BRUNSWICK, Ga. -- The father and son from Glynn County arrested Thursday evening in connection to the death of Ahmaud Arbery, who was shot and killed while jogging on a residential street in south Georgia back in February, were denied bond at a court appearance on Friday.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation arrested Gregory McMichael, 64, and Travis McMichael, 34, for the death of Arbery. Both are charged with murder and aggravated assault. They were booked into the Glynn County jail Thursday evening.
Friday, father and son stood quietly Friday as the judge read murder and aggravated assault charges against them in the fatal shooting of a black man who was running through their Georgia neighborhood. In just a few minutes, their first court appearance was over. It was a moment that many in Ahmaud Arbery's community had waited more than two months for, as a series of prosecutors declined to bring charges against the men.
The 25-year-old was killed on Feb. 23 along Satilla Drive near Holmes Drive in Glynn County, according to a police report obtained by FOX 5 Atlanta. His family said he was out for a Sunday afternoon jog.
According to an incident report filed by Glynn County police, Arbery was shot after the two men spotted him running in their neighborhood on a Sunday afternoon. Gregory McMichael told police that he and his adult son thought the runner matched the description of someone caught on a security camera committing a recent break-in in the neighborhood. They armed themselves with guns before getting in a truck to pursue him.
That was 53 days after the last reported break-in in the Satilla Shores neighborhood, according to police records. FOX 5 Atlanta obtains all reports for such incidents in the neighborhood from December 2019 through mid-March of this year. In all, there are three: December 8, 2019, December 28, and January 1.
On Dec. 8th, a Satilla Shores neighbor reported rifles stolen from their unlocked car.
Police records note the incident on the 28th as a "theft."
On January 1, Travis James McMichael filed a report of a firearm stolen from his truck.
The father said his son, Travis McMichael, got out of the truck holding a shotgun, and Arbery “began to violently attack.” He said Arbery was shot as the two men fought over the shotgun, according to the police report.
After Arbery was shot, the police report says, Gregory McMichael turned him onto his back to see if he was armed. The report doesn’t say whether he had a weapon, but it was later determined he did not.
Arrest warrants for Gregory and Travis McMichael filed in court Friday confirmed, as the initial police report stated, that Travis McMichael "pointed and discharged a shotgun ... at Ahmaud Arbery." But there were no new details.
The felony murder charges against the McMichaels mean that a victim was killed during the commission of an underlying felony, in this case aggravated assault. The charge doesn't require intent to kill. A murder conviction in Georgia carries a minimum sentence of life in prison, either with or without parole.
The national spotlight had been shown on the case after a cellphone video surfaced reportedly showing the shooting death. The video, initially posted by a Brunswick radio station, shows a black man running at a jogging pace on the left side of a road. A truck is parked in the road ahead of him. One man is inside the pickup’s bed, and another is standing beside the open driver’s side door.
The runner crosses the road to pass the pickup on the passenger side, then crosses back in front of the truck. A gunshot sounds, and the video shows the runner grappling with a man in the street over what appears to be a shotgun or rifle. A second shot can be heard, and the runner can be seen punching the man. A third shot is fired at point-blank range. The runner staggers a few feet and falls face down.
Some of the encounter was apparently recorded in two 911 calls, with a dispatcher trying to understand the problem.
"There's a black male running down the street," a caller says.
"I just need to know what he was doing wrong," the dispatcher responds, in part.
In a second call six minutes later, someone can be heard yelling "Stop. ... Dammit. Stop." Then, after a pause, "Travis!"
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation held a news conference Friday morning announcing the arrests on murder and aggravated assault charges. The GBI director said the viral video of the actual shooting was helpful, but he based his case on the evidence.
"We based our decisions on two things, one are facts and the other is the law. Whatever the facts are we apply the law. I am very comfortable in telling you there is more than sufficient cause for felony murder, " the director said with confidence.
"All that matters is what the facts tell us," Reynolds continued, saying "every stone will be uncovered."
Addressing the question of racial intent, Reynolds noted that Georgia has no hate crime law. That has prompted many civil rights activists to call for a federal investigation.
In a letter to Glynn County police in early April, a prosecutor previously assigned to the case outlined reasons he believed there was "insufficient probable cause to issue arrest warrants" in the case. Waycross District Attorney George E. Barnhill argued that the McMichaels' actions were legal under Georgia laws on citizen's arrests, the open carry of guns and self-defense.
