Records show a neighborhood on edge before Arbery’s final run

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

GLYNN COUNTY — When Ahmaud Arbery crossed U.S. 17 and passed the low turquoise and brown sign that heralds the entrance to Satilla Shores on the last day of his life, he entered a neighborhood on edge.

Eight years out of Brunswick High School, where he starred as a linebacker, he’d dreamed of playing in the NFL. At 5-foot-10, though, he was too small for the pros. He last suited up his senior year for the War of the Border game between high school all-stars from south Georgia and north Florida.

The Sunday afternoon of Feb. 23 was warm and sunny. Arbery, 25, was dressed in a white T-shirt, tan cargo shorts and gray athletic shoes as he crossed the four-lane highway. His family has said he was on another of his many jogs.

Satilla Shores is a small subdivision cut into a bend of the Satilla River less than two miles from the massive Brunswick port complex. The houses are mostly one-story ranches that sit beneath ancient live oaks draped with Spanish moss. Many have boat docks that provide direct access to the river. The mostly white neighborhood sits about two miles from Arbery’s mother’s house in a smaller, newer and more diverse subdivision.

» COMPLETE COVERAGE: The latest on the Ahmaud Arbery case

As Arbery made his way down Satilla Drive, Greg and Travis McMichael were at home a block away. Greg McMichael, 64, had retired nearly a year earlier as an investigator at the Glynn County district attorney’s office. His son Travis, 34, lived at the same house.

Like others in the neighborhood, the McMichaels knew of reports that a young man residents didn’t know had shown up a few times on security camera video recorded at a house under construction four doors from the McMichaels’ home.

On Feb. 11, Travis McMichael had been driving his pickup up Satilla Drive when he spotted someone at the site. The house still lacked doors and was open.

Travis McMichael backed up his truck to take a look and dialed 911.

Security video from the construction site at 220 Satilla Drive is being reviewed by the GBI as part of its investigation into the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery. The footage shows what appears to be the same person on the site several times starting in October through the Feb. 23 shooting. The security video also shows other people entering the site, which was reported to the police by the property owner.

“I was leaving the neighborhood and I just caught a guy running into a house being built,” he told the dispatcher. “When I turned around, he took off running into the house. We’ve been having a lot of burglaries and break-ins around here lately.”

In fact, police had not filed a burglary report for months, although between August 2019 and Feb. 23, records show 87 calls from Satilla Shores reporting various activity, including suspicious behavior, trespassing and thefts.

Resident Diego Perez received a text on Feb. 11 from the man who owned the house under construction saying his motion sensor camera had pinged, showing someone at the house. Perez, who was armed, went to see what was happening and saw Travis McMichael get out of his truck.

» RELATED: Police enlisted suspect's help months before Arbery shooting

» MORE: Security footage shows visits to construction site

“He confronted (the man) halfway into the yard. He said (the man) reached for his waistband,” Perez said. “And Travis got spooked and went down the road.”

Travis McMichael was unarmed. His handgun had been taken from his unlocked truck on New Year’s Day.

Perez also saw Greg McMichael, also armed, walk up from his house to join the search with other neighbors. Glynn County police officers responded as well. They didn’t find anyone.

Travis McMichael was breathing heavily when he dialed 911, prompting the dispatcher during the call to ask if he was okay.

“Yeah, it just startled me,” McMichael responded. “When I turned around and saw him and backed up, he reached into his pocket and ran into the house. So, I don’t know if he’s armed or not. But he looked like he was acting like he was. I’ve never seen this guy before in the neighborhood.”

Dreams denied

After graduating in 2012, Arbery put his NFL dreams aside and decided to pursue a career as an electrician. That fall, he started classes at South Georgia Technical College, but quit the following spring.

Jerry Wilson, the manager at Blue Beacon Truck Wash, had hired Arbery as a high school student, impressed with the bright, friendly kid who always smiled. They became friends, with Wilson serving as a mentor. When Arbery returned to the job in 2017, something seemed different, Wilson said.

Miami based artist Marvin Weeks, who is originally from Brunswick, works on a large mural in tribute to Ahmaud Arbery on the side of a building which will soon be the site of the Brunswick African American Cultural Center in Brunswick. AJC photo: Hyosub Shin

“He was in a depressed mode,” he said. “I was concerned about him and tried to talk to him. He agreed he was going through something but didn’t tell me what it was. He would always say, ‘I’m okay, I’m just in a dark place.’ I feel like he just wasn’t satisfied with the direction of his life.”

Arbery had a few run-ins with law enforcement, records show.

In early December 2013, more than a year after he had graduated, a school resource officer spotted a handgun in his waistband as he waited to enter a basketball game at the Brunswick High School, records show. Arbery ran, and police chased and arrested him. Arbery admitted he was armed but no longer had the gun. Police later found a .380 caliber semi-automatic handgun in front of the gym. He was charged with weapons possession at a school and obstructing an officer.

