Ahmaud Arbery: Bittersweet celebrations held in slain jogger’s memory following murder arrests

BRUNSWICK, Ga. — Ahmaud Arbery would have celebrated his 26th birthday Friday.

Instead, people across the country, both loved ones and strangers, participated in protests and memorial runs to honor the former athlete and avid jogger, who was gunned down Feb. 23 as he went on a run through a predominantly white neighborhood near his Brunswick home.

At least one armed resident was also spotted Friday in the Satilla Shores neighborhood, providing protection for protesters visiting the site of Arbery’s death.

>> Related story: Arrests made as family of slain Georgia jogger Ahmaud Arbery demands justice

Georgia Bureau of Investigation officials spent the morning updating the public on Thursday’s arrests of the father and son accused of chasing and killing Arbery. The men told police they suspected Arbery was responsible for several recent break-ins in the neighborhood.

Travis James McMichael, 34, is charged with felony murder and aggravated assault in Arbery’s slaying. His father, Gregory Johns McMichael, 64, is charged as a party to felony murder and aggravated assault.

Each is being held without bond.

Watch footage of the arrests below, courtesy of Action News Jax.

Both men, who claimed Travis McMichael acted in self-defense, were being held Friday morning in the Glynn County Detention Center.

The charges brought praise from Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp.

“I applaud @GBI_GA Director Vic Reynolds and his agents for their swift action,” Kemp tweeted Thursday night. “Justice will be served.”

The Georgia NAACP also issued a statement in which its leaders said that “hate in any form will not be tolerated in Georgia.” Organization leaders plan to be present for the McMichaels’ trials.

Watch Travis and Gregory McMichael appear in court for the first time below, courtesy of WRDW in Augusta.

>> Related story: Video emerges of black jogger killed by two white men; case heads to grand jury

“The arrest of Ahmaud’s murderers is one step in a long pursuit of justice," the statement read. “They should have been arrested on day one. However, we are grateful for this small win nevertheless.”

Activist Shaun King on Friday shared a text message that Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper Jones, sent her attorney, Lee Merritt. In it, she wrote that she was tired but relieved that arrests had been made, and she thanked both Merritt and King.

Today is Ahmaud’s birthday. Woke up to this text that his dear mother sent @leemerrittesq. So grateful that we got just a chance to give her just a small bit of relief on the day her baby boy was born.

Posted by Shaun King on Friday, May 8, 2020

“So grateful that we got just a chance to give her just a small bit of relief on the day her baby boy was born,” King wrote on Facebook.

Graphic cellphone footage of Arbery’s slaying, which sparked nationwide outrage this week, shows the younger McMichael wielding the shotgun that killed Arbery as he went for a run in the Satilla Shores subdivision. Gregory McMichael, armed with a .357 Magnum handgun, is seen standing in the bed of his son’s truck.

“This should have occurred the day it happened,” Akeem Baker, one of Arbery’s close friends, told The Associated Press about the arrests. “There’s no way without the video this would have occurred. I’m just glad the light’s shining very bright on this situation.”

Click here to see the footage of Ahmaud Arbery’s fatal shooting. Warning: The footage is graphic in nature.

Anger over Arbery’s killing -- and the delay in charges in what activists have described as a “modern-day lynching” -- had been building steadily since February, even as would-be protesters saw their hands tied due to the coronavirus pandemic and stay-at-home orders. The public anger stemmed, in part, from the fact that Gregory McMichael, a former Glynn County police officer, had retired last year after 34 years as an investigator for the Brunswick Judicial District Attorney’s Office.

Arbery’s family and friends argued that the McMichaels had not been arrested in his killing because of Gregory McMichael’s ties to law enforcement. His former boss, Brunswick District Attorney Jackie Johnson, recused her office from the investigation in the aftermath of the shooting.

According to the Brunswick News, Glynn County Commissioner Peter Murphy alleged Friday that Johnson recused herself only after she blocked Glynn County officers from arresting Gregory and Travis McMichael.

Murphy told the newspaper that Johnson turned the case over to Waycross Judicial Circuit prosecutor George Barnhill, who determined within 24 hours that charges would not be filed. A letter Barnhill wrote to Glynn County police officials appears to back Murphy’s claim.

Barnhill’s son works in Johnson’s office, according to that letter.

“We plan to continue in our demand of resignations and disbarment of both Jackie Johnson and George Barnhill, and we are committed to ensuring that both will never be elected district attorney in Georgia ever again,” the state NAACP’s statement read.

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Marches and in-person protests began earlier this week after Kemp relaxed some of the state’s COVID-19 restrictions. A crowd of people -- most of whom wore masks -- gathered Friday in Brunswick for a rally in Arbery’s name.

