A Georgia Bureau of Investigation official said Friday that there’s no plan to investigate the local prosecutors and law enforcement agencies that did not arrest or file charges against suspects Travis McMichael, 34, and his father Gregory McMichael, 64. The elder is a retired police detective who had worked for the district attorney’s office initially charged with prosecuting the case.
Two days after taking over the case, the GBI charged the McMichaels with murder and aggravated assault.
“They let us down — the chief of police, the police department, the prosecutors,” said Susan Kohler, a 54-year-old white woman who has lived in Glynn County for nearly a decade and rallied outside the courthouse Friday. “I think that all the good old buddies got together and nobody wanted to arrest their friend. He was a police officer. He was one of them. This was supposed to go away.”
District Attorney George E. Barnhill, a previous prosecutor on the case, had argued that the suspects’ actions were lawful because they were making a citizen’s arrest of a man they believed to be involved in area burglaries, and Arbery was shot in self-defense.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation is now conducting the investigation with District Attorney Tom Durden of the neighboring Atlantic Judicial Circuit, the third prosecutor on the case. When asked if his agency would expand its probe to the Glynn County Police Department or Barnhill’s office, GBI director Victor Reynolds replied: “It will only expand to what’s relevant to this murder investigation.”
The agency also is investigating the involvement of a third man, William Bryan, who recorded the video, according to Barnhill’s letter recusing himself from the case.
The GBI was put on the case hours after the video was leaked, showing the McMichaels using a pickup truck to corral Arbery. Arbery and the younger McMichael struggled over his shotgun before three shots were fired and the black man collapsed and died in the street.
Unlike other shootings of black people with racial overtones, the reaction to Arbery’s death spanned political and racial divides. Georgia’s Republican governor called the video horrific, former vice president Joe Biden likened it to a lynching and NBA superstar LeBron James tweeted “we are hunted everyday.”
While many viewed the video that led to the arrests this week, county police and three separate district attorneys saw it shortly after the shooting and didn’t seek arrest warrants. Adding fuel to the fury, the older McMichael had worked as an investigator for the Glynn County district attorney’s office for two decades and, before that, as a county police officer.
Will Day, 25, of Brunswick, who had known Arbery since first grade, said the revelations about law enforcement agencies refusing to act on arrestable evidence continued to vex him, even after the murder charges.
“If I had done something like that, if I had shot somebody, I’m pretty sure I would have my justice served to me the same day,” said Day, who is black. Since Arbery’s death he said he’s “just been staying in the house. It used to be enough just to stay out of trouble and keep your nose clean.”
Arbery’s family and friends said the former high school football player was an avid jogger, and it was not uncommon for him to run in Satilla Shores, a marsh-side enclave lined with Spanish moss-covered trees that is a 15-minute drive from downtown Brunswick and a quick trot from Arbery’s house.
On Feb. 23, Gregory McMichael saw Arbery running through the neighborhood and suspected that he was responsible for a string of recent burglaries, according to a police report. A local news report found only one burglary in the neighborhood was reported to police between Jan. 1 and Feb. 23, involving a pistol taken from a pickup truck outside of Travis McMichael’s home.
He called for his son, Travis McMichael, and the pair hopped into a pickup truck and gave chase — the son armed with a rifle, the father carrying a .357 magnum. At some point they were joined by another man, Bryan, who helped corner the black man and later recorded the fateful video.
McMichael told police that he shouted to Arbery, “Stop, stop, we want to talk to you.” Then, according to their statements, they pulled up beside him and Travis McMichael got out.
The younger McMichael and Arbery struggled over the rifle on the side of the street, before three blasts rang out.
Responding officers did not recover a weapon from the fatally wounded man or any stolen goods. They found Gregory McMichael with blood on his hands from flipping over Arbery as he bled out.
Before his arrest, Gregory McMichael told The Post, “There are many, many facts out there that have not come to light.”
“This is all based on the video and newspaper story,” he said. “All the stuff that led up to that still hasn’t been released.”
He referred questions to an attorney, who did not return an email requesting comment on the case.
Barnhill, of nearby Waycross, took the case, but he later recused himself under pressure from Arbery’s mother, according to Barnhill’s letter to the Glynn County Police Department announcing his recusal. She raised concerns that Barnhill’s son used to work with Gregory McMichael in the Brunswick District Attorney’s Office.
But on his way out, Barnhill took the unusual step of telling law enforcement he did not see grounds for the arrests of the McMichaels or Bryan, citing Georgia’s citizen’s arrest and self-defense statutes.
“It appears their intent was to stop and hold this criminal suspect until law enforcement arrived,” Barnhill wrote. “Under Georgia Law this is perfectly legal.”
But several legal experts say Barnhill’s application of the state’s citizen’s arrest law is flawed. That statute states a private person may arrest an offender “if the offense is committed in his presence or within his immediate knowledge,” or under reasonable grounds of suspicion if the crime is a felony.
“There is a major legal difference between a citizen who makes an arrest and a vigilante. This was a far cry from a lawful arrest, and the citizen’s arrest defense is very likely meritless,” said Duncan Levin, a criminal defense attorney and former federal prosecutor in New York. “The killers are going to have a hard time offering a sufficient legal justification, particularly since they did not see Arbery commit any crime. Arbery was unarmed, chased down, and then shot and killed without any opportunity for justice in a court of law. This sounds a lot more like murder than an arrest.”
Levin said it was both unusual and “inappropriate in every way” for Barnhill to opine about a case he had recused himself from.
“It further solidifies this appearance of impropriety, that he would be using his office to turn into a defense attorney on behalf of people who just shot an unarmed man in the street while he was jogging.”
At a news conference detailing the arrests, the head of the GBI and the district attorney prosecuting the murder case would not delve into whether they believed Barnhill or other people assigned to the case had behaved inappropriately or illegally.
Reynolds was reluctant to comment on what the Glynn County Police Department may have missed in its initial investigation of the case in February.
“I can’t answer for what another agency did or didn’t see, Reynolds said. “But I can tell you that based on our involvement in this case — considering the fact that we hit the ground running Wednesday morning and within 36 hours we had secured warrants for two individuals for murder — I think that speaks volumes in itself.”
Lee Merritt, an attorney for Arbery’s family, said Barnhill’s letter “criminalized the victim, painted him as an immensely unstable criminal.”
In 2013, Arbery was arrested for bringing a loaded gun to a high school basketball game and fleeing from police.
In a separate letter to the state attorney general’s office recusing himself from the case, Barnhill said that his son had worked with Greg McMichael for several years and “both helped with the previous prosecution of Arbery.”
In addition to Merritt, Arbery’s family also is working with attorney Ben Crump, who represented the family of Trayvon Martin after the teen’s fatal encounter with George Zimmerman.
For months, the family has insisted that their son did nothing wrong and called for the arrest of the McMichaels — calls that went mostly unheeded until this week, said Jason Vaughn, who coached Arbery on the Brunswick High football team.
“You got to think about the family that’s been trying to tell people, you know, for like 90 days almost now,” Vaughn said. “Imagine them, you know, just yelling into the wind like ‘hey, something’s wrong, something’s wrong, something’s wrong’ — and nobody listening to them.”
“We had a lot of faith in our policing agencies,” Vaughn added. “We had no idea that this problem existed in our community. There’s a system in place that’s supposed to protect citizens and I want to believe that system treats people equally under the law.”