On Nov. 7, 2017, a police officer spotted Arbery sitting alone in his 2001 gold Toyota Camry in Townsend Park and asked what he was doing. Arbery said he was rapping alone in his car and protested the police officer’s questions and attempts to search his car.

“I’ll tell you why I’m here, man, because this area is known for drug activity,” the officer responded, according to records. Arbery stepped toward the officer, who told him to back off.

“You bothering me for nothing,” Arbery said. “I’m working at the Blue Beacon.”

A memorial to Ahmaud Arbery. AJC photo: Hyosub Shin

A second officer arrived shortly and forced Arbery to his knees with the threat of his Taser. No charges were filed.

In early December, police responded after Arbery and three friends were accused of trying to steal a television from a Brunswick Walmart. The officer ordered all four to sit on the parking lot. Arbery tried to stand up as he argued about whether he had done anything. The officer handcuffed Arbery face-down on the asphalt.

The shoplifting charge prompted an investigation into his probation status by the Glynn County District Attorney’s office in early 2018. Greg McMichael led the investigation that led to the revocation of Arbery’s probation.

The house under construction

Larry English has been working on and off on his house in Satilla Shores for about two years.

“I’ve always wanted a house where you could have a dock at the back and push a button to just let your boat down into the water,” said English, who lives 90 miles away, but was eager to have a coastal home for retirement. A contractor, he has done much of the work himself.

Ahmaud Arbery visited this house under construction in the Satilla Shores neighborhood minutes before he was pursued and shot by neighbors on Feb. 23. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

The house under construction is about two miles from Arbery’s home. Security cameras English installed have recorded a young man stopping by on numerous occasions – never taking anything or doing any damage. Investigators are still trying to determine if the young man in the videos is Arbery, but his family’s legal team said a video of a person entering the property on the day of the fatal shooting appears to be him.

“This video is consistent with the evidence already known to us. Ahmaud Arbery was out for a jog,” the legal team said in a statement. “He stopped by a property under construction where he engaged in no illegal activity and remained for only a brief period. Ahmaud did not take anything from the construction site. He did not cause any damage to the property.”

Messages about a person entering the home under construction have been posted to the neighborhood’s Facebook page and Nextdoor account. Between August and late February, Glynn police received 18 calls from the neighborhood reporting suspicious activity, along with three trespassing calls and four thefts reporting thefts.

At about 10 p.m. Oct. 25, English called police after seeing footage of a young man on his security camera. He called back a few minutes later to say the man was gone. On Nov. 18, English called again with a similar report. As in the earlier cases, the man recorded on security cameras was shown just walking through and looking around. Nothing was ever taken.

» RELATED: Greg McMichaels lawyer: More than one video of Arbery shooting

» MORE: Cobb DA trying Arbery case known for integrity, compassion

Security footage recorded Dec. 17 showed a young man walking through the site before heading down the driveway and easing into a jogger’s pace. Afterward, Officer Robert Rash, whose beat includes Satilla Shores, told English that Greg McMichael lived nearby and had offered to help.

“Greg is retired Law Enforcement and also a Retired Investigator from the DA’s office,” Rash said in a Dec. 20 text message to English. “He said please call him day or night when you get action on your camera.”

Arbery’s final run

At 1:08 p.m. on Feb. 23 a caller near the construction site dialed 911 to report a suspicious person on the property.

The security video camera installed across the street recorded a young man entering the property and disappearing briefly from view, then leaving a few minutes later and heading down Satilla Drive.

Greg McMichael was in his front yard.

“Travis, the guy is running down the street,” he called to his son, records show. “Let’s go.”

Greg McMichael grabbed his .357 magnum from his bedroom, while Travis McMichael got his shotgun.

They got into their pickup and headed down Satilla Drive, parked at an intersection and waited.

Cellphone video captured what happened next.

Arbery tries to run around the pickup. Travis McMichael exits the driver’s seat with his shotgun. Greg McMichael stands in the bed of the truck, his .357 raised.

Security footage from the home under construction on Satilla Drive shows a young man who might be Ahmaud Arbery visiting the property several times since last fall. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Arbery and Travis McMichael struggle. Several shots ring out. Arbery takes a few final steps, then collapses.

Police arrived at 1:16 p.m. to find a “male on the ground bleeding out,” records show. Police questioned the McMichaels at the scene.

Perez, the neighbor, arrived in seconds. He and other neighbors had searched for a man about two weeks earlier after reports that someone was in the house under construction.

“All we knew about him was that he was the guy who kept showing up on our cameras,” Perez said. “No one knew who it was.”

He saw the man again on Feb. 23, this time motionless. Arbery lay dead on the pavement.

