The Basil Eleby who pleaded not guilty to charges he set a fire that brought down a portion of Interstate 85 bore little resemblance to the images of the disheveled homeless man that emerged soon after his arrest.
His hair closely cropped and his clothes neatly pressed, Eleby on Tuesday sat flanked by four high-profile lawyers - all working for free - in the Fulton County Courthouse. Behind him were rows and rows of strangers who had packed the court hearing to show their support.
In the more than two weeks since the bridge collapsed, Eleby, 39, has become a cause as well as a client. Advocates say he is being unfairly scapegoated in the fiasco, which they argue was made possible by the state’s decision to store tons of plastic material under the highway.
In the process, Eleby has emerged as the face of homelessness in Atlanta.
Gerald Griggs, vice president of the Georgia NAACP, said Tuesday, the upheaval Atlanta’s motorists have suffered because of the interstate collapse “highlight the issue of homelessness in this city.”
“Every night, 2,000 Atlantans sleep under the bridges,” Griggs said. “They are going unaddressed and unheard and this situation addresses a massive problem.”
Eleby on Tuesday pleaded not guilty to arson and criminal damage to property. Fulton County Superior Court Judge Ural Glanville then approved a bond agreement Eleby’s lawyers reached with prosecutors. It includes a a $10,000 signature bond, which means he doesn’t have to put up money. Eleby must also enter a residential center to address his addictions and mental health issues, find a job within the next two months and submit to random drug testing. He also cannot have contact with any witnesses and cannot go within 1,000 yards of where the interstate collapsed, except for visits with his attorneys or their investigators.
“We were very pleased to have Mr. Eleby plead not guilty and we were able to see the state agree that wrap-around services were in Mr. Eleby’s best interest,” Mawuli Davis, one of his lawyers, said. Davis added that prosecutors agreed that keeping him in jail without addressing his problems would not be helpful.
In a sign of the case’s importance, deputy district attorney Fani Willis, one of the top prosecutors in the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office, was on hand Tuesday.
Eleby had been in the Fulton County Jail, on a bond of $200,000 since his arrest March 31.
Authorities said Eleby was under an elevated stretch of the interstate on March 30 using drugs when he set fire to a stuffed chair that was on top of a grocery cart. The plastic cart melted and the fire spread to construction conduit the Georgia Department of Transportation had been storing there for years. The fire was so hot, the concrete bridge overhead collapsed; no one was injured.
Eleby was arrested the next day, based, in part, on accounts by at two other homeless people who were under the bridge and reportedly talking with Eleby about sharing his drugs.
“They arrested an innocent man. This was a rush to judgment,” Davis said.
He said several state agencies — including GDOT — share the blame.
“The state didn’t secure the material (under the interstate) and there is no treatment for the homeless,” Davis said.
“It’s much larger than Mr. Eleby,” Davis said.
The collapse has worsened the gridlock in Atlanta, a city already known for it’s terrible traffic. The north- and southbound lanes of I-85 near Piedmont Road remain closed as construction crews scramble to repair the road. GDOT said they expect the busy interstate to reopen by June 15.
Advocates had called on supporters to show up Tuesday for Eleby’s court appearance. And they weren’t disappointed.
Davis said his client was overwhelmed by the attention.
“He was almost in disbelief that all those people were there to support him,” Davis said.