EXCLUSIVE: Father of Brunswick shooter previously investigated victim

Greg McMichael, who provided gun cover for his son as he fought and eventually shot a young black jogger, may have known the victim long before their encounter in a subdivision just south of Brunswick, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has learned.

In his letter of recusal to Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr, Waycross Judicial Circuit District Attorney George Barnhill wrote that his son, a prosecutor in the Brunswick DA’s office, and McMichael, then an investigator in that same office, “both helped with the previous prosecution of (Ahmaud) Arbery.”

<< COMPLETE COVERAGE: Ahmaud Arbery shooting

McMichael, a former Glynn County cop, told Glynn police he recognized Arbery, 25, from surveillance video that captured a recent burglary in his mostly white neighborhood. He said he planned to make a citizen’s arrest.

When he was in high school, Arbery was sentenced to five years probation as a first offender on charges of carrying a weapon on campus and several counts of obstructing a law enforcement officer. He was convicted of probation violation in 2018 after he was charged with shoplifting, court documents show.

McMichael, who retired from the DA’s office in April 2019, made no mention of his work on that investigation to police, though it’s unknown whether he remembered it at the time.

Barnhill wrote that he learned about his son and McMichael’s ties to Arbery “three or four weeks” earlier.

He didn’t say why he waited so long to recuse himself but claimed “a local 'rabble rouser' has taken up this cause and begun publishing wild and factually incorrect and legally wrong accusations on Facebook and other social media formats calling for marches and physical affronts be made against the McMichaels at their homes, and my son's home in Brunswick etc.”

Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper Jones, had requested Barnhill’s recusal but told the AJC Thursday that she didn’t know his son -- or, for that matter, McMichael -- worked on Ahmaud’s case.

“I just looked him up on Facebook and saw this son worked for the Brunswick DA,” she said.

It was a crucial decision. Without it, Cooper Jones’ attorney, Lee Merritt said, “the case would’ve been no billed to a grand jury and the McMichaels would’ve gotten away with murder.”

In a letter to Glynn County police, Barnhill wrote that criminal charges were unwarranted against Greg McMichael, his son Travis McMichael, who appeared to fire all three shots, and a third man, William Bryan, who helped them corner Arbery on Feb. 23 inside their neighborhood just south of Brunswick.

The prosecutor said Arbery, who was unarmed, initiated contact with Travis McMichael.

“This family are not strangers to the local criminal justice system,” Barnhill wrote in his letter to Carr. “From best we can tell, Ahmauds older brother has gone to prison in the past and is currently in the Glynn jail, without bond, awaiting new felony prosecution. It also appears a cousin has been prosecuted by DA Johnson's office.”

Merritt questioned what that had to do with Arberry’s shooting.

“This speaks to the wider issue of mass incarceration,” Merritt said. “If black people have any kind of criminal record somehow that justifies their murder.”

Meanwhile, a Brunswick criminal defense attorney on Thursday said he released the explosive video showing Arbery’s shooting.

“There had been very little information provided by the police department or the district attorney’s office, but there was entirely too much speculation, rumor, false narratives, and outright lies surrounding this event,” said the attorney, Alan Tucker. “I didn’t release this to ‘show that they did nothing wrong,’ as is being circulated.”

The video has proven to be a game-changer, with everyone from former Vice President Joe Biden to NBA star LeBron James condemning the shooting. President Donald Trump told reporters Thursday that he had not seen the video.

"My heart goes out to the parents and the loved ones of the young gentleman,” Trump said. “I will be getting a full report this evening."

In the video, Arbery attempts to run around the pick-up truck but runs into Travis McMichael. A struggle ensues and three shots are fired. The video concludes with Arbery collapsing, face first, onto the pavement, never to regain consciousness.

Barnhill credited the video to Bryan.

Tucker’s involvement is something of a mystery. He said his firm has not been retained to represent anyone involved in the case, but, in the very next sentence, added a caveat: “We may be, we may not be.”

“I love this community and have spent my career helping people in this community,” he wrote. “My sole purpose in releasing the video was absolute transparency because my community was being ripped apart by erroneous accusations and assumptions.”

Arbery’s parents have demanded the McMichaels be arrested. Atlantic Judicial Circuit District Attorney Tom Durden said Tuesday he would ask a grand jury to consider criminal charges.

Gov. Brian Kemp told reporters Thursday the video was “absolutely horrific and that Georgians deserve answers.”

“I told Director Reynolds to follow the facts, follow the truth and to administer justice,” Kemp said, referring to GBI Director Vic Reynolds. “I have no doubt in my mind, it will be fair and Director Reynolds and his seasoned team of investigators will work very quickly and will also be very thorough.”

Late Thursday afternoon GBI agents were canvassing Satilla Shores, the subdivision where Arbery  was killed.

--AJC Reporter Greg Bluestein contributed to this article.