Amateur athletes across the country also put on their running shoes to “Run with Maud,” a rally cry that has gained traction since his death. The goal was to run 2.23 miles on his birthday to mark his Feb. 23 death.

Many participants posted images from their runs in his honor.

Merritt wished the slain man a happy birthday on Twitter.

“Your bravery in the face of death is humbling and inspiring,” Merritt wrote. “I pray the ancestors give us all the strength and courage to #fightlikeAhmaud.”

The simmering, raw emotions about the case boiled over Tuesday after video of the shooting, recorded by a third man who was with the McMichaels, was released anonymously online. According to the AP, local defense attorney Alan Tucker identified himself Thursday as the person who released the footage, though he did not say how he obtained it.

Tucker said he released the video “because (his) community was being ripped apart by erroneous accusations and assumptions,” the AP reported.

The cellphone footage appeared to contradict Gregory McMichael’s statement to police that Arbery had “violently attacked” his son prior to any gunfire.

In the video, Arbery is seen jogging toward Travis McMichael’s truck and running around it in an apparent effort to avoid the men. As he rounds the front of the truck, he appears to collide with Travis McMichael, who fires the first of three shotgun blasts.

Two more shots are fired during a struggle in which Arbery is seen fighting for his life, punching at Travis McMichael and trying to wrestle the gun from his grip. After the third blast, Arbery stumbles away from McMichael and collapses facedown onto the street.

A Glynn County police report shows that the first officers on the scene found Arbery “bleeding out” in the roadway.

Read the entire police report below.

Benjamin Crump, a civil rights attorney representing Arbery’s father, Marcus Arbery, said in a statement that it is outrageous that it took so long for charges to be filed against the McMichaels.

“This is the first step to justice,” Crump said, according to the AP. “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.”

GBI Director Vic Reynolds said during Friday’s news conference that his agency became involved around 9:30 p.m. Tuesday when the latest prosecutor assigned to the case, Tom Durden of the Atlantic Judicial Circuit, requested the state agency open a probe into the homicide.

“We hit the ground running pretty hard Wednesday morning,” Reynolds said.

By Thursday afternoon, GBI agents had obtained arrest warrants for both father and son.

See the entire news conference below, courtesy of WRDW.

The GBI director addressed the possibility of additional arrests, including that of William Bryan, the man who accompanied the McMichaels as they tracked down Arbery and recorded the fatal shooting. He confirmed that Bryan is under investigation.

“This case is an active, ongoing investigation,” Reynolds said. “In fact, once this press conference breaks today, these agents behind me and the agents in the crowd who are here today to observe are going to continue their investigation. They’re staying in this community, and they’re going to continue to work it.

“They’re going to go wherever the facts take them. If, in fact, the facts take them to make another arrest in this case, they will do that.”

During Friday’s news conference, Reynolds gave a brief rundown of investigative actions taken since Wednesday morning when GBI agents first received the case file from Durden.

“The agents spent the rest of that day poring through that file to make sure they understood what had been done in the case and what they thought needed to be done,” the director said.

The agents reviewed witness interviews late into the night Wednesday and, on Thursday morning, they began doing what they believed needed to be done next in the investigation. That included re-interviewing some people and talking to others who had not yet been spoken to.

“After the course of that investigation, yesterday about 5 p.m., we had a command staff-level conference call with the boots-on-the-ground agents here in Glynn County, and we were advised … that the facts had established sufficient probable cause to seek arrest warrants against both Gregory and Travis McMichael for felony murder and aggravated assault,” Reynolds said.

A Superior Court judge signed warrants for both men, and they were taken into custody without incident around 7:45 p.m. EST.

In addressing the prior investigations, Reynolds told reporters that he couldn’t say what another agency “did or did not see” when probing the case but said he is “pretty confident” in the case his agents have built since coming aboard.

“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 felony murder, I think that speaks volumes for itself that probable cause was clear to our agents pretty quickly,” Reynolds said.

Durden had initially determined he would take the case before a grand jury to determine if charges were appropriate in Arbery’s death. Merritt on Thursday told “Good Morning America” that a grand jury was unnecessary under the circumstances, particularly with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“Prosecutors will need a grand jury in order to formally indict these men, but that has nothing to do with actually going out and arresting the men seen on camera murdering a 25-year-old unarmed black man,” Merritt said. “The prosecutors actually have the option, if they so choose to, to directly indict and skip the entire grand jury process.

Watch Arbery’s family and their lawyers talk about the case below on Good Morning America.

“It’s something that happens all the time in our legal system and this would certainly be an appropriate moment as well.”

Durden is the third prosecutor assigned to handle the Arbery case. After Johnson removed herself and her staff from the probe, the case was turned over to Barnhill.