The stalled case

The McMichaels arrived at Glynn County Police headquarters at about 3:30 p.m. Feb. 23. The investigating officers contacted two assistants in District Attorney Jackie Johnson’s office.

Because Greg McMichael, now retired, once worked there, the assistants told police they had a conflict of interest but would seek legal guidance for them. Johnson contacted George Barnhill, the district attorney in neighboring Ware County. It was common practice for Barnhill’s office to provide backup if Johnson’s office had a conflict of interest — and vice versa.

The house of Gregory McMichael and his son Travis McMichael is only five houses down from the house construction site that Ahmaud Arbery visited in the Satilla Shores neighborhood. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

For now, Johnson’s assistants said the McMichaels posed no flight risk, so there was no reason to hold them.

Barnhill met with police the next morning. After reviewing evidence including video of the incident, Barnhill said he saw no grounds for arrests.

Johnson sent two recusal letters to Attorney General Chris Carr; the first time she didn’t have the right contact. Neither mentioned that Barnhill’s son is an assistant district attorney in her office. Carr appointed Barnhill Feb. 27 – three days after Barnhill concluded that he saw no cause for arrests.

Barnhill acknowledged his conflict and recused himself on April 7, having writen a letter to police expanding on his Feb. 24 findings.

“It appears Travis McMichael, Greg McMichael and Bryan Williams were following in ‘hot pursuit,” a burglary suspect, with solid first-hand probably cause in their neighborhood and asking/yelling him to stop. It appears their intent was to stop and hold this criminal suspect until law enforcement arrived. Under Georgia Law this is perfectly legal.”

Bryan Williams recorded the cellphone video that captured the incident.

Carr appointed Liberty County District Attorney Tom Durden on April 13.

The video changes everything

On May 4, more than two months after the shooting, attorney Alan Tucker took a thumb drive containing a video clip to a Brunswick radio station. It showed the shooting in graphic detail.

“It almost steals your soul to watch that video,” morning show host Scott Ryfun said.

He consulted with a community leader to decide what to do.

“Do I put that out?” Ryfun asked himself.

Ryfun, who is white, and the civic leader, who is black, watched the tape together, mostly in silence. They compared the tape to Barnhill’s letter saying he found no cause for arrest.

“That’s not what I saw,” the civic leader said.

Arbery was black. The McMichaels are white.

Ryfun posted the video on May 5. The station removed it within two hours, deeming it too graphic. But that was enough time to change everything.

Gov. Brian Kemp asked the GBI to look into the case. Within 36 hours, Travis and Greg McMichaels were behind bars, charged with felony murder and aggravated assault.

“In a perfect world would we have liked to have been involved in February? Of course,” GBI Director Vic Reynolds said at a news conference the day after the arrests. “But it’s not a perfect world.”

GBI Director Vic Reynolds gives updates on the Ahmaud Arbery case Friday morning, May 8, 2020. (Photo: Bobby Haven/The Brunswick News)

Credit: Bobby Haven

Credit: Bobby Haven

Reynolds made his remarks on May 8. It would have been Ahmaud’s 26th birthday.

Attorney General Chris Carr asked the GBI to investigate whether Johnson and Barnhill had acted inappropriately in their handling of the investigation. The U.S. Justice Department is investigating the possibility of a federal hate crime; Georgia has no such law.

Johnson says her actions were all meant to uphold justice. Barnhill declined to comment.

“Let the courts and the criminal justice work,” he said in a statement.

Attorneys for both McMichaels say their clients aren’t guilty.

“We know that there are strong opinions, we know there is anger, we know there is outrage,” Jason Sheffield, one of Travis McMichael’s lawyers, said at a news conference this week. “Right now we are starting at the end. We know the ending. What we don’t know is the beginning. In this case the entire nation is investigating. We will find the truth and we will bring that truth out, not here but in the courtroom.”

The shooting has prompted rallies in Arbery’s honor. A caravan left Atlanta Saturday morning for a gathering in Brunswick. Mourners have left flowers, balloons and notes of condolences in Satilla Shores.

“Please don’t ever stop seeking justice for my brother and your loved ones,” said Arbery’s sister, Jasmine Arbery, who appeared on a virtual town hall Friday with their mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones.

“Stick to what you guys believe in,” Cooper-Jones said. “You are going to be our voice in the future.”

In the final days of his life, Arbery continued to be a regular at Blue Beacon, even after he stopped working there. He mostly worked for his father’s yard care business.

“He would stop by on his jogs — maybe two or three times a week — just to say hi,” Jerry Wilson, his former boss and mentor recalls.

Wilson saw him the last time a three or four days before Arbery’s last run in Satilla Shores.

“He said he was getting in shape, and was in a good place,” Wilson said. “I told him he was looking good, real good.”

As usual, Arbery took off running.

- AJC staff writer Alexis Stevens contributed to this article.

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