Calls for justice, restraint

Marion sheriff and prominent attorney address community outrage after fatal shooting of mother.

Ajike “AJ” Owens [supplied]

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Posted June 6, 2023 | By Andy Filmore

The Marion County Sheriff’s Office and the Marion County Chapter of the NAACP each held press conferences Monday to discuss the investigation into the death of Ajike “AJ” Owens, a mother of four, who authorities say was fatally shot Friday night by a neighbor.

Nationally known civil rights lawyer Ben Crump, who has represented victims’ families in high-profile cases including those of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin and many others,  is representing the Owens family. Florida attorney Anthony D. Thomas is working with Crump on the case and he spoke at the NAACP press conference.

Owens was African American and the alleged shooter is a white woman. Some members of the local Black community and Owens’ family have criticized the pace of the investigation and lack of criminal charges so far in the case.

Law enforcement has described an ongoing feud between neighbors and a confrontation at the time of the shooting. Thomas has described Owens’ actions before the shooting as simply those of an unarmed and concerned parent going next door to ask about an incident involving her children.

Thomas said Owens’ family has pressed for an immediate arrest of the yet-unidentified neighbor.

According to Marion County Sheriff Billy Woods at a noontime press conference on Monday, deputies responded originally to a trespass call Friday around 9 p.m. and found Owens, injured by a gunshot, at a residence in the 1600 block of Southwest 107th Lane and rendered aid.

Woods said he was aware of “rumors… (that) we’re not moving fast enough” with the investigation, but he said some people “don’t understand” how the law works and that his office is pursuing all the facts.

Woods spoke of a careful and thorough investigation, including a requirement to rule out the justification of the use of deadly force under the Florida law known as ”Stand Your Ground.’’

Florida statutes allow a person to “stand their ground” and not retreat when, for example, lawfully in a dwelling and acting to “prevent imminent death or great bodily harm.”

Woods indicated interviews of the children are pending. He said the children were being given a chance to grieve and grief counselors who work with youth may be needed to conduct the interviews.

Woods stated the southwest Marion County location where the shooting occurred had up to eight calls for MCSO service placed by either the alleged shooter or the victim over the last 18 months.

Woods described a “neighborhood feud over time” involving kids playing on a property and “being children.”

He said he wished Owens or the neighbor had called MCSO during the time leading up to the shooting.

Woods asked witnesses with any information about the case to come forward and call his investigators. The status of any surveillance videos in the area was unclear.

Woods said prior to the shooting there had been an incident between the alleged shooter and the victim’s children and preliminary information suggests an object, possibly an electronic device or skates, had been thrown by the alleged shooter during the incident. It was unclear if the object was thrown toward the children or at the ground.

An incident report written by a deputy responding to the shooting states, “while securing the crime scene, juvenile (redacted name) informed me that there had been a dispute over kids electronic tablet style device. Someone also mentioned that (redacted name) had thrown rollerskates at the juveniles.

“The victim went and began knocking on the suspect’s door, (redaction) was fired from within the suspect’s home and went through the door striking the victim (redaction),” the report states.

MCSO is not yet releasing the suspect’s name because “this remains an active homicide investigation,” according to LT. Paul Bloom, MCSO Public Information Director.

Woods described Owens’ visit to the shooter’s residence as, according to one account, a ”confrontation” with “banging“ and “threats” exchanged, but he said a complete picture of the incident is still being developed.

Woods was flanked at the press conference by several members of the local African American community including some he described as “close friends.” F.L. Brown, one of those standing behind Woods, called for “calm” as the investigation moves forward.

Woods said his office protects and serves all residents, “no exceptions,” and his “heart goes out to the family.”

“Pray for the children,” he said.

Meanwhile, a press conference called at 3 p.m. by the Marion County Chapter of the NAACP and hosted at New Saint John Missionary Baptist Church in northwest Ocala saw a near-capacity audience hear remarks from Owens’ family members and several leaders of the local African American community.

“We are working to bring justice for the unlawful killing of a Black mother of four who was shot through a door,’’ Thomas said. “The entire community is behind (this). We are going to demand justice from Sheriff Woods. He promised he would do his job…we are going to hold him to it. We need an arrest.”