Gregory McMichael retired last year as an investigator for Glynn County District Attorney Jackie Johnson, and the connection caused her to recuse herself. Barnhill then got the case before recusing himself under pressure from Arbery's family because his son works in Johnson's office.
The Waycross Circuit District Attorney recused himself from the case. George E. Barnhill has worked as a criminal prosecutor for 36 years.
Wanda Cooper Jones, the victim’s mother, insisted Barnhill had a conflict of interest. Barnhill’s son works in the Brunswick District Attorney’s Office that Greg McMichael worked in as an investigator and later retired from.
Barnhill's letter to Glynn County Police has gotten national attention because in it he justifies the deadly shooting of the unarmed jogger, by two white men.
The longtime prosecutor wrote, "We do not see grounds for an arrest of any of the three parties."
It goes on to say "Travis McMichael, his father Greg McMichael and the man who he says shot the video, Bryan Williams were following in "hot pursuit", a burglary suspect, with solid firsthand probable cause." Attorneys for the 25-year-old's family said he was not a burglary suspect, but rather a jogger who was shot down in a modern-day lynching.
"It screams out for investigation," former federal prosecutor Bret Williams remarked.
The former assistant US attorney viewed the video and believe it shows the two men with guns as the attackers, not the jogger.
"Are you suppose to just sit down and be executed? If someone shows up to me with a gun and is pursuing me and gets out with a gun...and I am now at fault because I tried to resist that attack?" the attorney questions.
Barnhill writes that the video in real-time shows Mr. Arbery "attacks" Travis McMichael, but the former federal prosecutor disagrees with DA Barnhill's conclusion.
National civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who represents the victim’s family, released the following statement following the arrests:
“It’s outrageous that it has taken more than two months for Ahmaud Arbery’s executioners to be arrested, but better late than never. This is the first step to justice. This murderous father and son duo took the law into their own hands. It’s a travesty of justice that they enjoyed their freedom for 74 days after taking the life of a young black man who was simply jogging. Yet, tomorrow, on Ahmaud’s birthday, his parents are denied the simple joy of celebrating with their son.”
Earlier in the day -- on what would have been Arbery's 26th birthday Friday -- a boisterous crowd of several hundred people, most wearing masks to protect against the coronavirus, gathered outside the Glynn County courthouse for about 90 minutes and sang "Happy Birthday" in his honor.
With the coronavirus dominating the news and drastically altering Americans' lives, Arbery's shooting initially drew little attention outside Brunswick, about 70 miles south of Savannah. The working-class port city of about 16,000 also serves as a gateway to beach resorts on neighboring St. Simons and Sea Islands.
The Satilla Shores neighborhood where Arbery was killed on Feb. 23 lies at Brunswick's edge, with comfortable brick and stucco homes nestled next to marshland. A wooden cross and flowers left as a memorial near the spot where Arbery died was decorated with foil birthday balloons Friday.
Though the arrests were welcomed, Arbery's family and their supporters expressed frustration at the long wait and fears that the justice system will fail them.
Arbery's mother, Wanda Cooper Jones, has said she thinks her son, a former high school football player, was just jogging in the Satilla Shores neighborhood before he was killed.
"They did not arrest the killers of Ahmaud Arbery because they saw the video," Arbery family attorney Ben Crump said Friday in an interview with The Associated Press. "They arrested the killers of Ahmaud Arbery because we saw the video, the public saw the video and it went viral. It was shocking. People were astonished."
Crump blasted the handling of the case by the local police and prosecutors, and said he wants the GBI to "investigate the entire case from top to bottom."
"All that matters is what the facts tell us," Georgia Bureau of Investigation Director Vic Reynolds said Friday, saying "every stone will be uncovered."
"The work is just beginning," John Perry, president of the Brunswick NAACP chapter, told the crowd gathered outside the courthouse Friday morning. "We can't stop now. We can't lose focus and we've got to make sure the prosecution gets done."
Anthony Johnson, 40, said Arbery was his neighbor for about a decade. He said he wants to see the McMichaels get the same treatment in the legal system as black defendants.
"Just arresting them, that ain't doing nothing," Johnson told the Associated Press. "We want them convicted. We want them sent to prison for life."
The GBI said the case remains open and under investigation. Anyone with information related to the case should contact the GBI at 1-800-597-TIPS (8477).