Twelve days before Ahmaud Arbery was fatally shot while jogging on a residential street in Georgia, the father and son charged with his murder confronted the 25-year-old at a house under construction, a neighbor has claimed.
Diego Perez, a resident in the Satilla Shores neighborhood of Brunswick, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution he accompanied Gregory McMichael, 64, and his son Travis McMichael, 34, on a Feb. 11 search of a home under construction—where the pair allegedly confronted a young black man.
Perez, who was one of the first neighbors on the scene of Arbery’s Feb. 23 death, now says he believes Arbery was the man the trio chased away.
“All we knew about him was that he was the guy who kept showing up on our cameras,” Perez said. “No one knew who it was.”
The McMichaels are facing murder and aggravated assault charges for the slaying that many have described as a “lynching.” The young man’s death and the handling of his case spurred a national outcry and a Department of Justice investigation days after graphic footage emerged of the shooting on the residential street just outside the port city of Brunswick.
Those charges came more than two months after Arbery, who was unarmed, died and after the case was bounced to three local prosecutors—two of whom are currently under investigation—before it was deferred to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
The two white men, who said they were chasing Arbery along the tree-lined road because they suspected him of being a burglar, are being held at Glynn County jail. Authorities have said there were no break-ins reported in the more than seven weeks prior to Arbery’s death.
“Hate crimes can no longer be tolerated in Georgia,” Georgia State Rep. Gloria Frazier said Tuesday evening, before calling for the passage of a hate-crime law in the state. “There will be no more Ahmaud Arbery deaths. We will not tolerate any more of this. We have sat back too long and watched so many of our young black men be murdered down in the street.”
According to Perez, the previously unknown Feb. 11 confrontation happened shortly after the owner of the home that’s under construction, Larry English, asked him to check on the property. English, who had a motion-sensor security system on the Satilla Shores property, was two hours away and texted a video showing someone on the property to Perez—who lived nearby and had offered to look after the site.
Perez said he was armed as he walked up Satilla Drive that night, where he saw Travis McMichael driving up from the opposite direction. McMichael told him he’d seen a young black man and confronted him.
“Travis saw him in the yard and Travis stopped,” Perez told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “He confronted [the man] halfway into the yard. He said [the man] reached for his waistband, and Travis got spooked and went down the road.”
Perez said that when McMichael returned moments later, he was accompanied by his father, a former police officer and investigator with a local prosecutor’s office. While it is not immediately clear if the father and son confronted the man again that night, Perez said that the police were called.
The next time Perez saw that young man was on Feb. 23 after he had already been shot and was lying on the pavement, he said.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution said it obtained audio from the night of the Feb. 11 encounter that captured Travis McMichael telling a 911 dispatcher that he had “caught a guy running into a house” under construction. He said he had “never seen this guy before in the neighborhood” but was “startled” by his presence, according to the Journal-Constitution.
“When I turned around and saw him and backed up, he reached into his pocket and ran into the house. So I don’t know if he’s armed or not. But he looked like he was acting like he was,” McMichael was quoted as telling the dispatcher.
A police report written up after the incident said English, the owner of the home under construction, had been having problems with trespassing on the property, and that security cameras had shown a black man walking around that night. But English later said nothing was stolen.
Ben Crump, the lawyer representing Arbery's family, told The Daily Beast on Wednesday his office was aware of rumors of the Feb. 11 incident. He stressed that the confrontation wasn’t out of the realm of possibility because “Ahmaud ran that route frequently.”
“There was no crime against somebody going into a construction site,” Crump said, adding that investigators, and the McMichaels, have tried to “unjustifiably assassinate his character.”
Authorities say the fatal encounter happened minutes after a man believed to be Arbery was seen on surveillance footage wandering around that same construction site. In a video first obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a black man wearing a T-shirt and shorts can be seen entering the same house under construction for approximately three minutes before leaving.
“Ahmaud did not take anything from the construction site,” lawyers representing Arbery’s family said in a Saturday statement, stressing that the video proves Arbery did nothing wrong. “He did not cause any damage to the property. He remained for a brief period of time and was not instructed by anyone to leave but rather left on his own accord to continue his jog. Ahmaud’s actions at this empty home under construction were in no way a felony under Georgia law."
In a CNN interview Tuesday night, English stressed that he never reported a crime after the surveillance video picked up somebody on his property on Feb. 23—and that by the time he had seen the video, Arbery had already been killed.
“I don't want it to be put out and misused and misinterpreted for people to think that I had accused Mr. Arbery of stealing or robbery because I never did,” English said on CNN’s Cuomo PrimeTime.