The Georgia man who shot 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery while he was jogging on a residential street allegedly called him the n-word after the fatal incident, investigators said Thursday.
During a probable cause hearing in Brunswick on Thursday for three men accused in Arbery’s Feb. 23 slaying, Georgia Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Richard Dial revealed that Travis McMichael called Arbery a “fucking n---er” as Arbery lay on the ground with three gunshot wounds.
Dial said eyewitness and co-defendant William Bryan Jr., who has also been charged with murder, reported hearing the slur. It was also captured on video.
McMichael, 34, and his father Gregory, 64, are facing murder and aggravated assault charges for allegedly chasing down and killing Arbery. Bryan, the man who recorded the shocking viral video of Arbery’s death, was charged with felony murder and criminal attempt to commit false imprisonment. A judge ruled after Thursday’s preliminary hearing that there was enough evidence to proceed with trying the three men on murder charges.
The slaying—which many have described as a “lynching”—and the subsequent investigation prompted a Department of Justice investigation and triggered a national outcry that has spilled over into protests about the death of George Floyd.
The GBI alleges that on Feb. 23, the McMichaels and Bryan armed themselves with a shotgun and a .357 Magnum as they pursued a man they suspected of being involved in a string of break-ins in the Satilla Shores neighborhood.
Dial revealed new details on Thursday about the lead-up and aftermath of the shooting. He said that on Feb. 23, Arbery—who was often seen jogging in the neighborhood—had come out of a home under construction, without stealing anything, and continued jogging down a street about two miles from his home. (The construction site owner, Larry English, has previously said it it looked like Arbery was looking for water, according to motion sensor cameras.)
When Gregory saw Arbery “hauling ass” down their street in Satilla Shores, he called out to his son to help chase him, Dial said. Bryan was outside his residence at the time and got in his truck to assist in the pursuit.
At first, the three men tried several times to “pin” Arbery between their trucks, Dial said, pointing to DNA evidence from Arbery found on Bryan’s truck and witness statements. Each time, Arbery tried to run around the trucks, jump out of the way, or run in a different direction.
After several attempts to avoid the white pick-up truck—occupied by Gregory in the truck’s bed and Travis aiming his shotgun out the driver’s side door—Arbery changed directions and then made “a decision to engage” with Travis, Dial said.
Bryan’s now-infamous footage showed Arbery trying to evade the McMichaels’ truck one last time before a shot was fired. It hit Arbery in the chest, contradicting Travis’ claim that he shot Arbery’s hand during a struggle, Dial said. The footage showed Travis and Arbery getting into a scuffle. Arbery was then shot another two times by Travis, hitting his left armpit and right wrist.
“[Arbery] ran until he couldn’t run anymore. When he felt like he could not escape, he chose to fight,” Dial said.
The McMichaels told investigators they were commanding Arbery to “stop” throughout the pursuit, but Dial said they never called 911.
“Travis McMichael said he knew from 30 to 40 yards away that Arbery wasn’t going to surrender,” Dial said on Thursday.
McMichael, a 64-year-old former cop, admitted to investigators that he didn’t know whether a burglary had actually taken place before he decided to pursue Arbery, but he had a “gut feeling” the 25-year-old black man was a suspect, Dial said.
Gregory McMichael told investigators he was on the phone calling 911 when he heard shots fired. He claimed he told his son, “Don’t shoot,” as it was happening.
Dial said on Thursday that Travis had a Confederate sticker on his truck and had used the n-word many other times. Travis once wrote on Instagram that it would have been better “if they had blown that fucking n---ers head off.” He also once said he loved his job because he was on a boat and there were no “n---ers” anywhere.
Dial also alleged that Bryan had “very concerning” messages about race on his phone.
“There’s evidence of Mr. Bryan’s racist attitude in his communications, and from that I extrapolate the reason why he made assumptions he did that day,” he said in court. “He saw a man running down the road with a truck following him, and I believe he made certain assumptions that were, at least in part, based upon his racial bias.”
Outside the court, the Arbery family’s attorney S. Lee Merritt said the family was aware of the racial slur allegations but it was still painful to hear it. Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper Jones, left court early because some of the details were so upsetting.
“It was still very difficult to hear in the context of this prolonged chase—this hunt—that after he successfully murdered Ahmaud Arbery, he stood over his body and proclaimed a racial epithet like that,” Merritt said.
Neighbors in Satilla Shores had shared information with each other prior to Arbery’s death about people entering the unfinished construction site belonging to English, and about fishing and electronic equipment being stolen from English’s boat. Dial said on Thursday that several people had walked through the unfinished property, including Arbery, but didn’t take anything from it, apart from some kids who took pieces of wood.
Travis McMichael’s defense attorney Jason Sheffield, cross-examined Dial, asking questions about Arbery’s “mental history” and about indications the McMichaels were acting in self-defense.
Sheffield pointed out that Arbery tried to grab the driver’s side door of the McMichaels’ truck at one point, and that Travis told authorities he’d been struck by Arbery after the first shot was fired.
However, Dial said Travis had no visible injuries and Arbery was, he believed, attempting to do anything to escape being pursued by the three men.
“I don’t believe it was self defense by Mr. McMichael,” Dial said. “I believe it was self-defense by Mr. Arbery.”
Bryan’s 36-second video was released by Alan Tucker, a local criminal defense lawyer who had informally consulted with the McMichaels and wanted to dispel rumors about the incident that was fueling tensions in the Georgia suburb.
Bryan’s lawyer initially claimed he was just a witness. However, Dial said Bryan had since admitted that he pursued Arbery with the McMichaels and tried to block the 25-year-old several times.
The three men were arrested two months after Arbery’s shooting and only after the shocking video emerged. Prior to that, the case was bounced to three local prosecutors—two of whom are currently under investigation—before it was ultimately referred to the GBI. Local officials had argued Arbery’s death was “justifiable homicide.”
All three cases are now being handled by District Attorney Joyette Holmes of the Cobb County District Attorney’s Office.