Racism, alleges a new federal civil rights lawsuit, played a pivotal role in the fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery. The cover-up that followed was nearly as sinister, claims the complaint, filed on behalf of Arbery’s mother.
Wanda Cooper-Jones’ suit, which seeks more than $1 million in damages, comes one year to the day of her son’s death. Greg McMichael, his son Travis McMichael, and William “Roddie” Bryan stand charged with both malice and felony murder for Arbery’s death. The three men had tried to pen in Arbery with their pickup trucks as he ran through their neighborhood just south of Brunswick. The chase ended when Travis McMichael fired fatal shotgun blasts into Arbery.
Their deadly pursuit stemmed from Arbery’s race, according to the suit. He was African American; they are white. Lawyers for the three men argue they acted within their rights to defend themselves against a man they believed was responsible for a series of thefts in their community.
The complaint digs deep into alleged cronyism by local law enforcement officials, part of “a deliberate effort to cover up Ahmaud’s murder,” wrote Cooper-Jones’ lawyers. Two local prosecutors and selected members of the Glynn County Police Department, including its former chief, are named in the lawsuit.
“For nearly three months, Glynn County police officers, the chief of police, and two prosecutors conspired to hide the circumstances surrounding Ahmaud’s death and to protect the men who murdered him,” the complaint states.
The cover-up started the minute Glynn police arrived at the crime scene, the lawsuit claims. Police arrived to find Arbery lying in a pool of his own blood, shot three times by Travis McMichael.
Greg McMichael, a retired investigator with the Brunswick district attorney’s office, had seen Arbery running by his home inside Satilla Shores and reported he had a “gut feeling” that the young Black man was responsible for a series of intrusions and burglaries inside the neighborhood.
McMichael armed himself with a Smith and Wesson Model 686 .357 Magnum revolver, the same one he was issued as a Glynn County police officer, the lawsuit states. He enlisted his son, carrying a Remington Model 870 12-gauge pump-action shotgun, to drive his pickup truck in pursuit of Arbery. They were eventually joined by neighbor Bryan, who used his vehicle to help trap Arbery. Bryan also recorded the video of the shooting, which would change everything.
The trio believed they were acting “on behalf and under the cover of Glynn County police,” which had effectively deputized the men to respond to intrusions at a house under construction, the suit contends.
A text message from Officer Robert Rash, also named as a defendant in the lawsuit, suggested the lot owner, Larry English, contact Greg McMichael “day or night when you get action on your camera.” English, who lived two hours away, monitored the property via a hidden camera.
Arbery had, in fact, stopped at the unfinished home the afternoon of his death. But nothing was reported stolen. The lawsuit claims the site was along a jogging route Arbery often followed.
The cover-up continued after police decided not to arrest the McMichaels or Bryan, according to the complaint. Greg McMichael’s former boss, Jackie Johnson, intervened immediately. The suit claims her office advised police that charges were not necessary, adding that Ware County District Attorney George Barnhill was taking over the case.
Johnson had a long history with the elder McMichael.
“When Defendant Gregory McMichael was stripped of arrest powers due to his failure to complete basic training to maintain his certification as an officer, Defendant Johnson intervened on his behalf to get him an ‘exemption’ from state-mandated training,” the lawsuit alleges.
Johnson, the complaint continues, led McMichael “to believe that he could act with impunity when engaging in law enforcement conduct.”
The longtime Brunswick DA, who lost her re-election bid in November, handpicked Barnhill even though Barnhill’s son was employed by Johnson and had worked alongside Greg McMichael.
On Feb. 24, the day after Arbery’s death, Barnhill, whose appointment was not yet official, told Glynn detectives he had concluded “the act was justifiable homicide,” according to the suit.
Four days later, he told reporters the investigation centered on the burglary of a home under construction in Satilla Shores and said the investigation was “about 70% done.” He would later determine the McMichaels and Bryan acted on “solid first hand probable cause,” well within the law.
“Defendant Barnhill further ratified Defendants Gregory McMichael’s, Travis McMichael’s, and Bryan’s illegal and unconstitutional conduct by providing false information to Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr by stating he had ‘video of Arbery burglarizing a home immediately preceding the chase and confrontation,’” the complaint states.
Barnhill was likely referring to the security video showing Arbery entering the English home shortly before the chase began. When he was found dead, Arbery had nothing on him that he’d taken from the English home.
“If not for the video of Ahmaud’s killing being released, the Glynn County Police Department, Rash, Gregory McMichael, Travis McMichael, Bryan, Johnson, and Barnhill would have successfully conspired to deprive Ahmaud of his constitutional rights,” the suit concludes.
About the Author