OCALA, Florida (AP) — Authorities came under pressure Tuesday to arrest and charge a white woman who fired through her front door and killed a black neighbour in a case that has put Florida’s divisive stand your ground law back into the spotlight.
About three dozen mostly black protesters gathered outside the Marion County Judicial Center to demand that the shooter be arrested in the country’s latest flashpoint over race and gun violence. The chief prosecutor, State Attorney William Gladson, met with the protesters and urged patience while the investigation continues.
“If we are going to make a case we need as much time and as much evidence as possible,” Gladson said. “I don’t want to compromise any criminal investigation and I’m not going to do that.”
Ajike Owens, a 35-year-old mother of four, was killed in the Friday night shooting that Marion County Sheriff Billy Woods said was the culmination of a two-and-a-half-year feud between neighbours. The women lived in the rolling hills south of Ocala, a north Florida city that is the heart of the state's horse country.
Woods said Monday detectives are working with the State Attorney’s Office and must investigate possible self-defence claims before they can move forward with any possible criminal charges. The sheriff pointed out that because of the stand your ground law he can’t legally make an arrest unless he can prove the shooter did not act in self-defence.
On Tuesday, a stuffed teddy bear and bouquets marked the area near where Owens was shot. Nearby, children were riding bikes and scooters, and playing basketball. Protesters chanted “No justice, no peace” and “AJ AJ AJ” using Owens’ nickname. They carried signs saying: “Say her name Ajike Owens” and “It’s about us.”
Outside, the Reverend Bernard Tuggerson said the black community in Ocala has suffered injustices for years. “Marion County is suffering and needs to be healed completely,” he said. “If we don’t turn from our wicked ways of the world, it’s going to be an ongoing problem. We want answers.”
The sheriff said Owens was shot moments after going to the apartment of her neighbour, who had yelled at Owens' children as they played in a nearby lot. He also said the neighbour, who has not been identified by police, had thrown a pair of skates that hit one of the children.
Deputies responding to a trespassing call at the apartment Friday night found Owens suffering from gunshot wounds. She later died at a hospital.
Before the confrontation, the shooter had been yelling racial slurs at the children, according to a statement from civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump, who is representing Owens’ family. He also represented Trayvon Martin's family in 2012, when the black teenager was killed in a case that drew worldwide attention to the state's stand your ground law.
The sheriff’s office hasn’t confirmed there were slurs uttered or said whether race was a factor in the shooting.
Lauren Smith, 40, lives across the street from where the shooting happened. She was on her porch that day and saw one of Owens' young sons pacing, and yelling, “They shot my mama, they shot my mama.”
She ran toward the house, and started chest compressions until a rescue crew arrived. She said there wasn't an altercation and that Owens didn't have a weapon.
“She was angry all the time that the children were playing out there,” Smith said. “She would say nasty things to them. Just nasty.” Smith, who is white, described the neighbourhood is family friendly.
The sheriff said that since January 2021, deputies responded at least a half-dozen calls in connection with what police described as feuding between Owens and the woman who shot her.