The former high school football player with the lightning speed often jogged for miles near the southeastern Georgia enclave where he grew up.
Ahmaud Arbery’s runs set him free from the blue-collar coastal city of Brunswick, where 56% of its 16,000 residents are black and more than a third of the population lives in poverty.
In high school, Arbery was so fast coaches had him slow down during practices. Now 25, his athletic gait delivered him beyond the arbitrary borders of his community. Wanda Cooper, Arbery’s mother, may have occasionally worried about him but never about his running.
On February 23, the young black jogger was passing through the predominantly white Satilla Shores section on the other side of four-lane US Route 17. Just miles from where Arbery lived with his mother, the quiet waterfront neighborhood is speckled with ranch houses tucked between oak-shaded lawns and backyard boat slips.
His final run ended there.
Arbery stopped in front of a still-unfinished home. He went inside briefly before resuming his run. A former police officer and his son – both residents on the street – had become preoccupied with young men caught on security cameras trespassing on the site. Some of the video was posted on the neighborhood’s Facebook page.
Armed with a shotgun and a handgun, father and son later followed Arbery in their truck. One of them shot him to death during a confrontation. Arbery’s family called it a modern-day lynching.
The killing sparked outrage across a nation fixated on a coronavirus pandemic that has claimed nearly 100,000 American lives. Outcry over the little-known case came only after a disturbing video of the shooting emerged online on May 5.
“Jogging while black” became the latest example of the many perils visited on African Americans. It’s a growing list long familiar to them – Driving while black. BBQing while black. Napping while black. Shopping while black. Waiting while black. Details of Arbery’s tragic death spread rapidly as black communities reeled from disproportionate representation among the Covid-19 dead. Their financial well-being has also been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.
“He was a bright light in a world of darkness,” Arbery’s best friend, Akeem Baker, said.
Video of the shooting circulated widely as Georgia eased its coronavirus stay-at-home order. Demonstrators descended on the quiet streets of Satilla Shores and other parts of the state.
An unfinished home draws a lot of attention
More than two months would pass before Gregory McMichael, 64, a former Glynn County cop and district attorney investigator, and his 34-year-old son, Travis McMichael, were arrested and charged with aggravated assault and murder. The elder McMichael told police Travis McMichael fired after Arbery attacked him.
A neighbor who recorded the video of the fatal shooting from inside his vehicle was arrested Thursday and charged with felony murder and criminal attempt to commit false imprisonment. William “Roddie” Bryan Jr., who has insisted he was merely a witness, used his vehicle to try to “confine and detain” Arbery multiple times in the minutes before the killing, according to his arrest warrant.
The three men have not entered pleas though their attorneys maintain they’re innocent.
Bryan would have been the state’s “star witness,” in the words of his attorney, Kevin Gough, who said his client was no vigilante and had no contact with the McMichaels before the shooting.
Bryan, before his arrest, said he prays for the Arbery family every night.
“I hope that it, in the end, brings justice to the family and peace to the family,” he said of the video that landed him behind bars.
CNN’s attempts to reach Gregory and Travis McMichael were unsuccessful. But attorneys for the men said the public has rushed to judgment. The full story, they insisted, has yet to be revealed.
Gregory McMichael would tell investigators Arbery resembled a man behind what he described as a string of neighborhood break-ins.
The home’s owner, Larry English, lives two hours away.
A neighbor keeping an eye on the property texted English that night: Travis McMichael had encountered someone on the property. Elizabeth Graddy, English’s attorney, said her client did not know if Arbery was that person.
“The police showed up and we all searched for a good while,” the neighbor wrote. “I think he got spooked and ran after Travis confronted him.”
“Let me know if he shows up or they find him. I appreciate you letting me know,” English wrote back.
That same night a man who identified himself as Travis McMichael called 911. He told the dispatcher he’d “caught a guy running into a house being built. Two houses down from me. When I turned around, he took off running into the house.”
The alleged intruder at one point reached into his pocket. Travis McMichael told the dispatcher he believed the man might be armed. The neighborhood, he said, had seen a rash of burglaries and break-ins.
In truth, only one burglary in Satilla Shores had been reported to the Glynn County Police Department in the more than seven weeks before Arbery’s killing: On New Year’s Day, Travis McMichael’s 9mm pistol was stolen from his unlocked truck outside his family’s home.
Motion-sensor cameras captured the alleged intruder the February night the younger McMichael called 911. English later said he could not identify the man on the surveillance video, which was posted on the neighborhood’s Facebook page. He did not call police.
The cameras on his property caught a handful of people who wandered in or by over the weeks and months as it sat unfinished.
The footage, released by English through his attorney, shows people there on various dates between October 25 and February 23.
Arbery was at the unfinished home just before his death
Arbery’s family and their lawyer said only the February 23 video showed him entering the house shortly before he was killed.
Wearing tan shorts and a white t-shirt, the man in the surveillance video looked around at piles of construction material. The video did not show him touching anything.
When asked about the other videos, S. Lee Merritt, attorney for the Arbery family, said he wasn’t going to continue asking the family about people in surveillance videos.
Another neighborhood resident also saw someone at the unfinished house that day. The neighbor would make one of two 911 calls before Arbery was killed.
“There’s a guy in the house right now,” the caller told the dispatcher. “It’s a house under construction.”
“And you said someone’s breaking into it right now?” the dispatcher asked.
“No, it’s all open. It’s under construction… And there he goes right now.”
“OK, what is he doing?”
“He is running down the street.”
“That’s fine. I will get police out there. I just need to know what he was doing wrong. Was he just on the premises and not supposed to be?”
