6/16/17 - Atlanta, GA - Basil Eleby stands with his attorneys during a brief press conference after his hearing. Eleby, the once-homeless man accused to setting the fire that brought down a section of Interstate 85, appears in court for a status hearing. The state plans to file a new indictment to more accurately depict what happened during the incident, and make some changes to the charges against Eleby. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Homeless man claims alibi for when fire was set under I-85

The Fulton County District Attorney’s Office will re-indict the once homeless man accused of setting the fire that caused a section of Interstate 85 to collapse; meanwhile, investigators will interview a potential alibi the man’s lawyers have found.

The Basil Eleby who appeared in court Friday for a status hearing bore little resemblance to the disheveled and dirty 39-year-old man accused 2 1/2 months ago of starting the I-85 bridge fire on March 30.

Eleby walked into the courtroom sporting a black suit and tie. After the hearing, he spoke softly to reporters: “Thanks to everybody for their support.” It was the first time he has spoken in public.

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Prosecutors allege Eleby torched a chair on a shopping cart, starting a fire that caused a chunk of an elevated section of I-85 to collapse — disrupting Atlanta’s already heavily congested traffic for the six weeks it took to repair the damage. He was charged with arson and criminal damage to property but then released on a $10,000 signature bond under the condition that he live at a residential treatment facility so he could address his mental health and addiction problems.

Interstate 85 caught fire and collapsed March 30. It was reopened nearly 6 weeks later, easing traffic tensions for commuters.

Deputy District Attorney Fani Willis told Judge Ural Glanville prosecutors will ask a grand jury on July 11 to re-indict Eleby. She said a re-indictment was needed because of recent court rulings regarding the composition of grand juries and so prosecutors could fine-tune the charges “to more accurately depict what occurred.”

“I believe the charges will be different,” Willis said.

She said that even if additional charges were brought, the office would not push for any change to Eleby’s bond or the conditions for his release.

Late Thursday, Eleby’s volunteer attorneys filed motions asking that the court consider the results of a polygraph exam he took and to consider an alibi Eleby has for the time that the fire was started.

“Mr. Eleby was with someone, way from the bridge location, at the time of the fire,” said Mawuli Davis, one of four lawyers representing Eleby at no charge.

Davis said Eleby and another person watched the fire from “a safe distance” away. “If he was physically not present, he could not have started the fire.”

Willis said investigators were unaware of this person until Eleby’s lawyers gave them a name.

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The indictment brought against Eleby on April 7 includes the names of two homeless people in the list of seven witnesses who appeared before a grand jury; the other five witnesses were all from the Atlanta Fire Department.

Eleby has pleaded not guilty.

April 18, 2017 - Atlanta - Basil Eleby enters court for the hearing. Elegy, the homeless man accused of setting the fire that brought down a chunk of Interstate 85, is expected to be released on bond after pleading not guilty to arson and criminal trespass charges in court Tuesday morning. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM
Photo: Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com

Authorities said Eleby was under an elevated stretch of the interstate 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 two other homeless people, Sophia Brauer and Barry Thomas, who were under the bridge and reportedly talking with Eleby about sharing his drugs.

Brauer and Thomas, witnesses against Eleby, were each charged with a misdemeanor, which would ordinarily be a case the solicitor general would prosecute in State Court. But Fulton District Attorney Paul Howard took their cases and is reviewing the charges against them. Both were given tickets but not arrested.