I-85 Bridge Collapse: Basil Eleby, Homelessness and Disenfranchisement in Atlanta

Fulton Superior Court Judge Ural Glanville signed off on the release of Basil Eleby, the 39-year-old homeless man who plead not guilty to setting the fire that brought down a southbound portion of Interstate 85. Eleby was released on a $10,000 signature bond from the Fulton County jail and is now in the care of a Michael & Michael Counseling & Consulting, Substance Abuse Counselor under the condition that he receive residential drug and mental health treatment, become employed within 60 days, and steer clear of the scene of the collapse unless accompanied by his lawyers or their investigators.
Eleby is formally charged with felony arson and criminal damage to property for allegedly starting the fire under the bridge which eventually spread to flammable plastic conduits the Georgia Department of Transportation had been storing there for years.
The Georgia state fire marshal said the huge spools of plastic and fiberglass conduit stored under the bridge were petroleum based and that allowed the fire to spread so quickly.
“At this point we are still investigating everything,” says attorney Mawuli Davis, one of four attorneys including Gary Spencer, Tiffany Roberts and Lawrence Zimmerman, who make up Eleby’s legal defense team. A group of more than a dozen people and social justice/community organizations formed the Community Coalition in Support of Basil Eleby. Their first order of business: securing pro-bono legal defense, setting up a website and 800 number to disseminate information and receive tips related to the case. “We are looking to first allow Basil to settle in into his new environment with Michael & Michael counseling and consulting, and we are looking at everything that we have access to at this time. We have not received discovery in the case yet, we have not received everything that the state has. And so in the meantime, we’ve had a number of potential witnesses come forward with helpful information. It is going to take a while.”
There is also a federal investigation that is underway, assisted by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, that is probing a Downtown Connector crash and chemical spill which happened barely two weeks after the I-85 bridge collapse on March 30th.
“It is not a criminal investigation but we are very interested in seeing the result of that. I’m not sure when the investigation started – before or after Eleby being charged – but we know that it is not complete.”
And though establishing causation on the part of the GDOT – what the GDOT did or did not do, what was stored there, and for how long — is not compulsory to Eleby’s defense, it speaks to broader issues about how the state engages defendants of lesser means.
“The reason that this team of attorneys became involved was because this catastrophe was laid at the feet of this single man of very little means. He was very much so living at the margins of our society and he is very easy to target and scapegoat. When the coalition reached out to us and asked us to take up the case pro-bono we knew we had a moral and social responsibility to make sure that he would not be railroaded because of his socioeconomic status.”
Eleby’s arrest opens up larger conversations about homelessness in the city, Davis asserts.
“There are currently roughly 2,000 homeless individuals all sleeping under bridges and in otherwise difficult circumstances [in urban centers] and that is a reality that many people are living with. We also know that there are issues around substance abuse which is a public health concern and should be treated as such. Substance abusers are sick and should be helped and looked upon more compassionately; not criminalized for having a substance abuse problem.”
The team’s strategy is to speak up for the voiceless and work with community activists for the rights of the disenfranchised. “One of the things that I’m hoping people get from this is that there are people who are still committed to working in the interest of our community and not just allowing people who lie on the margins to live without support from others to face the complexity of issues we face as a city, state. And there’s a lot of positive that could come out of this. What was destroyed was a bridge but it is possible to build new bridges of humanity through this process … and that’s far more important than concrete structures.”
Eleby’s next court appearance is set for June 16.


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