‘Travis, the guy is running down the street. Let’s go!’
Arbery had arrived at the unfinished home in the the middle-class community nearly 80 miles south of Savannah just after 1 p.m. Minutes later, he was running again.
Gregory McMichael was standing in his front yard. He would later tell police he saw a man he called a suspect in neighborhood break-ins – who, he said, was caught on surveillance video – “hauling ass” down the street.
McMichael ran inside his house.
“Travis, the guy is running down the street,” he told his son. “Let’s go!”
The eldest McMichael grabbed his .357 Magnum from his bedroom. His son grabbed his shotgun. The former cop would tell police they didn’t know whether the man was armed. Father and son jumped in the pickup.
At one point, the police report said, the McMichaels “attempted to cut off” the man, who turned around and ran in the opposite direction. Gregory McMichael told police a man named “Roddie” tried unsuccessfully to “block” the runner off.
The shooting was captured on a 36-second cellphone video posted online by a local radio station. It would reignite a national conversation about the killings of unarmed black men.
The footage was taken from inside a vehicle by Bryan, a mechanic who had been doing yard work at home moments earlier. “Minding his own business,” said his attorney, Gough. When Bryan saw an unfamiliar man being followed by a pickup he recognized as his neighbor’s pickup, he headed out in his vehicle.
Gough said his client was not participating with the McMichaels in the pursuit.
In Bryan’s video Arbery is seen running toward the white pickup, which had stopped in the right lane. He veers from side to side and runs around the front of the truck to the driver’s side. A man stands next to the open driver’s-side door. Another looks down from the bed of the pickup.
Gregory McMichael, in the bed of the truck, was on the phone with 911.
“I’m out here at Satilla Shores,” he told the dispatcher. “There’s a black male running down the street.”
“Where at Satilla Shores?” the dispatcher asked.
“I don’t know what street we’re on.”
The eldest McMichael sounded out of breath.
“Stop right there! … Travis!” he shouted before the call went silent.
Three gunshots ring out
In the video Arbery disappears briefly from view after going around the front of the truck.
The man at the side of the truck scuffles with Arbery, who grabs at the barrel of the shotgun.
Gregory McMichael later told police the man “began to violently attack Travis.” In the video, as the men grapple with the shotgun, Arbery appears to throw a punch at Travis McMichael’s head.
Three gunshots rang out in the video. Blood appears on Arbery’s t-shirt below the left ribcage.
Arbery took a few unsteady steps before falling to the ground face first.
The elder McMichael told police he rolled the man over to see if he had a weapon.
A Glynn County coroner at the scene pronounced the time of death as 1:46 p.m. An autopsy showed Arbery was shot three times, including twice in the chest.
The McMichaels were not immediately charged.
Prosecutor calls the shooting ‘perfectly legal’
The case stalled for weeks as two district attorneys recused themselves, including one who said the actions of the McMichaels were “perfectly legal.”
Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney Jackie Johnson recused herself the day after the killing. She noted Gregory’s McMichael’s 20 years as an investigator in her office. She denied allegations by local officials that she told police not to make an arrest.
Then a second prosecutor, Waycross Judicial Circuit District Attorney George Barnhill, recused himself. His son was a prosecutor in the Brunswick Judicial Circuit DA’s office and once worked with Gregory McMichael in a prior prosecution of Arbery. He revealed the potential conflict in a letter to state Attorney General Chris Carr’s office on April 7.
In a separate letter to police, Barnhill defended the actions of the McMichaels. He wrote that he believed the men werewithin their rights to execute a citizen’s arrest of Arbery.
The prosecutor said Travis McMichael would have been allowed to use “deadly force” to protect himself as he and Arbery struggled over the shotgun.
The McMichaels and Bryan, who was listed as a witness in the police report, engaged in ‘hot pursuit’ and had “solid first-hand probable cause,” as civilians, to detain Arbery, the prosecutor wrote.
“It appears their intent was to stop and hold this criminal suspect until law enforcement arrived. Under Georgia law, this is perfectly legal,” Barnhill wrote. He cited Civil War era state law that allows civilians to arrest someone if they have immediate knowledge of an offense or if a perpetrator is trying to flee after committing a felony.
Barnhill questioned whether Arbery might’ve been responsible for the gunshots by pulling on the shotgun. He concluded Travis McMichael was “allowed to use deadly force to protect himself.”
“Arbery’s mental health records and prior convictions help explain his apparent aggressive nature and his possible thought pattern to attack an armed man,” Barnhill wrote, without elaborating.
Carr has requested that the US Department of Justice conduct an investigation into the handling of the Arbery case. The request includes an investigation of the “communications and discussions” between the first two district attorneys assigned to the case.
Cobb County District Attorney Joyette Holmes is now handling the prosecution after Atlantic Judicial Circuit District Attorney Tom Durden concluded his office was too small to handle a case of that size and magnitude.
Gregory and Travis McMichael arrested on eve of Arbery’s 26th birthday
Arbery’s father, Marcus Arbery, denied his son had mental health issues. “Ain’t nothing wrong with him,” he said.
“He was a remarkable … good young man and (to) see him get lynched like that by a racial mob … It’s just devastating to our family,” he said.
Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper, said her son was not armed. Police initially told Cooper her son was involved in a burglary and was fatally shot during a confrontation with the homeowner, according to Cooper and her family’s attorney.
Arbery was indicted for allegedly bringing a gun to a 2013 high school basketball game, when Arbery was 19, said a report in The Brunswick News. His family’s attorney acknowledged Arbery’s 2018 arrest on shoplifting charges.