Ahmaud Arbery case: Testimony begins in federal hate crimes trial

William "Roddie" Bryan (left), Greg McMichael and Travis McMichael.

Credit: Pool photos

Credit: Pool photos

William "Roddie" Bryan (left), Greg McMichael and Travis McMichael.

BRUNSWICK - Dan Allcott was home with his wife and young daughter two years ago when he heard the shotgun blasts.

At first, the physical therapist thought it may have been a car wreck. Then his wife noticed the body of a young man lying in the road just outside their house.

Testimony began Tuesday in the federal hate crimes trial of Travis McMichael, his father Greg and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan. The men were convicted of Ahmaud Arbery’s murder in a state trial last fall and are now accused of targeting the 25-year-old because he was Black.

Allcott, the government’s first witness, said he was cleaning his bathroom and doing some chores around the house on that Sunday afternoon in February 2020.

“It’s an unfortunate and pretty memorable day for me,” he told Assistant U.S. Attorney Tara Lyons. “I’ve never seen anything like that before.”

He described the Satilla Shores neighborhood just outside Brunswick as a typically quiet subdivision. Some neighbors had posted about car break-ins on the neighborhood Facebook page, but Allcott said he and his wife weren’t really concerned about crime. They typically removed any valuables from their cars and locked their doors.

“I didn’t feel particularly threatened by it,” he said.

But he grew emotional as he described the events of that afternoon. Following the shooting, he watched and listened as the three men were questioned by police just outside his house.

His yard had become a crime scene. There was blood and shell casings in his grass near the road and Travis McMichael set his 12-gauge shotgun down in the yard after killing Arbery at close range.

In this image from video posted on Twitter Tuesday, May 5, 2020, Ahmaud Arbery stumbles and falls to the ground after being shot as Travis McMichael stands by holding a shotgun in a neighborhood outside Brunswick, Ga., on Feb. 23, 2020.

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Allcott’s testimony marked the first time jurors were shown images of Arbery’s lifeless body, covered in a sheet, his Nike running shoes sticking out on the road. Allcott described how Travis McMichael sat on a raised flower bed in his yard. Greg McMichael, he said, called someone as the 25-year-old’s body lay nearby.

“I was surprised he was allowed to make a phone call from the scene,” he told Lyons. He said none of the defendants seemed especially concerned about the young man lying dead in the road.

In the days that followed, Allcott welcomed Arbery’s family to place a memorial in his yard.

“I felt guilty that it happened outside my house,” he said. “What do you say to a family that’s lost their son in that way?”

Before the shooting, Allcott enjoyed jogging in his neighborhood. He lived a few houses down from Bryan and sometimes passed the McMichaels on his runs.

“Did Travis and Greg McMichael ever yell at you and tell you to stop while you were running?” Lyons asked him, hinting that the men targeted Arbery because he was Black. “Did they ever chase you in their truck while you were running? Did they ever accuse you of a crime?”

“No,” Allcott replied to all three of the prosecutor’s questions.

The Satilla Shores neighborhood outside Brunswick. AJC photo: Hyosub Shin

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He and his family had lived in Satilla Shores since 2013, but they moved out in late 2020, months after Arbery’s killing. Allcott said he “saw those images every day,” each time he came and went.

“The house didn’t feel the same after that day,” he said. “It didn’t feel like home anymore.”

Jurors also heard from two other witnesses Tuesday morning: Matt Albenze, the neighbor who called the police on Feb. 23, 2020 after seeing Arbery enter a vacant home under construction; and Glynn County police Sgt. Sheila Ramos, who photographed evidence at the scene later that day.

Images shown in court included Ramos’ photographs of Arbery’s lifeless body, the gaping wounds in his torso and his white T-shirt stained red with his blood.

Travis McMichael appeared to avoid looking at the images that were shown on the monitor directly in front of him.

As he testified at the state trial, Albenze said he didn’t call 911 because that day because “it wasn’t an emergency-type situation.”

“It was just a fellow in the house,” he told prosecutors.

Albenze also described Arbery’s “long strides” as he left the vacant home and turned right, running farther into the neighborhood on what would be his final jog.

“Looked like he was running in slow motion to me,” Albenze said.

Albenze had his pistol in his pocket as he stood outside the home and called the non-emergency line. But he never pulled it out or chased after Arbery as he took off running through the subdivision.

“Why didn’t you do any of those things?” prosecutor Bobbi Bernstein asked.

“Not my job,” he replied.

The afternoon was dominated by testimony from GBI agent Richard Dial, the agency’s lead investigator on the case.

Jurors were shown three versions of Bryan’s cellphone footage of the killing: the original, one that was slowed down, and a third that had been digitally enhanced. Prosecutors also introduced a digital recreation depicting Arbery’s final minutes as he was chased through the neighborhood by the three men in pickup trucks. The evidence included a combination of 911 audio, surveillance footage and Bryan’s cellphone recording.

The McMichaels contend they chased Arbery because they had seen him on surveillance video inside the vacant, unsecured home. Arbery lived less than two miles from their neighborhood and visited the property five times in the weeks leading up to his killing.

From the stand, Dial told Bernstein that Arbery liked to run “just about every day,” but never took anything or damaged any property as he wandered around the home.

One juror appeared to wipe away tears Tuesday as the video of Arbery falling dead in the street was played repeatedly in court. Seated on the front row, Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, clinched her fists as the footage was shown.

Jurors also saw video of Greg and Travis McMichael’s interviews with police at the scene that afternoon and later on with Glynn County detectives, who never arrested the men. Bernstein noted several inconsistencies in Greg McMichael’s statements to police, and was quick to point out that the former law enforcement officer repeatedly mentioned the .357 revolver he carried that day was a Glynn County police-issue gun.

Testimony resumes at 9 a.m. Wednesday.