Ever since Travis McMichael gunned down Ahmaud Arbery, he and his father have been condemned by many as white racist vigilantes who targeted a Black man running down their street.
Nothing could be further from the truth, lawyers for both Travis and Greg McMichael recently told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
“He is not a stereotype, he is not a caricature of a Southern vigilante racism that he’s been made out to be,” Decatur attorney Bob Rubin said of Travis McMichael. “He’s actually a man who’s lived a very good life, a life of helping others.”
A recently filed bond motion says that McMichael likely saved the lives of six people, one when he was a teenage lifeguard and the others when he patrolled the waters for the U.S. Coast Guard.
The 25-year-old Arbery was killed by three shotgun blasts on Feb. 23 near coastal Brunswick. Greg McMichael, who was repairing boat cushions in his front yard, saw Arbery run past him. He called to his son, saying he saw someone he believed had been breaking into houses.
Travis McMichael grabbed his shotgun and hopped into his pickup with his dad who had his .357 magnum revolver. Minutes later, neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan joined in the chase and videotaped the end of it. The encounter left Arbery dying on the pavement.
Macon attorney Frank Hogue, who represents Greg McMichael, said Arbery had been filmed at least two times on a security video inside a house under construction a few doors down.
“This is what was in their head,” Hogue said. “Not the narrative you’re hearing: Ah, there’s a Black man running in our neighborhood. Let’s go track him down and shoot him.' It’s far from that.”
Rubin agreed. “This case is not about race,” he said. “Mr. Arbery was not targeted because he was Black.”
Arbery was out jogging that day, his family has said. GBI agent Richard Dial has testified that Arbery may have stopped at the house because he was thirsty. Police found nothing from inside the home on the slain Arbery.
But Larry English, the man who owned the home under construction, had told police and neighbors he’d had thousands of dollars in electronics and fishing equipment stolen from his boat in late 2019, Jason Sheffield, Rubin’s law partner, said.
Arbery was seen on the security video on Oct. 20 and Nov. 18, according to court testimony. And Travis McMichael, 34, told police he saw Arbery at the house on the night of Feb. 11, just 12 days before the shooting.
“Is this really about water?” Sheffield asked. “Is it about trying to study electrical design? What is this about exactly? Has he tried to get into other people’s homes? All these questions are sort of out there that we’re seeking to answer. But it’s not about an episode of jogging.”
Prior to the shooting, the McMichaels had confronted white people they saw entering the English house, Sheffield said.
“They approached them carrying firearms for their safety to talk to them and call the police," he said.
The McMichaels and Bryan, 50, stand indicted for malice murder and eight other offenses. During a preliminary hearing, Assistant District Attorney Jesse Evans said Arbery was “defenseless and unarmed. ... (He) was tormented, he was hunted, he was targeted.”
At that hearing, Dial, the GBI agent, testified Bryan said he heard Travis McMichael utter an incendiary epithet — “f––ing (n-word)” — as he stood over the dying Arbery.
Both Rubin and Sheffield pushed back on that account.
“You could feel the world gasping when they heard that,” Rubin said. “We gasped. But when you look at what’s actually happening it can’t be true and I don’t think it’s true.”
Bryan had already been interviewed three times by police and the GBI about the shooting and never said such a thing, Sheffield said. Only during the fourth interview with the GBI, Bryan said, “Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention that Travis McMichael said something really awful to Ahmaud as he was laying on the ground,” Sheffield said.
Sheffield said he and Rubin have reviewed the video evidence.
“We see he was so far away from that part of the scene,” Sheffield said of Bryan. “In his truck, windows up. And police were literally on scene within seconds. And so from what we can tell there is nothing to support that Roddie Bryan could ever hear him say anything like that.”
Added Rubin, “There was a motive for him to bring up race in his fourth interview. Because at that point, he’s looking to cut a deal.”
When asked to comment on the statements by the McMichaels' lawyers, Atlanta attorney Chris Stewart, a member of the Arbery family’s legal team, declined. “We don’t have a response or even want to acknowledge their attempt at damage control,” he said.
The U.S. Justice Department is investigating the killing as a possible hate crime. Dial testified the GBI had found Travis McMichael making racist remarks on social media. Evans, the prosecutor, said agents also found “racist and bigoted remarks” on Bryan’s cellphone.
In July, Judge Timothy Walmsley denied bond to Bryan. The McMichaels, who’ve been in jail since their May 7 arrest, should have their bond hearings soon.
In separate interviews, the McMichaels' lawyers said their clients have dedicated their lives to serving their community and their country. The father and son also have something in common: they’ve saved lives.
After high school, Greg McMichael, 64, enlisted in the U.S. Navy Reserve and then went into active duty in 1975. While stationed in Spain, McMichael was at a beach when he saw a fellow shipmate fighting a riptide. McMichael grabbed a surfboard out of a surprised Spaniard’s hands, jumped in the water, paddled out and rescued the man.
The vice admiral of the Sixth Fleet later praised McMichael for his “courageous and prompt actions." Hogue noted, "The man was African-American, a fellow sailor.”
McMichael would later work for the Brunswick Police Department and then as an investigator for the DA’s Office. After 24 years in law enforcement, he retired in 2019 due to health problems.
“Is this really about water? Is it about trying to study electrical design? What is this about exactly? Has he tried to get into other people's homes? All these questions are sort of out there that we're seeking to answer. But it's not about an episode of jogging."
- Jason Sheffield, lawyer for Travis and Greg McMichaels
Friends and family members describe McMichael “as the guy who’s going to go above and beyond to help,” Hogue’s wife and co-counsel, Laura Hogue, said. "The person you can go to.”
In 2003, Travis McMichael was working as a lifeguard at a camp for kids who’d lost family members. After seeing a child sink to the bottom of the pool, the 17-year-old McMichael dove in and saved the boy.
A few years after graduating from high school, McMichael enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard.
In December 2013, McMichael and his crew raced to a fishing boat that had crashed into a jetty on the St. Johns River near Jacksonville. As soon as they got the three people off the boat, it sank.
“You undeniably saved the crew,” McMichael’s captain later wrote in a letter of commendation.
Nine months later, facing 8-foot waves and 35-mile-an-hour winds, McMichael helped saved a couple whose boat was sinking after it also had crashed into the jetty.
“Truly amazing Coast Guard work,” another captain wrote to McMichael in a memo, attaching a thank-you note from the couple’s grandchildren.
McMichael’s nine years of duty included drug interdiction in the Pacific Ocean.
After leaving the service, McMichael met a woman and they had a child. McMichael has joint legal custody and was seeing Everett every other week before his arrest.
On Feb. 23, he was living with his parents and his sister in a rental home on the Satilla River. When his father called to him after seeing Arbery, McMichael was trying to get Everett to take a nap, Rubin said. He then put his son down, grabbed his shotgun and drove off.