SAN ANTONIO – Editor’s note: This story is part of KSAT Defenders’ “Broken Blue” investigative series digging into misconduct and disciplinary procedure in the San Antonio Police Department. The series will culminate with a one-hour investigative special airing on Jan. 12 at 9 p.m. For more reporting in this series, click here.
Krista Cooper-Nurse said she realized early on that the criminal justice system would fail her.
In May 2018, a night out attending a concert with her fiance and friends ended with Cooper-Nurse in a San Antonio emergency room, moaning in pain, suffering from shattered orbital and sinus walls.
The person responsible for the injuries, according to records of the incident and police footage showing the aftermath of the attack, was San Antonio police officer Justin Ayars, whom she was engaged to be married to at the time.
“You realize there’s nobody that has your best intentions,” said Cooper-Nurse, in her first television interview since the attack. “From the beginning, from the very first officer that I talked to, to the very end of it, it was a learning lesson for sure.”
Ayars was fired months after the assault and was blocked from returning to the force after unsuccessfully appealing his termination. His firing being upheld by an arbitrator was a win for city officials, who dreaded bringing him back to the department.
But Ayars’ case played out differently than most of his colleagues in a similar situation: Of the five SAPD officers who appealed their indefinite suspensions and whose cases were finalized in 2019, Ayars was the only one who’s firing was upheld. The other four won back their jobs, city records show.
Since 2010, officers have been reinstated after indefinite suspensions 27 times, while only 13 terminations have been upheld, records show.
An argument that turned physical
Cooper-Nurse said after returning home, she and Ayars argued inside her far North Side apartment, where he had been staying.
Ayars testified before a third-party arbitrator in June 2019 that Cooper-Nurse threw a bottle of liquor at him, accidentally cutting one of their female friends with a shard of glass after the bottle shattered.
Cooper-Nurse, however, said she swatted the bottle out of Ayars’ hand after he brought it near her.
The dispute then moved outside.
Ayars testified that Cooper-Nurse was the aggressor. He said he fell on the ground and rolled onto a grassy slope after Cooper-Nurse hit him in the back of the head, causing him to land on his back.
Ayars demonstrated how he believed the fight occurred during a re-enactment taped by SAPD internal affairs investigators in July 2018.
A struggle ensued in which he claims Cooper-Nurse again hit him in the head, this time with an object.
He told the arbitrator he grabbed her by the throat at least twice to try to push her off of him, as he laid on his back.
Ayars’ story, however, differs from the version of events told by both Cooper-Nurse and a neighbor, who told investigators last year he witnessed Ayars repeatedly punch Cooper-Nurse in the face.
Cooper-Nurse said as she followed Ayars outside he turned around and pushed her.
“I flew like a rag doll and tumbled into the rocks,” said Cooper-Nurse. “I mean Justin was going to win that fight from the moment it started.”
Cooper-Nurse said after Ayars got on top of her, he hit her so hard that her head struck the concrete behind her, causing her to briefly lose consciousness.
“When I woke up he was still going,” said Cooper-Nurse, who said Ayars also used a rock during the melee.
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She said at one point Ayars bit down on her fingers so hard that she thought they had come off in his mouth.
“For me it felt like an eternity,” said Cooper-Nurse, describing the attack.
She said after Ayars finally got off of her, he left the apartment complex and she frantically knocked on a neighbor’s door.
Public records, including SAPD body-worn camera footage, help fill in the gaps of what happened after the fight ended.
Ayars and the couple who attended the concert with him and Cooper-Nurse, left the complex and drove to SAPD’s North Substation, where Ayars worked.
The trio reported that a cut on the female’s forehead came from Ayars ducking out of the way of the liquor bottle thrown by Cooper-Nurse, according to an SAPD incident report.
The report makes no mention of Ayars having any injuries.
Body-worn camera footage, presumably recorded before officers knew the incident involved a member of their department, shows them finding an injured Cooper-Nurse bleeding in the stairwell of a neighbor’s apartment.
“Her nose is broken. It is. Her nose is broken and she’s got big, freaking purple marks on her neck where his fingers were. Oh (expletive),” officers were recorded saying on camera.
Protective order approved...for him
Bexar County court records show Ayars applied for and was granted a protective order against Cooper-Nurse in June 2018.
The court decision came after Cooper-Nurse filed for a similar order against Ayars and was denied.
“I think it was then that I realized that they were going to try to misconstrue what I said. They were going to try and turn what I said,” said Cooper-Nurse.
Cooper-Nurse said she briefly felt the tide turn in her favor when she learned in September 2018 that Ayars had been fired from SAPD for the incident.
Her relief would not be long-lasting, as a Bexar County Grand Jury in November 2018 declined to indict Ayars and he was cleared of criminal wrongdoing.
“It’s discouraging, it’s really discouraging. Because you have these police officers that feel guarded and they are safe. They are so safeguarded that the normal individual won’t choose to put their neck out there and follow through with filing anything,” said Cooper-Nurse.
When Ayars’ arbitration hearings started this summer, he was able to argue that the May 2018 fight did not result in him being criminally charged.
Despite having that advantage going in, Ayars was ultimately unable to sway the arbitrator.
In November, the arbitrator upheld the termination of Ayars.
Police Chief William McManus released the following statement after the ruling was handed down:
“The San Antonio Police Department will not tolerate this type of conduct. The arbitrator’s ruling to uphold my decision to terminate Mr. Ayars was the only acceptable outcome to this case."
City Manager Erik Walsh released the following statement after the ruling:
“I am pleased to see that the arbitrator supported Chief McManus’s decision to terminate Mr. Ayars. We take incidents of domestic violence seriously and as one of the City’s largest employers we must lead by example.”
More than a year and a half after the attack Cooper-Nurse said she still has numbness in her surgically-reconstructed face.
“I had to go through so much, not only physically but mentally, and it’s been such a tear down,” said Cooper-Nurse.