory of last year's fatal shooting of 23-year-old Justin Elmore by Richmond County sheriff's deputies is still fresh.

 

As the anniversary of his Dec. 14 death approaches -- an incident that caused a near riot at the public housing complex and had authorities and public officials on edge for days -- his nickname "Jed" has sprung up in black graffiti along the walls of buildings and the nearby C&J Market on 15th Street. Just the mention of his name prompts a response by those who said they heard the deputies' gunshots or attended one of the many candlelight vigils held to mark his death.

But more than anyone else, it's those who knew Mr. Elmore, the deputies who fired on him and those touched by him after his death who are still feeling the effects of that day.

HANGING ABOVE the doorway to Dora Ward's home is a plaque bearing the phrase "Faith will see us through." It's faith that Mr. Elmore's mother has used to dull the pain of her youngest son's death. She takes regular trips to Lake Olmstead to read Bible passages. Sometimes she brings it to Mr. Elmore's grave in Walker Memorial Park Cemetery, where she sits and talks to her son. Often, she finds herself apologizing for the past.

"I tell him I'm sorry," Ms. Ward said, fighting back tears. "When I had him my mom told me, 'That's your baby and God gave him to you, so you need to take care of him.' It seems like I didn't do a good job."

Mr. Elmore was much more than the sum of his mistakes, she said. In the days and weeks after the shooting, those mistakes were widely reported in the media. Mr. Elmore had a history of confrontations with sheriff's deputies that began when he was 17.

 

The list consisted mostly of minor drug possession and traffic violations. None were violent offenses, but he was on probation for three felony drug cases at the time of his death.

After the shooting, Ms. Ward was frustrated by the way he was portrayed by police and others. While some saw him trying to hit one of the deputies with his car, she said she was actually relieved when she watched the tape.

"When I saw the tape -- and even though the (district attorney) was saying he was trying to hit him -- I was thinking thank God because I knew he was trying to go around."

SHA'keela McNair and Justin Elmore were barely teenagers when they met. Ms. McNair said she was walking in Cherry Tree Crossing and Mr. Elmore kept trying to get her attention. He was two years older and slightly overweight, she said.

"I was like 'I don't like fat boys,' " she said. "I just finally gave him a chance, and when I did, I mean, we just stayed together and kept on talking."

Ms. McNair was pregnant with Mr. Elmore's twin boys when the shooting occurred. In May, she gave birth to Justin Elmore III and Jedrick McNair. They were 31/2 months early and Justin did not survive. This week, to mark Mr. Elmore's death, Ms. McNair said she will pour the baby's ashes on his father's grave.

The other child, Jedrick, closely resembles his dad -- which has been the hardest but also the most comforting thing for Ms. McNair.

"Deep down in my heart he is still here with me," she said. "If I look at my baby, I'm looking at him."

IN MAY, a grand jury found no probable cause to charge Deputy Michael Hodge and Deputy Jose Ortiz with a criminal act for firing on Mr. Elmore -- essentially confirming Sheriff Ronnie Strength's position that their lives were threatened and they were justified in defending themselves. They have since returned to work for the department, but because of concerns for their safety they are no longer assigned to a beat that includes the Cherry Tree Crossing area. Deputy Ortiz is a property-crimes investigator, and Deputy Hodge works on the road patrol. Deputy Ortiz declined to comment, and attempts to reach Deputy Hodge were unsuccessful.

When reached by phone on Saturday for a comment, Sheriff Strength said he didn't understand why the newspaper was doing a story on the incident.

"If I thought it was positive for the community or anything but 100 percent negative for the community, I'd make a statement," he said. "But other than that, I have no comment."

In their accounts in the Georgia Bureau of Investigation's investigative summary, Deputies Hodge and Ortiz describe how fear over Mr. Elmore's intentions prompted the shooting.

Deputy Ortiz said he was in front of Mr. Elmore's black Suburban when he saw it move in reverse and strike Deputy Hodge's car. When it came toward him, he "thought the suspect vehicle was going to run over him," the summary says, and he fired.

Deputy Hodge told interviewers that an informant had told him four men were riding through Cherry Tree in a "newer model SUV Suburban, black in color, with tinted windows." A short time later, Deputy Hodge spotted Mr. Elmore's SUV, which turned out to be the wrong vehicle, and stopped him. When Mr. Elmore's vehicle began to hop the curb and head toward Deputy Ortiz, he fired. Deputy Hodge told the interviewers that he "fired his weapon because he felt Deputy Ortiz was in danger and that he was going to get run over," the report said.

FOUR PEOPLE in Georgia are alive today because of Mr. Elmore's death. His right kidney is now helping a 64-year-old Veterans Affairs worker enjoy a second chance at life. His death ended a 27-year-old woman's wait for a kidney. His liver has led to a 62-year-old man's discharge from the hospital. And his heart beats in a 38-year-old man whom Ms. Ward only knows as "Richard."

In a card emblazoned with a bright red heart, Richard thanked Mr. Elmore's family for their gift.

At first, Ms. Ward said she was reluctant to read it. In fact, she was still struggling with the fact that others were alive and her child was dead. But in the end, she said, it was done because "Justin would have done it."

Reach Adam Folk at (706) 823-3339 or adam.folk@augustachronicle.com.

On Dec. 14, 2008, 23-year-old Justin Lenard Elmore was shot by Richmond County sheriff's deputies. Interviews and sheriff's department video show Mr. Elmore trying to escape from police after they boxed him in with their cars on Carver Drive in the Cherry Tree Crossing neighborhood.

The deputies were responding to an informant's tip that someone in a similar vehicle had weapons and drugs. Mr. Elmore accelerated toward Deputy Jose Rivera Ortiz, who fired several times at the vehicle. A second deputy, Michael Hodge, also fired.

Mr. Elmore turned out to not be the man deputies had suspected. As news of the shooting spread, rocks and bottles were thrown at deputies and fires were set in trash bins and gunfire could be heard. Extra deputies were called to the neighborhood for security.

VIDEO

December 2008: Police video of the shooting

December 2008: Candlelight vigil at Cherry Tree Crossing

May 2009: Residents react to grand jury decision

PHOTOS

See 30 photos chronicling the shooting