Text messages show how Glynn County Police Chief reacted shortly after Ahmaud Arbery shooting

BRUNSWICK, Ga. – Four hours after police officers found 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery bleeding out in the middle of the Satilla Shores neighborhood in Glynn County, Georgia, the then-police chief John Powell sent a frantic text message to the county manager.

“Gunshot – 219 Satilla Dr – Officer called the scene of construction site with male trespassing.” Powell wrote in all caps. “Officer arrived and heard shots fired.”

There was no mention of a burglary in the text message, even though Arbery’s mother says the day of the shooting she was told her son was shot by a homeowner in the middle of him burglarizing a home.

In a letter from the second district attorney involved in the case, he told the Georgia Attorney General there was “video of Arbery burglarizing a home” before the neighbors chased him. No such video is known to exist.

In his text message, Powell told the county manager who the suspects were in the shooting and that officers had video.

“The suspect in the shooting is Greg McMichael’s son. Greg is a retired District Attorney investigator,” said Powell. “The [black male] is dead on scene. Partial video of the incident.”

Video released months after the shooting, showed Arbery was shot and killed during a struggle over the shotgun Travis McMichael brought out of the truck with him. According to the police report, Greg McMichael said he and his son saw Arbery running past their home, got their guns, got in their trucks and tried to find him in the neighborhood.

The men followed behind a running Arbery for more than four minutes, records show. Investigators say another neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan tried to cut Arbery off several times.

Lawyer: Requests denied for personnel file of former DA investigator involved in Ahmaud Arbery killing

More than a month after the shooting, on April 6, police still had not arrested Travis or Gregory McMichael, but Police Chief Jay Wiggins emailed the police departments Professional Standards Manager, Stephen Sarnoski, and requested he review the Ahmaud Arbery case file and ”and render an opinion as to if the police department acted correctly.”

The letter was not immediately available for our review.

The next day the second prosecutor appointed to the case, George Barnhill, recused himself from the case after Arbery’s mother expressed concern with his conflict of interest. According to his letter to the Attorney General, his son worked in the Brusnwick District Attorneys office with Greg McMichael and even worked on a case prosecuting Arbery before.

Barnhill also told officers the day after the deadly shooting that he didn’t see any grounds for arresting Travis McMichael, his father Greg McMichael or their neighbor Roddie Byran.

May 5 everything changed for the case.

MORE | Background on Ahmaud Arbery case

Radio station WGIG was given a cellphone video of part of the shooting of Arbery. The attorney for Roddie Bryan confirmed he was the one filming the incident.

Three days after radio station WGIG published the video, Glynn County commissioners were preparing a public statement.

In an email obtained by News4Jax, Commissioner David O’Quinn asked the new interim police chief in an email who determined the McMichaels were not a flight risk the day of the shooting.

Wiggins told commissioners the decision was made during a conversation between one of his detectives and a district attorney working in the Camden office for District Attorney Jackie Johnson.

“DA Bridges who spoke with Sgt. Oliver and asked her if they were a flight risk, it would have been her opinion, she felt they were not,” said Wiggins.

In a text message, Commissioner David O’Quinn suggested calling in an agency to do an outside investigation. It had already been two months since the county manager learned of the shooting and the possible conflict of interest for the police department investigating one of their former officers.

“I think we should request an outside investigation of the handling of this case. The GBI or maybe even federal. It appears to me that it is about to be a finger-pointing contest, and regardless who is correct, we need to make sure of the facts. An outside investigation will provide legitimacy to the facts, and I believe that we will need all the help we can when all of this comes out,” wrote O’Quinn.

The GBI had already been requested to investigate the public release of the video and more than a week before commissioners discussed calling in an outside investigator to investigate the death of Ahmaud Arbery they requested GBI investigate threats against the Glynn County Police Department and others involved in the investigation.

Records obtained by the News4Jax I-TEAM show the county tasked their police public information officer with tracking threats being sent to neighbors in Satilla Shores and to county officials.

It wasn’t until after the video was released on May 5 that District Attorney Tom Durden formally requested the GBI investigate the death of Ahmaud Arbery.

Gregory McMichael, 64, and Travis McMichael, 34, were arrested May 7 on charges of felony murder and aggravated assault. Bryan was charged with felony murder and criminal attempt to commit false imprisonment.

Glynn County Magistrate Court Judge Wallace E. Harrell set a preliminary hearing for June 4. The judge will determine whether authorities had sufficient evidence to charge the McMichaels and Bryan in Arbery’s death.

About the Author:

Kelly Wiley, an award-winning investigative reporter, joined the News4Jax I-Team in June 2019.