Investigators Call Evidence in the Ahmaud Arbery Shooting ‘Extremely Upsetting’

By Rick Rojas, Sarah Mervosh and Richard Fausset

A father and son were arrested in connection with the Feb. 23 killing of Mr. Arbery, which had led to protests and 2.23-mile runs to show support under the hashtag #IRunWithMaud.

ImagePeople gathered throughout the day on Friday at a small memorial at the site of the shooting death of  Ahmaud Arbery in the Satilla Shores neighborhood near Brunswick, Ga.
People gathered throughout the day on Friday at a small memorial at the site of the shooting death of  Ahmaud Arbery in the Satilla Shores neighborhood near Brunswick, Ga.Credit...Erik S Lesser/EPA, via Shutterstock

BRUNSWICK, Ga. — Law enforcement officials in Georgia said on Friday there was more than sufficient probable cause to justify charging two men with murder in the fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery.

The charges against Gregory McMichael, 64, and his son Travis McMichael, 34, came after the case was moved to a third prosecutor and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation was called upon this week to investigate.

“I can’t answer what another agency did or didn’t see,” Vic Reynolds, the G.B.I. director, said at a news conference on Friday. “But I can tell you that based on our involvement in this case and considering the fact we hit the ground running Wednesday morning and within 36 hours we had secured warrants for two individuals for felony murder, I think that speaks volumes for itself.”

He called the video of the shooting, released this week, compelling evidence.

“It was extremely upsetting,” he said. “On a human level, it’s troubling.”

Mr. Arbery, a 25-year-old black man, was killed after an encounter with the McMichaels, who are white. Mr. Arbery was killed in Satilla Shores, a quiet middle-class enclave about 15 minutes from downtown Brunswick and a short jog from Mr. Arbery’s neighborhood. A police report said the McMichaels had grabbed two guns and followed Mr. Arbery in a truck after he ran past them.

The shooting happened on Feb. 23, but the case did not receive broader attention until recently, after a video was widely shared showing the shooting. Officials on Friday said that the video had been “a very important piece” of evidence in moving forward with criminal charges.

“I think you have to remember our role is to do our best to remove our emotions from a case and look at facts,” Mr. Reynolds told reporters after the news conference. “But certainly when you see that, you become pretty enraged in watching it. You have set that aside and you have say, looking at all the evidence, is there probable cause here?”

Officials said the charges, coming months after the shooting, had not been driven by the surge of attention around the country, with elected officials, prominent activists and celebrities weighing in and urging action.

“We don’t let that influence the decision,” Tom Durden of Georgia’s Atlantic Judicial Circuit, the latest prosecutor to take on the case, said at the Friday news conference. “We have made the decision based on what we feel like is the applicable law and our interpretation of the evidence that has been uncovered.”

Mr. Reynolds said that the arrest warrants were issued and the two men were arrested at home on Thursday evening.

In the minutes before Mr. Arbery was shot, a man called the police to report that an intruder was inside a house that was under construction in the neighborhood. While on the call, the man reported that the intruder — described as a black man in a white T-shirt — had taken off running down the street.

“There he goes right now!” the man, whose identity was redacted on the audio, told the dispatcher, according to 911 calls obtained by The New York Times.

Pressing the caller for more information, the dispatcher asked what, exactly, the man had done. “I just need to know what he was doing wrong,” she said. “Was he just on the premises and not supposed to be?”

“He’s been caught on the camera a bunch before,” the man said. “It’s kind of an ongoing thing out here.”

Several minutes later, at 1:14 p.m., another 911 call came in from an unidentified man who reported a “black male running down the street.” Sounding slightly breathless, he said he did not know the address.

“I don’t know what street we’re on,” the man said, before a sudden commotion in which he appeared to shout “stop!” and “Travis!” before going silent for the rest of the four-minute call.

Friends and family of Mr. Arbery said they believed that he had been out jogging on Feb. 23, as he often did. Mr. Arbery was wearing a white T-shirt, khaki shorts, Nike sneakers and a bandanna when he was killed.

Video of the shooting, taken from inside a vehicle, shows Mr. Arbery running along a shaded two-lane residential road when he comes upon a white truck, with a man standing beside its open driver’s-side door. Another man is in the bed of the pickup.

Mr. Arbery runs around the truck and disappears briefly from view. Muffled shouting can be heard before Mr. Arbery emerges, tussling with the man outside the truck as three shotgun blasts echo.

When the police arrived after the shooting, Gregory McMichael said that Mr. Arbery had looked like the suspect in a string of break-ins in the area.

Since last August, there had been at least three calls to police about a man trespassing on a property in the neighborhood, according to documents released by the Glynn County Police Department in response to a public records request. In the weeks before the shooting, Travis McMichael had also called to report that a firearm had been stolen from his truck.

In October, a caller reported that a man had been seen on a camera system for a property that was being built in the neighborhood. In November, the same caller again reported something similar.

