Ahmaud Arbery's Final Run in a Neighborhood Where 911 Calls Had Piled Up

  • In US
  • 2020-05-17 15:43:21Z
  • By The New York Times
Ahmaud Arbery\
Ahmaud Arbery\'s Final Run in a Neighborhood Where 911 Calls Had Piled Up  

BRUNSWICK, Ga. - For many residents of Satilla Shores, a subdivision in coastal Georgia, their waterfront neighborhood is paradise without pretension.

Several of the homes are low-slung ranches of 20th-century vintage, more cozy than fancy, and shaded by dramatic, moss-draped oaks. Some backyards are bordered by the Little Satilla River, a lazy on-ramp to a stunning jigsaw puzzle of waterways and wetlands stretching to the Atlantic Ocean.

But by mid-February, concerns about property crimes were mounting. Cars had been broken into. Guns had been stolen. One house under construction on Satilla Drive, the neighborhood's main street, had been the subject of at least three emergency calls about potential trespassing.

On Feb. 23, there would be two more trespassing calls at the partially built house. The final call began with the sound of screams and shotgun blasts.

Ahmaud Arbery, 25, an avid jogger, was seen on camera going into the house that afternoon. No one knows why, but in one theory that emerged Friday, the property owner suggested that Arbery may have visited the house to get water before continuing to jog.

Minutes after his visit to the house Feb. 23, Arbery, who was black, was chased down by two armed white men, a father and son, and killed, a shooting that was captured in a graphic cellphone video. In a case that has drawn national attention and inspired protests, in part because of the racial dimension and because more than two months passed without arrests, the men have since been charged with murder.

On Saturday, former President Barack Obama made reference to the case while addressing graduates of historically black colleges. Speaking of "the underlying inequalities" that black communities face, he added, "we see it when a black man goes for a jog, and some folks feel like they can stop and question and shoot him if he doesn't submit to their questioning."

Also on Saturday, protesters gathered in Brunswick to call for the arrest of the man who took the cellphone video.

On Friday, Franklin Hogue, a lawyer for the father, Gregory McMichael, said that as more facts came to light, it would become clear that his client did not commit murder. "The truth will reveal that this is not just another act of violent racism," he said.

But some things are clear. Arbery, who lived on the other side of a four-lane highway in a traditionally black community called Fancy Bluff, took his final run across a stretch of South Georgia terrain marked by historic - though increasingly blurred - racial boundary lines and onto a street where neighbors were vigilant and apparently on edge.

There are only five streets in Satilla Shores and only two ways in by car. Since 2012, Tony Shaw, who is black, has lived next to one of the entrances. He did not see Arbery jog past on that February afternoon, but he said he was not surprised that his white neighbors would eventually take note of Arbery's presence.

"They're not used to seeing a lot of black faces around here," he said.

Shaw said that his was the second black family to move into Satilla Shores, about 35 years ago. An Air Force veteran, he had been stationed elsewhere at the time, but he moved into the house eight years ago. His white neighbors give friendly waves, he said, though he winces at the sight of a Confederate flag he said the man next door often displays on a backyard pole.

Francisco Duran, 28, rented a Satilla Shores ranch house a few months ago. He and his wife, who are raising two small children, like the relative quiet of the place. But Duran, a truck driver of Puerto Rican and Dominican descent, said the neighbors can be chilly.

When he waves from his yard, he said, "a lot of people don't even wave back to us."

For much of his life, Arbery lived with his mother in a small house with white siding and a cheerful blue door, about 2 miles from Satilla Shores. To get to Satilla Shores, Arbery had to cross U.S. Route 17, a four-lane highway that sends vacationers east toward the beach resorts and cream-colored sands of Jekyll Island.

For years, the highway served as a kind of man-made barrier between black and white worlds. But over the last couple of decades, some of those distinctions have begun to blur.

White people began moving to Fancy Bluff, a community of small homes, many of them newer and lining tidy, quiet streets.

Across the street from Arbery's house, Jennifer Bolin, 53, emerged from her crowded garage on a sunny afternoon last week. A "Don't Tread on Me" flag flew over the front lawn. Bolin, who is white, spoke of Arbery tenderly. She recalled his love of running, the way he did pullups on a tree limb in the yard, and the gentle way he played with his toddler nephews outside. And she spoke with pride of her neighborhood's diversity.

Another neighbor, Kevin Flowers, 53, said that he had lived in Fancy Bluff for 13 years. Flowers, who is black, said he had never considered Satilla Shores, across the highway, to be intimidating or off-limits. In fact, he said, he had a cousin who lived in Satilla Shores for a while, and Flowers did not think twice when his son used to walk over and visit.