Barnhill ultimately recused himself as well, in part because his son works in Johnson’s office. Arbery’s family pressed for his recusal because of that connection to Gregory McMichael, as well as McMichael’s status as a retired investigator.

Georgia Attorney General then appointed Durden to take over the investigation.

In the letter recusing himself, however, Barnhill wrote to Glynn County police officials that he saw no grounds for the arrest of any of the three men who chased Arbery -- neither the McMichaels nor Bryan.

“It appears Travis McMichael, Gregory McMichael and (William Bryan) were following, in ‘hot pursuit,’ a burglary suspect, with solid firsthand probable cause, in their neighborhood, and asking/telling him to stop,” Barnhill wrote. “It appears their intent was to stop and hold this criminal suspect until law enforcement arrived. Under Georgia law, this is perfectly legal.”

Read Barnhill’s letter to police officials below.

Barnhill also wrote that the McMichaels were carrying their weapons in an open fashion and that neither had felony convictions prohibiting them from owning firearms.

NBC News reported last week that authorities had not linked Arbery to the string of alleged break-ins.

In addition, a 911 call placed by an unidentified neighbor on Feb. 23 indicates that the black man spotted in the neighborhood just prior to the shooting had not burglarized anything.

Action News Jax obtained the 911 call, the contents of which are seen below.

  • Caller: “There’s a guy in the house right now. It’s under construction.”
  • Dispatcher: “And you said someone’s breaking into it right now?”
  • Caller: “No, it’s all open. It’s under construction ... and there he goes right now.”
  • Dispatcher: “OK, what is he doing?”
  • Caller: “He is running down the street.”
  • Dispatcher: “That’s fine I will get police out there. I just need to know what he was doing wrong. Was he just on the premises and not supposed to be?”
  • Caller: “He has been caught on camera a bunch at night. It’s kind of an ongoing thing. The man building the house has got heart issues. I think he’s not going to finish it.”
  • Dispatch: “OK, that’s fine. And you said he was a male in a black T-shirt?”
  • Caller: “White T-shirt. Black guy, white T-shirt. He’s done run into the neighborhood again.”

According to the police report, the chase by the McMichaels began when Gregory McMichael saw Arbery jog by. He ran inside his house and got his son and their weapons.

Merritt told “Good Morning America” that he believes Barnhill should be brought up on ethics charges.

“I say that because he failed to disclose the fact that his family had close ties to the suspects in this case,” Merritt said.

On Friday, Reynolds extended his condolences to Arbery’s loved ones.

“We also want to take a moment to thank them. One of the last things you want to do in a circumstance of this nature on a case that’s been around for a period of time is to ask anybody, particularly a victim’s family, for patience,” Reynolds said. “It’s difficult to do. But they were gracious in extending that patience to us, and we appreciate that on behalf of the bureau.”

He also thanked the community of Brunswick for extending its own patience to agents investigating the homicide.

“We realize that emotions have run very high here for a period of time, and still are to a great extent,” Reynolds said. “We understand that, and we respect that.”

He said the agency and the government, all the way up to the governor’s office, is appreciative of the calm with which residents have awaited the outcome of the GBI investigation.

Reynolds acknowledged that the community is “emotionally worn pretty thin” at this point.

Kemp told reporters before the charges were filed that he was confident state investigators would find the truth of what happened, the AP reported.

“Earlier this week, I watched the video depicting Mr. Arbery’s last moments alive,” Kemp said. “I can tell you it’s absolutely horrific, and Georgians deserve answers.”

The governor was not the only official to speak out about Arbery’s death. Sen. Bernie Sanders spoke out this week, as did Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

President Donald Trump told Fox News he watched the tape, which he called “very, very disturbing.”

Trump said Arbery, whose photo in a tuxedo has been circulated online, looked like a good young man.

“My heart goes out to the parents and the family and the friends," Trump said. "It’s a heartbreaking thing, very rough, rough stuff.”

When asked about how he would solve racial killings like what apparently happened to Arbery, Trump expressed confidence in Kemp as a “very good governor” who would take care of the situation.

“Justice getting done is the thing that solves that problem. Again, it’s in the hands of the governor, and I’m sure he’ll do the right thing.”

Trump appeared to offer some wiggle room to the alleged killers, stating that “there could be something that we didn’t see on tape” before reiterating how “troubling” the video was. Listen to Trump’s remarks below.

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden described Arbery’s killing a murder and, during an online roundtable held Thursday, said the video shows Arbery being “lynched before our very eyes,” the AP reported.

In a tweet posted Tuesday, the former vice president called for a swift, full and transparent investigation.

“The video is clear: Ahmaud Arbery was killed in cold blood. My heart goes out to his family, who deserve justice and deserve it now,” Biden wrote.

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