Warrant: I-85 bridge fire suspect spoke of smoking crack before blaze

Warrant: I-85 bridge fire suspect spoke of smoking crack before blaze

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HYOSUB SHIN / AJC/hshin@ajc.com
Necessary work is continuing on the damaged sections of I-85 bridge structures on April 1, 2017. This includes demolition of the existing failed and damaged structures. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

The man accused of setting the fire that destroyed part of I-85 talked with companions about smoking crack cocaine before the blaze started, according to a document released Saturday.

The fire collapsed a well-traveled stretch of I-85 — triggering millions of dollars in damage and wreaking havoc on traffic, potentially for months, as the state rebuilds the wrecked section.

Basil Eleby, 39, was charged on Saturday with first-degree arson in connection with the fire. Wearing a navy jumpsuit, flip-flops and handcuffs, Eleby reluctantly shuffled into a courtroom at the Fulton County jail for his first appearance hearing Saturday morning. 

Judge James Altman announced the arson charge, which was added on top of an earlier felony charge of criminal damage to property, and set bond at $200,000. The judge said he had considered an amount more “commensurate” with the damage inflicted. 

“But in this case,” the judge said, “that would amount to hundreds of millions of dollars.” 

Eleby shook his head vigorously when Altman mentioned the possibility of pleading guilty at a future court proceeding. But the suspect said nothing during the brief hearing. 

April 1, 2017, Atlanta, Georgia - Basil Eleby is escorted by his public defender and two Fulton County Sheriff's office officers into the court room of presiding Judge James Altman at the Fulton County Jail in Atlanta, Georgia, on April 1, 2017. Eleby received two charges of $100,000 each amounting to total bail of $200,000 for Criminal Damage 1st Degree and Arson 1st Degree after setting a fire underneath a bridge on I-85 NB that would eventually cause a section of the bridge on I-85 to be closed off indefinitely. (HENRY TAYLOR / HENRY.TAYLOR@AJC.COM) Henry P. Taylor/Henry Taylor / AJC

His public defender had asked the court to let Eleby skip the hearing, but the court refused. The attorney held a green folder up to try to hide Eleby’s face from the media.

Eleby and two others, Barry Thomas and Sophia Brauer, were charged Friday in connection with the fire. (Brauer earlier was identified by a different last name, but she was listed in the document released Saturday as “Brauer.” The discrepancy could not be resolved on Saturday.) 

Thomas and Brauer were charged with criminal trespass. Eleby, who has been arrested 19 times since 1995, mostly on drug offenses, according to jail records, is facing far more serious charges. 

April 1, 2017 Atlanta - Crews demolish a damaged section of I-85 bridge structures on Saturday, April 1, 2017. Necessary work is continuing on the damaged sections of I-85 bridge structures. This includes demolition of the existing failed and damaged structures - which includes two 350-foot sections of interstate, one section each in both the northbound and southbound lanes, totaling approximately 700 feet - as well as all reconstruction activities. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM HYOSUB SHIN / AJC/hshin@ajc.com

According to an affidavit by a fire department lieutenant, the suspect admitted to frequenting the area where the fire was set and acknowledged being there on Thursday afternoon at about the time the fire started.

Eleby told investigators from the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives that he’d met Thomas and Brauer there at about 4 p.m. and they “discussed smoking crack cocaine together.” 

But Eleby ultimately decided “he would consume the drugs by himself” and “left the area before the fire started,” according to the affidavit, which was prepared in support of Eleby’s arrest warrant. 

Thomas told a different story. 

“Mr. Thomas watched Basil Eleby place a chair on top of a shopping cart, reach under the shopping cart and ignite it,” said the affidavit, which was released on Saturday.

Thomas told authorities he and Brauer then fled in the opposite direction of Eleby, it said. 

As Eleby appeared in court Saturday morning, Georgia Department of Transportation crews continued their around-the-clock work to deal with the damage that Eleby is accused of causing. 

April 1, 2017 Atlanta - Traffic stacks up on Piedmont Road heading towards I-85 southbound near the site of the bridge collapse on Saturday, April 1, 2017. Necessary work is continuing on the damaged sections of I-85 bridge structures. This includes demolition of the existing failed and damaged structures - which includes two 350-foot sections of interstate, one section each in both the northbound and southbound lanes, totaling approximately 700 feet - as well as all reconstruction activities. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM HYOSUB SHIN / AJC/hshin@ajc.com

Six sections and about 700 feet of roadway on I-85 — 350 feet in each direction of travel — are being removed and replaced, including support columns. The northbound section collapsed during the fire, but the southbound lanes also were compromised, authorities said. Demolition work has begun on those lanes as well. 

An exact timeline for the interstate to be completely restored is unclear, but the work is expected to take months. 

There was a bit of good news Saturday. After the collapse, people traveling northbound on the Downtown Connector were funneled onto I-75 North, with no option to take I-85 North at the split.

About 10 a.m. Saturday, however, transportation officials began allowing northbound traffic on the Connector to proceed north in two lanes of I-85 to the next exit: the Buford-Spring Connector, Exit 86 (Ga. 13). 

GDOT officials encouraged drivers to “still plan to utilize I-285 as the most efficient route of travel” through town. But drivers could choose to use the Buford-Spring Connector to bypass the interstate collapse and then return to I-85 North once past the damaged section.

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