Ahmaud Arbery’s mother reflects on son’s death, one year later

Wanda Jones-Cooper with her son, Ahmaud Arbery. Arbery was killed by the son of a former Glynn County police officer in February.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

Wanda Jones-Cooper with her son, Ahmaud Arbery. Arbery was killed by the son of a former Glynn County police officer in February.

Wanda Cooper-Jones still wonders why, one year ago, her son Ahmaud ventured into the unfinished home in Satilla Shores, a middle-class neighborhood just outside Brunswick.

“Did he go in there to get a drink of water? To take a break? Whether he was looking at the wiring, I’m not sure,” Cooper-Jones told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in a recent interview. Ahmaud Arbery, 25, had worked as an electrician with his three older brothers, she noted.

She said she takes some solace in the reforms brought about after her son’s death. The fatal shooting led to Georgia finally passing a hate crimes law, for example.

“It still hurts that I lost Ahmaud,” she said. “Knowing that Ahmaud was possibly involved in change tells me he didn’t lose his life in vain.”

But still she wonders about her son’s final day. She is convinced Ahmaud hadn’t gone there to steal anything, as was alleged by Greg and Travis McMichael, the father and son eventually arrested and charged in the Feb. 23, 2020 shooting. The elder McMichael, a retired investigator with the Glynn County District Attorney’s office, told police he suspected Arbery in a series of recent neighborhood burglaries.

The McMichaels pursued Ahmaud in their pickup truck. Neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan joined them. All three are charged with felony murder and other crimes and remain jailed without bond.

Interviewed by Glynn County police minutes after the shooting, Greg McMichael, who provided armed cover for Travis from the bed of the truck, said Arbery got what was coming to him.

“To be a honest with you if I could’ve shot the guy, I would’ve shot him myself,” he said.

Cooper-Jones said her son’s death, and the ensuing investigation, opened her eyes to some uncomfortable truths about the community she had called home for 30 years. She remains upset that the detective who informed her Ahmaud was dead claimed he had been “involved in a robbery” even though there were no stolen items found on his body.

“This detective, this investigator was actually comfortable enough to come to my home to tell me something he knew that wasn’t true,” Cooper-Jones said. “So that says a whole lot about the department. It was horrible.”

She also believes if her son had not died, police would have arrested him.

“I often think that if they didn’t kill him, he was going to go to jail for lots of cases of burglary,” she said. “They were going to take him to jail for doing something, when he hadn’t done anything.”

Pursuing justice

Two months after Ahmaud’s death, Cooper-Jones had lost hope his killers would ever be held accountable. Then-Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney Jackie Johnson, Greg McMichael’s former employer, had passed the case along to neighboring DA George Barnhill, who had a conflict of his own: his son had worked in Brunswick DA’s office with the elder McMichael.

Barnhill was prepared to clear the McMichaels and Bryan, writing in a letter to a Glynn police captain that “we do not see grounds for an arrest of any of the three parties.”

The case was transferred to another south Georgia prosecutor who would later determine his small office lacked the manpower to handle it. On May 5, an attorney acting on a request by Greg McMichael gave a copy of the video of Arbery’s shooting, recorded by Bryan, to a local radio station. It went viral within hours. By the end of the day the GBI had taken over the investigation. The Cobb County District Attorney’s Office will handle the prosecution.

On May 7, agents arrested the McMichaels. Ahmaud, in death, had become the face of a movement. The shooting would lead to the new hate crimes law. Jackie Johnson, a lightning rod of controversy during her tenure as DA, lost her bid for re-election, with many voters saying her handling of the Arbery case was the final straw.

And earlier this month, Gov. Brian Kemp announced a massive overhaul of the citizen’s arrest law cited by prosecutors who declined to bring charges against the McMichaels and Bryan. The new law would address concerns from critics who say it disproportionately targets Black Georgians.

Finding time to grieve

Cooper-Jones has moved out of Brunswick, settling near family in Augusta. Living in Brunswick is just too painful.

“Some days I don’t get out of bed,” she said. “It’s just hard sometimes.”

So she keeps her focus on her son, preserving his memory in any way she can.

“I owe that to him,” Cooper-Jones said. She’s attended every court hearing for the men charged in the shooting. Cobb prosecutors have put the McMichaels and Bryan on notice that they may seek a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole if the three are convicted.

“Ahmaud was killed in a very senseless manner,” Cooper-Jones said. “They didn’t care about it. They tried to cover it up. They didn’t value, they didn’t respect Ahmaud’s life. If these guys go to jail for the rest of their lives, it won’t bring Ahmaud back.”

“He’s never going to come back,” she continued. “Not next week, not next month, not next year. I’m just finally getting that reality check.”

Some days are more difficult that others. Mother’s Day, 2020 would’ve been Ahmaud’s 26th birthday, for example. Meanwhile, there have been some new revelations about her son’s struggles.

Recent court filings show that Arbery suffered from a mental illness: schizoaffective disorder, which can lead to impulsive behavior, mood swings and delusions. He self-treated his illness by running. It’s how he spent his last day alive.

“That’s a way of therapy,’” Cooper-Jones said Ahmaud’s doctor told her. “So if he’s running, if he’s running every day ... that’s comforting.”

Cooper-Jones said she’ll spend the anniversary of her son’s death with family. At 5 p.m., they’ll hold a candlelight vigil at New Springfield Baptist Church in Waynesboro. She’s asking everyone to wear blue ribbons in her son’s memory.

“He had his challenges, but we all have challenges,” Cooper-Jones said. “But he didn’t deserve to die like that.”

The Ahmaud Arbery case

Feb. 23, 2020 – Ahmaud Arbery is shot and killed in the Satilla Shores neighborhood just outside of Brunswick.

May 5, 2020 – Video taken from William “Roddie” Bryan’s cellphone of the fatal shooting becomes public.

May 7, 2020 – Travis McMichael and his father Greg McMichael are arrested and charged in Arbery’s killing.

May 21, 2020 – Roddie Bryan is arrested and charged in Arbery’s killing.

June 24, 2020 – A Glynn County grand jury indicts the McMichaels and Bryan on malice and felony murder charges and other offenses.

July 17, 2020 – Roddie Bryan is denied bond.

Nov. 13, 2020 – Travis and Greg McMichael are denied bond.

The eighth season of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Breakdown podcast is covering the Arbery case and is available on iTunes or your favorite podcast app. Episode 8 – titled “He ran. And ran. And ran.” – is available Tuesday, the first anniversary of the shooting.