William Bryan told investigators he heard Travis McMichael use a racial epithet after fatally shooting Ahmaud Arbery in Glynn County, a Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent testified Thursday at a preliminary hearing.
Bryan told police Travis McMichael said “f***ing n***er” after three blasts from his shotgun left Arbery dead in the street in the Satilla Shores neighborhood in February, GBI Assistant Special Agent in Charge Richard Dial testified. Body camera footage also showed a Confederate flag sticker on the toolbox of McMichael’s truck, he said.
On cross-examination, Dial testified Bryan mentioned the slur in a May 13 GBI interview, and to Dial’s knowledge, Bryan had not previously made the allegation, including during a May 11 interview.
Thursday’s hearing lasted about seven hours, with the judge ruling all three defendants – Bryan, McMichael and McMichael’s father, Gregory McMichael – will stand trial on all charges.
The details of Arbery’s last moments emerged amid a week of nationwide protests over another killing – that of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis – and demonstrators have also called for justice in Arbery’s case.
During Thursday’s testimony, Dial said there were “numerous times” on social media and via messaging services that Travis McMichael used racial slurs, once messaging someone that he loved his job because there “weren’t any N-words anywhere.”
In another instance sometime before the shooting, he replied in an Instagram message that things would be better if someone had “blown that N-word’s head off,” Dial testified. Dial did not say to whom McMichael was referring and was not asked for more context.
Bryan, too, had several messages on his phone that included “racial” terms and indicated he may have prejudged Arbery when he saw him that day, Dial said.
“There’s evidence of Mr. Bryan’s racist attitude in his communications, and from that I extrapolate the reason why he made assumptions he did that day,” he said. “He saw a man running down the road with a truck following him, and I believe he made certain assumptions that were, at least in part, based upon his racial bias.”
Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper, was devastated when she heard Dial’s testimony, she said.
“I often imagine the last minutes of my son’s life. I didn’t imagine it would be that harsh, but to learn that that statement was made in the last seconds of his life … it was very heartbreaking,” she said.
Scores of protesters gathered outside the courthouse after the hearing, and they could be heard chanting, “All lives matter when black lives matter,” according to CNN affiliate WJXT.
Dial outlined events that led to Arbery’s death and said that before Arbery was shot, the three men charged in his murder engaged in an elaborate chase, hitting the 25-year-old jogger with a truck as he tried to escape them.
Asked whether he believed McMichael could’ve been acting in self-defense, Dial said the opposite was true.
“I believe Mr. Arbery was being pursued, and he ran till he couldn’t run anymore, and it was turn his back to a man with a shotgun or fight with his bare hands against the man with the shotgun. He chose to fight,” he said. “I believe Mr. Arbery’s decision was to just try to get away, and when he felt like he could not escape he chose to fight.”
As Travis and Gregory McMichael attempted to head him off, Arbery turned and ran past the truck of Bryan, who recorded the killing, and Bryan struck Arbery with the side of his truck, Dial said.
Bryan told police that at one point he thought Arbery was trying to enter his truck, Dial said, adding that he didn’t know whether that was true but he felt Arbery was trying to escape.
Investigators found a swipe from a palm print on the rear door of Bryan’s truck, cotton fibers near the truck bed that “we attribute to contact with Mr. Arbery” and a dent below the fibers, he said.
Bryan was working on his porch, defense attorney Kevin Gough countered, and his client didn’t know what the McMichaels were doing.
Bryan “sees someone he doesn’t know followed by a truck that he does. He does, with all due respect, what any patriotic American would have done under the same circumstances,” Gough said.
Arbery tried to escape, agent says
Though Bryan’s attorney has argued his client took no part in the killing, Dial said Bryan yelled to the McMichaels, “Do you got him?” when he saw them chasing the 25-year-old jogger.
After yelling out to the McMichaels, Bryan joined the chase, at which point none of the three had called 911, Dial said.
The McMichaels had already tried to head off Arbery once when Bryan joined the pursuit, the GBI agent said. Bryan tried to block in Arbery as Travis McMichael drove around the block with his father in the bed of the truck, he said.
Bryan “made several statements about trying to block him in and using his vehicle to try to stop him,” Dial said. “His statement was that Mr. Arbery kept jumping out of the way and moving around the bumper and actually running down into the ditch in an attempt to avoid his truck.”
At one point, Arbery was heading out of the Satilla Shores neighborhood where the defendants live, but the McMichaels forced him to turn back into the neighborhood and run past Bryan, the agent said. That is when he struck Arbery, Dial said, and Arbery kept running with the McMichaels in pursuit.
Bryan turned around, and that is when the widely disseminated video of Arbery’s killing begins, he said.
When police arrived after the shooting, Dial said, Gregory McMichael said in remarks caught on police body camera footage that he didn’t know for certain if Arbery had stolen anything.
“He had a gut feeling that Mr. Arbery may have been responsible for thefts that were in the neighborhood previously. He actually says gut. His instinct told him that,” the GBI agent said.
Travis McMichael told police that he ordered Arbery to get on the ground before the shooting, and Gregory McMichael told an officer he had instructed his son, “Don’t shoot,” Dial said.
The McMichaels, charged with murder and aggravated assault, appeared wearing face masks from the Glynn County Detention Center a few miles away from the courthouse.
Bryan waived his right to appear. He was arrested last month on charges that include felony murder.
Men’s attorneys proclaim innocence
Gough has repeatedly insisted his client was merely an observer and has questioned why state police charged the man he labels the prosecution’s “star witness.”
The GBI took over the investigation after Glynn County police and two prosecutors declined to press charges. Atlantic Judicial Circuit District Attorney Tom Durden became the third prosecutor to recuse himself after the GBI assistance he requested promptly yielded charges. Cobb District Attorney Joyette Holmes is now handling the prosecutions.
Travis McMichael is not guilty, his attorneys say, as “compelling evidence” will demonstrate.
“Travis has been vilified before his voice could even be heard,” the lawyers said in a statement. “The truth in this case will exonerate Travis.”
Gregory McMichael is also a victim of a rush to judgment, his legal team said.
“So often the public accepts a narrative driven by an incomplete set of facts, one that vilifies a good person,” defense attorney Laura Hogue said in a statement.
Added co-counsel Frank Hogue, “The full story, to be revealed in time, will tell the truth about this case.”
Gregory and Travis McMichael were arrested May 7.
The McMichaels armed themselves and, with Bryan’s help, tried to head off Arbery as he ran through their neighborhood, Gregory McMichael said, according to an incident report.
Bryan’s video picks up before the third attempt, and Arbery is seen trying to avoid the McMichaels’ pickup truck, which is stopped in the road, before abruptly turning toward Travis McMichael in front of the truck.
A shot goes off as they struggle over the gun. The two disappear off the left side of the screen. Gregory McMichael draws a handgun but does not shoot.
A second shot is heard as Arbery and the younger McMichael are off screen. As the men come back into view, they continue fighting for the shotgun. Arbery throws a punch at Travis McMichael’s head as a third shot is heard.
Arbery steps back as blood appears on the back of his T-shirt under his left rib cage. He stumbles and falls in the middle of the street as Travis McMichael walks away.
The Justice Department has launched a hate crime investigation in the case, Merritt has said.
CNN’s Steve Almasy, Angela Barajas, Hollie Silverman, Lindsay Benson and Martin Savidge contributed to this report.