SATILLA SHORES, Ga. – One year after Ahmaud Arbery, 25, was chased and fatally shot while running in a Southeast Georgia neighborhood, his mother is still working to keep a promise she made to her son at his funeral.
“The day Ahmaud was laid to rest the last thing I said was I will find out what happened,” said Wanda Jones.
Jones, Arbery’s mother, has filed a lawsuit on her son’s behalf against the three men accused of murdering Arbery, the police department that investigated the incident and the first two prosecutors involved in the case.
On Tuesday, Jason Sheffield, one of the attorneys representing Travis McMichael, responded to the suit saying, “We understand the tragedy that has happened to them and we absolutely respect their right to move forward, using the laws of this state to try to do what they feel is right for themselves.”
The pursuit of Arbery began after he was seen coming out of an open home that was under construction in the coastal Georgia neighborhood of Satilla Shores, according to testimony by the Georgia Bureau of Investigations’ lead investigator.
Gregory McMichael, a former Glynn County police officer and retired Brunswick District Attorney investigator, told detectives he saw Arbery running while standing in his front yard and suspected he was a burglary suspect.
McMichael told investigators he went into his house to get his son, Travis McMichael. They grabbed their guns and began to chase after Arbery in their vehicle. Their neighbor, William Roddie Bryan, later joined in, chasing Arbery, blocking him with his vehicle and filming part of the interaction, according to GBI investigators.
After several minutes chasing Arbery, Travis McMichael got out of his vehicle with his shotgun and shot Arbery three times.
“It really breaks my heart. He was clueless. He didn’t know that he was being chased, and not only they were going to chase him, but they were going to kill him,” said Jones. “I just sit back, and I find myself in a stare for hours, in a deep trance, trying to make sense of it and I come out of it the same way I entered it, making no sense of it all.”
The three did not face arrest for weeks after the fatal shooting.
The lawsuit filed by Jones alleges that after the fatal shooting of Arbery, Glynn County police officers contacted the then-Brunswick District Attorney Jackie Johnson’s office regarding potential charges against her former district attorney investigator and his son.
The lawsuit alleges “Johnson’s office told Glynn County detectives that the Ware County District Attorney’s office would get back to them the following day, but that there was no need to arrest the McMichael’s at the time.”
Johnson denies the claims.
The lawsuit also alleges before officially being appointed as prosecutor on the case and less than 24 hours after the deadly shooting, Ware County Prosecutor George Barnhill concluded the act on Feb. 23 was a “justifiable homicide.” The lawsuit also alleges Barnhill wrote a “defamatory” memo to the Glynn County Police Department regarding the case.
Barnhill told News4Jax in an email Tuesday he had not seen the lawsuit and had “no comment.”
Before the case garnered nationwide attention, Arbery’s mother pushed for Barnhill to be removed from the case after finding out through social media his son worked as an assistant district attorney in the same Brunswick District Attorney office that employed Gregory McMichael before his retirement.
“I immediately called his office back and I spoke to the victims advocate and said hey do you not know his son is a member of Jackie Johnsons staff and she said she was clueless she did not know. I said well can you please tell Mr. Barnhill he cannot work this case because his son is working in Ms. Johnsons office. I also reached out to the attorney general’s office and shared my concerns there and a week later I got a call that he was recusing himself,” said Jones.
Jones described the weeks before the Georgia Bureau of Investigations took over the case as a ‘dark time,’ where calls to media and attorneys to look further into the case were fruitless.
“I would visit Brunswick because I had started preparing to move out of my home. I would ride by the McMichael’s home because I would visit where Ahmaud fell and what was most disturbing was they killed Ahmaud and they were still out using their boats, very leisurely, and they just took my son away,” said Jones. “I began to reach out to local media and COVID was just coming and they would say they heard about it but due to COVID restrictions they couldn’t come out. I mean it was a very, very dark for a little while.”
On May 6, a local radio station posted cellphone video of the shooting. The video had never been seen before by the public and catapulted the case to the national spotlight. Overnight, the video of the shooting sparked nationwide outrage over Arbery’s death.
“It was like God sent. It’s not what I wanted to see, but its what the world needed to see,” said Jones. “What was so surprising is that Glynn County Police Department saw the video, I mean, hours after it happened and they didn’t see anything wrong.”
Within days of the video being released the third district attorney assigned to the case requested the Georgia Bureau of Investigations take over the investigation. Within a day of taking over, the GBI announced the arrest of Travis and Greg McMichael for the murder of Ahmaud Arbery. Weeks later, neighbor William Roddie Bryan was also arrested in Arbery’s murder.
In May 2020, Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr requested the GBI open an investigation into the prosecutors who first handled the Arbery case. Attorney Lee Merritt said in June, the U.S. Department of Justice was weighing potential federal hate crimes charges against defendants in Arbery’s case.
Since the arrests, the Georgia attorney general has appointed the Cobb County District Attorney’s Office to take over the prosecution of the case. It’s the fourth office involved in the case since the shooting. In the preliminary and bond hearings for the case, prosecutors argued the incident leading to Arbery’s death was racially motivated citing derogatory terms used in text messages and social media posts of the defendants.
The legal team for Travis McMichael said in November their team had substantial evidence Mr. Arbery was not a jogger and was there for “nefarious purposes.”
“What was very uncomforting, at first, was when they were saying Ahmaud was a criminal. Ahmaud was a young man that several times in life he chose to make wrong decisions and that was very heartbreaking to know he was dead and they were still bringing up things he did as a young adult,” said Jones. “I had to refocus myself and realize on the day of February 23rd Ahmaud was not doing anything wrong and he was killed. So, regardless of what he did 10 years ago, 10 days ago, he wasn’t doing anything wrong on the 23rd of February.”