A press release from the Ben Crump Law Firm gave this account of the events leading up to the shooting: (a) “58-year-old white woman reportedly began yelling at (Owens’ children) to get off her land and calling them racial slurs.

“The children left but accidentally left an iPad behind, which the woman took. When one of the children went to her residence to retrieve it, she threw it, hitting the boy and cracking the screen. After AJ’s children informed her of what happened, she walked across the street with her kids to speak with the woman. She knocked on the door, and at that point, the woman allegedly shot through the door, hitting AJ, who later died from her injuries,” the press release stated.

Owens’ mother, Pamela Dias, told the people gathered at the church that the woman called her daughter’s children “the N-word and the C-word.”

“My daughter was shot with a 9-year-old; (she posed) no immediate threat,” she said, calling for “justice for her daughter.”

Lauren Smith who has lived one house away from the address given for the incident for anout a year and a half , said she did not know of any difficulty between Owens and the alledged shooter prior to the shooting.

Smith said a vacant lot across from  Owens’ residence and adjacent to the alledged shooter’s residence was where children had been playing.

Smith said when the shooting occurred the victim‘s eldest son ,who is a friend of Smith‘s daughter, ran into her driveway and said his  mother had been shot.

Smith tried to comfort the eldest son and he took her by the hand and led her to his injured mother.

Smith performed CPR on Owens until emergency services arrived, in less than six minutes, she said.

Owens’ longtime friend Kim Robinson-Jone, said Owens’ kids were “her world.”

Robinson-Jones claimed the shooter was a tenant with “no right” to order the children off the property.

“There was no confrontation. (Owens) went to ask (about the incident) when it happened. We will not sleep or rest until justice is served,” Robinson-Jones said to applause from many in attendance.

Marion County NAACP chapter President Bishop J. David Stockton Ill said the shooting is a “sign of the times and living in Florida.” He added that Black people are “leaving in a constant state of fear.”

Marion County NAACP chapter President Bishop J. David Stockton Ill, Florida attorney Anthony D. Thomas, Rev. Eric Cummings

Local clergyman and educator and officer in the local NAACP chapter Jerone Gamble, said “guns are everywhere” and referred to the “Wild West in Florida.”

Gamble, also a member of a gun violence task force with the Marion County Children’s Alliance, said there was “no reason” for the shooting death and “no one has been arrested” although the shooter is known. He questioned the pace MCSO is proceeding with the case.

Gamble referred to a recent case where three Black youths were arrested in the deaths of three white youth in the Ocala National Forest and noted the swift move by law enforcement to apprehend the Black juveniles.

“The shooter needs to be arrested now,” he said.

Gamble remarked that this shooting was reportedly through a door, but he said future shootings could be “through a window” as “you’re walking down the street.”

Eric Cummings, pastor of New Zion Missionary Baptist Church and a Marion County School Board member, told the assembly the “situation should not have happened anywhere in America.”

There are “laws people can hide behind… their (actions) are illegal,” he said.

Cummings called for a thorough and transparent investigation and suggested if the killing had been committed by a Black person, they would “already be in jail. “

“We expect the same justice in (predominantly African American) west Ocala as on the east side,” he said. “(We’re) tired of being sick and tired…we want an arrest right now. We support our sheriff, but we want swift justice.’’

Cummings added MCSO explained “probable cause” is needed to make an arrest.

Family members at the press conference included Eddie Williams, the father of Isaac Williams.

Ida Collins, who sat with the family, said after the press conference she raised “AJ” (Owens) from infancy to 6 years old and then from age 14 to 18. Collins said Owens was 35 years old and called her a “sweetheart.”

Collins said Owens was the manager of a McDonald’s restaurant.

“She sacrificed for her kids,” Collins said.

Owens‘ pre-teen son, who has not been identified by name by the family, stepped forward to address the supportive crowd at the press conference.

“I just want to thank everyone for coming out for my mother,” he said.

Field in 1600 block of Southwest 107th Lane seen Tuesday with a memorial.

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