CHIPLEY - While Tuesday's fatal shooting of Steven Justin Ayers, 33, of Panama City continues to make national headlines, Washington County is joining area communities in celebrating his life.
Ayers attended Bay County High School, but much of his family lives in Chipley and is well known in the community.
His father, Steve Ayers, managed the Winn Dixie store when it was still located in Harrell Square on Main Street for more than two decades, and his stepmother, Tammy, is the proprietor of The Learning Place childcare center on Coleman Ave.
Steven Justin Ayers - called Justin by family and friends - was killed Tuesday night in an incident that one Bay County Sheriff's Office rep said had about "one in infinity" odds of happening. Ayers and his wife, Jessica, were celebrating the homecoming of their three-day old son, Jax, when a stray bullet fired by a neighbor at an adjacent home entered the Ayers' residence through a glass door and fatally struck the new father in the back of the head.
The neighbor, Charles Edward Shisler, 62, was arrested and charged with manslaughter and possession of a firearm by a felon. He told investigators the gun accidentally discharged when he picked it up inside his house.
However, while there's little argument that Ayers' death was tragic, his family says they prefer to focus on his life.
"He was such a wonderful, caring, and loving person," said one of Justin's younger three sisters, Tiffany Ayers of Chipley. "He was a godly man with a rock 'n roll soul who loved his family, and once he made a friend, that friend was for life."
Ayers taught guitar lessons for 20 years, often performing at local venues like Margaritaville and Foghorns, and wrote and performed music with his wife, Jessica. And it's through his love for music and his wife that Tiffany says her brother touched lives.
"Music and Jessica were his passion," she said. "He had worked at the music store in Panama City since he was 14, and Jessica had been his love since they were kids, more than 17 years. We should all be so lucky to have a love like that."
"They agreed to wait ten years to have a child after getting married because of their career, and Justin was overjoyed when Jax came in this world," she adds. "Jax's first breath literally took Justin's away."
Tiffany says her family will be sure young Jax knows what kind of man his father was.
"(If I could tell Jax one thing about his dad), it would be that I had never seen him so happy as the day his son was brought into this world," said Tiffany. "He was the best father possible for the very short amount of time he had. Jessica and Jax were his whole world."
Those wanting to help the fundraising benefits for the Ayers family have several options as the community continues to rally around them.
An account created Wednesday in Ayers’ name on the website gofundme.com had raised nearly $16,000 from more than 300 donors by 9 a.m. Friday, exceeding the goal amount of $15,000.
Panama City radio station WPAP 92.5, will also host a fundraiser Monday at Cahall’s Deli, located at 416 W. 23rd St. in Panama City.
Another event honoring Ayers’ love of music is set for Tuesday, July 8, at G. Foley’s, located at 3212 W. 23rd St. The fundraiser will last from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. Musicians willing to donate their talent for the evening are asked to contact the business. The business also is accepting baby items and gift card donations for Jessica Ayers and baby Jax Ayers.
Justin and Jessica's music can also be downloaded from iTunes. Local favorites by The Ayers are "Unusual Love" and "Make Believe." Both are written and performed by the couple.
Meanwhile, Tiffany Ayers says the love and generosity shown by the public hasn't gone unnoticed by the family.
"We truly appreciate the community coming together for us," says Tiffany. "We are very thankful, not only for all the donations to help Jessica and Jax, but also for the prayers, visits, and consideration. We are so blessed to be surrounded by such good people."
Ayers' mother, Vicki McMichael, lives in Panama City. He also has two other younger sisters, Ashley Ayers of Chipley and Wendi Lewis of Grand Ridge, whose sons, Hayden Ayers and Bryson Lewis, respectively, were their Uncle Justin's "little buddies."
For complete obituary, see the Wednesday, June 25, edition of the Washington County News.