On Feb. 11, another call was made to 911 by someone who said he had caught a man trespassing in a house. The caller, who said he had not seen the man before, had “just chased him” and was sitting outside the house, waiting for police to respond, in a red Ford 150 pickup, the same kind of truck that Travis McMichael reported a weapon stolen from weeks earlier.

The identity of the caller or callers was redacted from the reports.

In the latest twist in the small-town politics of this case, a criminal defense lawyer in Brunswick, Ga., who had informally consulted with the McMichaels, said he was the one who leaked video footage of the shooting.

The video, which surfaced earlier this week, intensified public pressure and was cited by the authorities as an important piece of evidence to support pressing charges.

The lawyer, Alan Tucker, said in a phone interview on Friday that he got the video from the cellphone of the man who had filmed it. He later gave the footage to a local radio station so that the public could see what had happened.

“It wasn’t two men with a Confederate flag in the back of a truck going down the road and shooting a jogger in the back,” he said, citing rumors that he said had fueled tensions in the community.

“It got the truth out there as to what you could see,” he said. “My purpose was not to exonerate them or convict them.”

A local television station, First Coast News, previously reported that Mr. Tucker had consulted with Travis McMichael on his conversations with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, advising him to “keep his mouth shut.” On Friday, Mr. Tucker declined to comment on his conversations with the McMichaels, citing attorney client privilege.

“I’m not going to tell you what I told them or what they told me,” he said, using profanity to say that any conversations — if they occurred, he said — were none of the public’s business.

At times during the interview, a woman could be heard in the background whispering suggested answers to Mr. Tucker. Though NBC News reported that Mr. Tucker was a “family friend” of the McMichaels, a representative for Mr. Tucker said later on Friday afternoon that he was an acquaintance of the family who knew Gregory McMichael from his work at the district attorney’s office.

By Friday afternoon, Mr. Tucker said that it had been decided that he would not be retained as the lawyer for either of the McMichaels and that he did not represent them in any formal capacity. It was unclear if they had any other representation. No one appeared with the McMichaels at their initial court appearance on Friday, a court representative said.

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A crowd of protesters gathered outside the Glynn County Courthouse in Georgia to demand a thorough investigation into the killing of Ahmaud Arbery after a father and son were arrested, and charged with murder.CreditCredit...John Bazemore/Associated Press

On Friday, Mr. Arbery would have celebrated his 26th birthday. But instead, a crowd of protesters — almost all wearing masks — packed in front of the Glynn County Courthouse to demand justice in his death.

“I will always run with Maud,” one of his aunts told the assembly from the courthouse steps, referring to her nephew’s nickname and what has become a hashtag rallying cry — #IRunWithMaud — after his death drew the notice of elected officials, prominent activists and celebrities around the country.

“That could have easily been me,” another speaker, who pointed out that he, too, was a 26-year-old black man, told the crowd. “It could have easily been you.”

Despite the murder charges, many in the crowd still expressed their outrage over the handling of the case. They noted the time that went by without any charges.

“If this had been a black man who had shot a white man, they would have been arrested that night,” said Karasha Jones, 54.

“You got comfort from it,” she said of the arrest on Thursday, noting that it helped ease some of the anger and anguish coursing through the African-American community in Brunswick, a city of about 17,000 people on the southeast Georgia coast, a place Ms. Jones has lived her entire life.

“Everybody in Brunswick knows everybody, and we try to stick together,” she said. That included Mr. Arbery: “He was kind,” she said. “He was humble.”

The arrests were regarded as a positive step. “We’re still looking for convictions, but this is a start,” Gretta Stuckey said as she stood under the moss-draped trees in the courthouse yard.

At a time when many people can’t gather in person to rally, supporters are going for 2.23-mile runs (Mr. Arbery was killed on Feb. 23). By Friday morning, the hashtag #IRunWithMaud had been used tens of thousands of times on Twitter, and people shared photographs of themselves outside in running gear, often alongside photos of Mr. Arbery, an ardent jogger.

“We can’t protest due to the pandemic, but we can still find ways to use social media to spread awareness,” said Akeem M. Baker, one of the organizers of the hashtag. “And it spread like wildfire.”

In Atlanta on Friday, people ran with #IRunWithMaud and #BlackLivesMatter signs pinned to their backs. But the people who ran in Mr. Arbery’s honor came from all across the United States, and they included doctors, teachers and professional athletes.

“Happy birthday to Ahmaud Arbery,” the New Orleans Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins said in a video he recorded during his run on Friday. “Even though they arrested those two men, we’ve got to make sure they don’t forget his face and that he gets his justice in court.”

For more than two months, outrage over the killing of Mr. Arbery struggled to gain traction. Then, over the past week, national publicity and a horrific video made it national news.

The case highlights what activists in the Black Lives Matter movement said they see as the continued struggle to create systemic change. That it took hashtags and protests and celebrity outcries and a video to get an arrest is at once frustrating and unsurprising, activists said.

“I’m a 41-year-old black man. I don’t know any other situation in which we don’t have to fight and push and hold accountable forces in order to ensure that racism and racist structures are dealt with,” said Rashad Robinson, the executive director of Color of Change, a national racial justice organization.