Satilla Shores is a mixed bag of blue- and white-collar retirees, young working-class families, lifelong residents and transplants from northern states. Some homes have weedy lawns and old vehicles and old boats in their yards. Some are pristine.

And like any neighborhood, Satilla Shores has had its share of vigilance, wariness and nuisance. Beginning in October, residents called 911 at least 86 times, reporting suspicious people, suspicious vehicles and numerous instances of possible trespassing, according to police records.

On New Year's Day, one of the men who would later pursue Arbery called 911 to report a theft. The man, Travis McMichael, 34, told police that a Smith & Wesson 9-mm pistol had been stolen from his unlocked Ford pickup truck. He said that his father, Gregory McMichael, 64, had moved the truck that morning but had not locked it.

Another neighbor on the block, who declined to be identified because she did not want to be caught up in the controversy around Arbery's killing, said in an interview in mid-April that family vehicles had been broken into three times beginning in late October.

But it was the unfinished property five doors down from McMichael's house that was subject to recurring episodes of unauthorized entries - the last of which would occur moments before the McMichaels armed themselves and chased down Arbery.

The property at 220 Satilla Dr., with its riverfront backyard, is the dream project of a man named Larry English, who lives out of town and had been hoping to build what his lawyer, J. Elizabeth Graddy, has called "a peaceful refuge" on the water. English became seriously ill with a lung disease, and the treatment kept him away from the project beginning in late December.

In recent days, English's lawyer has released videos that show people going into and through the house. Most of the videos appear to show what could be the same man - young, fit and African American - wandering around it.

Graddy said that nothing was ever taken from the property.

The first video was from Oct. 25, when English called 911 at 10:04 p.m. to report that a black man with tattoos had entered the property.

On Nov. 17, English's security cameras captured a white man and white woman entering the house together. The next night, cameras captured a young black man again.

The following day, Graddy said, English met a next-door neighbor named Diego Perez, who eventually texted English about the episodes and offered his help. "Goodness," Perez wrote. "If you catch someone on your cameras, let me know right away, I can respond in mere seconds."

The same young black man reappeared on a video on Dec. 17. And again on Feb. 11.

On that night, records show that Travis McMichael called 911 at 7:27 p.m. to report that a man was trespassing at English's house. McMichael, who said he had not seen the man before, told police he had "just chased him" and said he was in his truck waiting for officers to come to the scene.

Twelve days later, a man would call 911 to report a "black male running down the street." Sounding slightly breathless, he appeared to shout "Stop!" and "Travis!" before going silent for the rest of the four-minute call. Gunshots could be heard in the background.

On Friday, after a number of the videos were published by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the lawyers representing Arbery's family said that they could only confirm that Arbery was the man who appeared in one of the videos - the one taken on the day he was killed.

"There were frequently people on the construction site both day and night," they said in a statement Friday. "Ahmaud Arbery seems to be the only one who was presumed to be a criminal and ultimately the only one murdered based on that assumption."

After poring over the videos, English's lawyer on Friday proposed the theory that the young man who returned over and over to the house had done so to drink water.

"There is a water source at the dock behind the house as well as a source near the front of the structure," Graddy wrote. "Although these water sources do not appear within any of the cameras' frames, the young man moves to and from their locations."

In one angle, from Dec. 17, the man "appears to wipe his mouth and/or neck," the statement continued, and "what sounds like water can be heard. He walks out of the house, eases into a jog and disappears from view."

Graddy also released a Dec. 20 text message to her client that she said was from an officer in the Glynn County Police Department. The officer suggested that English call Gregory McMichael the next time his security cameras recorded an intruder.

This past week in Satilla Shores, there was a lingering sadness over Arbery's death, a weariness toward the demonstrators who have marched and run through, and a bitterness toward a national press corps that had descended on a little neighborhood that had rarely made the news.

A number of residents declined to give their names or talk. The properties around English's house were festooned with "No Trespassing" signs.

One house across the street had a sign in the yard that read, "We Run with Maud," a popular slogan of solidarity for Arbery.

English, through his lawyer, has said he is having second thoughts about moving to the neighborhood. He said he had received death threats and would not feel safe.

For weeks, Wanda Cooper-Jones, Arbery's mother, has said she could barely stand to go into the small house she shared with her son across the highway.

This past week, there was a "For Sale" sign out front.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

© 2020 The New York Times Company


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