Basil Eleby is charged with starting the March 30 fire that caused a section of Interstate 85 to collapse.

Attorneys, activists support homeless man named in I-85 bridge fire

Defense attorneys and activists claim authorities are using a homeless man as a “scapegoat” to draw attention away from mistakes the government made that contributed to the collapse of a section of Interstate 85 two weeks ago.

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The legal team has now been tweaked to include four prominent attorneys, while a coalition of civil rights and advocates for the homeless are coordinating a campaign to protect Basil Eleby, who is being held in the Fulton County Jail on arson and criminal damage to property charges. Authorities blame him for the fire that brought down an elevated section of I-85 just north of where it merges with Interstate 75 to form the Downtown Connector.

Sen. David Perdue toured the I-85 bridge collapse site with GDOT Commissioner Russell McMurry. Video by John Spink/AJC

The coalition has planned a news conference for Friday on the steps of the Fulton County Courthouse.

In a statement released late Wednesday, the coalition said it “is concerned that Mr. Eleby is being used as a ‘scapegoat’ by government officials to avoid public scrutiny and accountability.”

“The Interstate-85 catastrophic fire and subsequent collapse exposed serious management deficiencies,” the statement said. “The coalition will ensure that government officials are held to a high standard of transparency and accountability in this matter.”

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Eleby’s legal team includes Tiffany Roberts, Mawuli Davis, Gary Spencer and Lawrence Zimmerman. Attorney Gerald Griggs had initially notified the court that he would also represent Eleby, but his role has shifted to the coalition because of his position as vice president of the Atlanta chapter of the NAACP.

There are 23 individuals or organizations that have announced support for Eleby, who is scheduled to be in court on Tuesday.

Crews are working around the clock to repair the section of I-85 that collapsed during a massive fire March 30. (Photo: JOHN SPINK /JSPINK@AJC.COM)
Photo: John Spink/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

According to the charges, Eleby was using drugs when he set fire to a chair stacked on a shopping cart that melted and ignited huge spools of plastic and fiberglass conduit that came to be stored under the elevated highway because of an unfinished project a decade earlier.

The fire got so hot that a section of the road collapsed, throwing the metro area’s already challenging traffic into chaos. The state expects to have the bridge repaired and reopened to commuters by mid June.

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