One year after a massive bridge fire on I-85 threw Atlanta into chaos, the once-homeless man accused of setting the fire has found a job working at the law firm that represented him in court.
Basil Eleby, 40, was living in a beat-up Mercedes behind a car repair shop when he was arrested in connection with the March 30 bridge fire that destroyed the I-85 overpass at Piedmont Road. Authorities said Eleby was smoking crack cocaine under the overpass when he set fire to a shopping cart. The blaze brought down a massive section I-85 after it spread to piping the Georgia Department of Transportation had been storing under the bridge for several years.
Eleby is now several months into a 18-month mental health and sobriety program he agreed to undergo as part of a deal he reached with prosecutors last December. He spoke to reporters on Friday, smiling and dressed in a tailored blue suit, about how the accusations led him to turn his life around.
“The way I feel today is the exact opposite of the way I felt a year ago,” Eleby said. “My spirit’s just not the same.”
Eleby is now employed at the Decatur-based Davis Bozeman law firm, the practice of Mawuli Davis, one of the attorneys who represented Eleby at no cost after he was charged with arson and criminal damage to property. He pleaded not guilty to both charges and was the only person charged in relation to the bridge collapse.
Now the law firm that helped him pays Eleby to do administrative tasks like organizing files. The job is a temporary arrangement until he finds long-term employment, which Davis said he expects to happen within the next six to nine months.
“I think it’s important for him to know that people care about him and he is not alone,” Davis said. “Unfortunately, so many of our brothers and sisters who are living under bridges and living, you know, kind of in the shadows of our society, they feel disconnected and they don’t feel as though anyone cares anymore.”
Prior to the collapse, Eleby was arrested 19 times on charges ranging from cocaine possession to drug trafficking to assault and battery.
Eleby, who said he’s been drug and alcohol free for the duration of the sobriety program he’s in, has big plans for his future. He said his goal in one year is to open his own business, get his own place to live and maintain his sobriety.
His mother has noticed the change in her son. “She can see the difference in me without me even saying it because I think moms notice that, in a way. Her spirit is a lot different than it used to be when I went over there in the past, when I was in my addiction. It’s not the same. She was doing like everyone else does; she was trying to offer support any way she can, and I think it makes her happy too.”
Several members of the public rallied behind Eleby after his arrest, arguing that prosecutors were using him as a scapegoat. All five lawyers who represented Eleby in court did so on a pro-bono basis, and they say they’ve developed a friendship with him over the past year.
“When you know you have an innocent man, and you’re fighting for his life and to restore him, it has a way of pulling you together,” Davis said.
Eleby’s lawyers have partnered with several community organizations to help Eleby get job training, pursue his GED and attend religious services.
The charges against him have been suspended while he completes the sobriety program. At that point, the charges will be either dropped or reinstated depending on his success in the program. If he fails, Eleby could again face charges charges of arson and criminal damage to property.
Eleby seems determined to succeed. He said he hopes his story will be a message of hope to other people living on the streets.
“I hope that they’ll be able to see that even though all the stuff I’ve been through, that maybe there’s hope for them, that they just don’t give up on themselves.”
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