Feds, defense rest cases in hate crimes trial over Ahmaud Arbery killing

Defense calls just 1 witness

Note to readers: This article contains offensive, disturbing language.

BRUNSWICK — Testimony concluded Friday in the federal hate crimes trial of three men convicted of Ahmaud Arbery’s murder, but not before prosecutors called additional witnesses who testified they heard Travis McMichael and his father make racially incendiary remarks about Black people.

A woman Travis McMichael supervised during his time in the U.S. Coast Guard broke down on the witness stand as she told the jury he repeatedly insulted her after discovering she had previously dated a Black man.

Kristie Ronquille, who still serves in the Coast Guard, said she was stationed with McMichael in Pascagoula, Mississippi, in 2011.

McMichael outranked her at the time, but the two had friends in common and occasionally saw each other in social settings, Ronquille said. The Kentucky native cried on the stand as she told jurors about a time she was insulted by McMichael after turning on an NBA game and recognizing a player she had dated in high school. The player, she said, was Black.

Travis said disparaging things after learning of her dating history, she testified, and began calling her a “(n-word) lover,” she alleged.

“It took me back and I felt disrespected,” said Ronquille, who had never heard that slur directed at her before meeting McMichael in the military.

Asked by assistant U.S. Attorney Tara Lyons why she never reported the remarks, Ronquille said she had only recently finished basic training at the time and referred to herself as “still green.” She also said she was worried about the possible ramifications of reporting her supervisor.

“It was the first time I’d ever heard remarks used like that,” she said, adding that McMichael used the phrase multiple times after learning of her dating history.

Amy Lee Copeland, McMichael’s attorney, said during a previous interview with the FBI, Ronquille told agents she was only “90% sure he called her that.”

The government’s final witness, Carole Sears, said Greg McMichael made crass remarks about Black people in 2015 while driving Sears and her daughter back to the airport during his time as an investigator with the local district attorney’s office.

The woman, a Realtor from New York, was in town for a court hearing involving the man convicted of killing her husband in a drunken driving crash years earlier, she said. As McMichael drove the two back to the airport, Sears expressed sadness over the death of Atlanta civil rights leader Julian Bond.

“I wish that guy had been in the ground years ago,” the elder McMichael allegedly told them. “All these Blacks are nothing but trouble. I wish they’d all die.”

Sears testified that McMichael’s comments expressed an “ugliness” and a “meanness” that she had never seen directed toward any group of people.

“I have never heard anybody speak that way ever, before or since,” she said in court. Sears said the encounter stuck with her and that she recognized Greg McMichael after seeing his mugshot in the spring of 2020.

The prosecution rested its case after calling 20 witnesses over four days in the hate crimes trial of the McMichaels and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan. The defense also rested Friday after calling just one witness: a 48-year resident of the neighborhood where Arbery was killed.

Greg McMichael called police in July 2019 to report a “shady looking fella” who appeared to be living under the Fancy Bluff Creek Bridge just outside his neighborhood. He never mentioned the race of the man, but Greg McMichael’s attorney attempted to show his client was also concerned about white people committing crimes in the Satilla Shores subdivision.

Lindy Cofer, the lone defense witness, testified she had seen a white man who appeared to be living under the bridge while driving her boat through the tributary sometime in 2019. But she wasn’t certain when she saw him.

Kim Ballesteros, who lived across the street from the McMichaels for nearly a year, testified that Greg McMichael once said disparaging things about a Black woman who rented a home from him.

She recalled a conversation the two had about rental properties in which Greg allegedly said insulting things about the Black tenant, who was behind on her rent.

McMichael described the tenant as “a big fat Black woman,” and said they often referred to her as “the walrus,” Ballasteros said.

“Did he tell you why?” Lyons asked.

“Because she was big and Black,” the woman replied, noting the conversation made her feel uncomfortable.

She also testified that Greg McMichael told her he disconnected the woman’s air conditioning during the summer in an attempt to get her to pay on time.

“You should have seen how fast her big Black ass came with the rent check,” Greg McMichael told her, the former neighbor testified.

“I was surprised,” Ballesteros said on the witness stand. “It was racist and uncomfortable and I was quite frankly disappointed.”

On cross-examination, Greg McMichael’s attorney A.J. Balbo noted that his client wasn’t opposed to renting to Black people.

“Is it your testimony that Greg McMichael rented property to people of color?” he asked.

The McMichaels and Bryan were convicted of Arbery’s murder last fall in a state court trial and sentenced in January to life in prison. The three men are now on trial in federal court, accused of interfering with Arbery’s right to use a public street because he was Black. They are also charged with attempted kidnapping, and the McMichaels face weapons charges for their role in the chase and shooting.

Closing arguments in the high-profile trial are expected Monday morning, U.S. District Judge Lisa Godbey Wood said Friday. By contrast, last year’s state trial against the three men lasted about six weeks.

Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, said she’s confident the defendants will be convicted in this case, too.

“You cannot grab your guns and chase down a Black man because he’s running,” she told reporters outside the courthouse.