Organizing around the death of Mr. Arbery was initially limited to family and friends. A Facebook page, “I Run With Maud,” made its first post on April 4: a smiling photo of Mr. Arbery in a tan polo T-shirt accompanied by the hashtag, #JusticeforAhmaud. The Georgia chapter of the N.A.A.C.P., working with Mr. Arbery’s family, issued its first statement about the killing on April 28, demanding that charges be brought.

Ja’Mal Green, a community organizer in Chicago, said it was good to see the demand for justice be effective, but no less frustrating to have to go through all of that.

“We constantly have to continue to fight for some level of justice, and they constantly slap us in the face,” he said. “This is disgusting. It’s frustrating.”

Activists said they have gained significant ground in their fight for changes to the criminal justice system in recent years, notably with the election of reform-minded prosecutors.

“It is something that we have the power to change,” said Alicia Garza, a co-creator of the Black Lives Matter Global Network. “And the way that we change it is by changing the rules. So it’s not about individuals. It’s about how departments function. It’s about how decisions are made. And it’s certainly 100 percent about the people who we elect to represent us.”

The details of Mr. Arbery’s killing led to a wave of outrage nationwide from figures as diverse as former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., the basketball star LeBron James and Russell Moore, a prominent leader of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Both Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia, a Republican, and his Democratic opponent in the 2018 governor’s race, Stacey Abrams, the former state House minority leader, had expressed concern about the case on Twitter this week. Mr. Kemp wrote that “Georgians deserve answers,” and Ms. Abrams wrote that “our systems of law enforcement and justice must be held to the highest standards.”

Mr. Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, added to the chorus on Thursday, saying that Mr. Arbery had essentially been “lynched before our very eyes” and that “these vicious acts call to mind the darkest chapters of our history.”

The case is the latest in the United States to raise concerns about racial inequities in the justice system. Documents obtained by The New York Times show that a Georgia prosecutor who had the case for weeks before recusing himself over a conflict of interest had advised the Glynn County Police Department that there was “insufficient probable cause” to issue arrest warrants for the McMichaels.

President Trump addressed Mr. Arbery’s death during an appearance on Fox & Friends on Friday morning, saying that Mr. Arbery “looks like a really good young guy” and that the video footage had been “very, very disturbing.”

Urging the authorities in Georgia to investigate and find out what happened, he also offered support for Mr. Kemp, who won his position as governor with the help of an endorsement from Mr. Trump.

“It’s in the hands of the governor, and I’m sure he’ll do the right thing,” Mr. Trump said. “You know, it could be something that we didn’t see on tape. There could be a lot of, you know, if you saw things went off tape and then back on tape. But it was a troubling, I mean, to anybody that watched it certainly it was a disturbing or troubling video. No question about that.”

Before becoming a focal point in the shooting death, Gregory McMichael had a long career in law enforcement in coastal southern Georgia and had recently retired.

He worked at the Glynn County Police Department from 1982 to 1989, and until last year had spent many years as an investigator in the Brunswick district attorney’s office.

Travis McMichael runs a company that gives custom boat tours. The authorities said he fired the shots that killed Mr. Arbery.

The police report was based almost solely upon the responding officer’s interview with Gregory McMichael. Two prosecutors recused themselves from the case because of professional ties to him.

The original prosecutor, George E. Barnhill of Georgia’s Waycross Judicial Circuit, noted that the McMichaels were carrying their weapons legally under Georgia law. He also cited the state’s citizen’s arrest statute, and the statute on self-defense.

Mr. Barnhill argued that Mr. Arbery, who appeared to be unarmed, had initiated the fight with Travis McMichael, so Mr. McMichael was “allowed to use deadly force to protect himself.”

The case was next assigned to another district attorney, Tom Durden. Amid rising anger, criticism and national attention, Mr. Durden this week announced that he would ask a Glynn County grand jury to decide whether charges were warranted. He also asked the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to get involved.

It was not clear on Thursday whether the McMichaels had retained legal counsel. Previously, Gregory McMichael could not be reached for comment, and Travis McMichael had declined to comment, citing the investigation.

Gregory McMichael is a former officer with the Glynn County Police Department, and until his retirement last year, he spent many years as an investigator in the local district attorney’s office.

Gregory McMichael, left, and his son Travis McMichael.Credit...Glynn County (Ga.) Detention Center, via Associated Press

Akeem Baker, 26, Mr. Arbery’s longtime friend who has been watching the case closely, said on Thursday night that he felt an “ounce of joy.”

“But I’m still uneasy,” he added. “It’s a small win, you know, but I feel like we still got to continue to push forward to get justice. To make sure everybody involved are held accountable.”

S. Lee Merritt, a lawyer representing Mr. Arbery’s family, said that Mr. Arbery’s mother, Wander Cooper, was grateful the police had made the arrests.

“She was very relieved,” Mr. Merritt said. “She remained very stoic as she has during this entire process. I believe that she is holding out for a conviction for these men.”

Jacey Fortin and Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs contributed reporting.