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Homeless man may never be tried for I-85 fire

The once-homeless man accused of setting a fire that brought down a chunk of I-85 and threw commuters into chaos for weeks last spring will most likely never be tried for arson.

On Friday, prosecutors agreed to transfer Basil Eleby’s case to one of Fulton County’s accountability courts — in this case the Behavioral Health Treatment Court. If he completes the mental health court program, which will take about 18 months, all charges against him will be dropped and no one would likely face any criminal consequences for the highway collapse that snarled traffic and cost millions of dollars in damages.

“It’s in the best interest of both the defendant and the community,” Deputy District Attorney Fani Willis said after the brief court hearing ended.

Basil Eleby, surrounded by his attorneys, address reporters after a Friday, December 8, 2017 court appearance. (Rhonda Cook/AJC)

Eleby, wearing a red tie and a grey wool coat, said he didn’t set the fire.

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“Even I can see there’s no way you can light a fire and burn down a bridge,” Eleby said while surrounded by supporters and attorneys who represented him at no charge.

But still, he said, his arrest put him on a path to a better life. He lived in a broken-down Mercedes parked behind a repair shop near where the bridge collapsed. Many of the businesses in that area saw him as an aimless guy who had nobody, no place to go, and no way to support himself. Some would give him errands and chores to earn money. By the time he was charged with arson, Eleby had been arrested 19 times on charges including battery and assault, trafficking and possessing cocaine, though he never spent more than a few months in jail.

He is the only person charged with the March 30 fire. Police said Eleby was using drugs when he set a chair on top of a shopping cart on fire. The cart melted, igniting construction material being stored by the Georgia Department of Transportation under the elevated stretch of interstate. The fire brought down that section of a critical transportation artery where I-85 crosses over Piedmont Avenue just before it merges with Interstate 75 to form the Downtown Connector. It took six weeks to repair the highway.

Even though the criminal case has halted, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the State Fire Marshal’s Office each have investigations pending.

Atlanta firefighters remained on the scene putting out a smoldering fire Friday, March 31, 2017 at the I-85 collapse site while construction crews made their way into the zone to begin work.  (JOHN SPINK / AJC)

The response on social media to news that Eleby may never be tried was varied. Some were harsh, claiming the once-homeless man got off because of politics. Some felt he should have to work to pay back at least some of the costs to repair the bridge, and others said it was just not fair.

“He did not set that bridge on fire,” said Mawuli Davis, another attorney for Eleby. “People can say what they want.

Others cast Eleby as a scapegoat, placing the blame on GDOT for storing the flamable items under the highway.

Rev. Derrick Rice of Sankofa United Church of Christ said Eleby was just another “man of color (who) was being set up.”

“Basil was unfairly accused of something he didn’t do,” said Lawrence Zimmerman, one of Eleby’s volunteer attorneys. “The evidence was never there.”

The two witnesses against Eleby were also homeless people, one of whom has a lengthy criminal record that led to prison, which presented a problem for prosecutors. At the same time, prosecutors were supportive of the court-ordered drug rehabilitation program that was a condition of his release from jail while his charges were pending.

He struggled. Twice Eleby was brought before the judge with the threat of jail — once when he tested positive for cocaine and once when he tested positive for alcohol. Prosecutors each time argued that Eleby should be given another chance.

The accountability court program where his case is being transferred is designed to address the underlying problem that may have led to a crime rather than sending an accused person to prison.

A little over a week from the Atlanta I-85 bridge fire and collapse, the demolition phase has ended and construction has begun on a new span, the Georgia Department of Transportation announced on Friday, April 7, 2017.  (JOHN SPINK / AJC/JOHN SPINK / AJC)

The decision to move Eleby’s case to Fulton County’s mental health court did not involve Eleby changing his not guilty plea, so the two felony charges against him will remain pending until he completes the program. If he fails the program, Eleby will be tried on arson in the first degree — which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison — and criminal damage to property, which carries a 10-year maximum sentence.

“I’m going to do whatever I can to stay sober,” Eleby said.

Eleby said initially he was angry that he was blamed for setting the fire that brought down the bridge and that he had to submit to drug treatment to remain out of jail.

“I never thought I would get through this,” said Eleby, who has said little publicly until Friday.

“There are so many people still where I was a few months ago,” he said. “I’m not the person I used to be.”

His lawyers said a store that had provided Eleby with clothes has offered him a job. Eleby said he hopes to start a mobile car detailing business.

“At first I couldn’t see the blessings out of this,” Eleby said. “I didn’t see it coming at first… There are other people sleeping under bridges. Let’s help those people.”

Previous coverage:

Basil Eleby is suspected in the fire that caused the bridge collapse of I-85.

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