Murder of Ahmaud Arbery, claims of racism, cronyism thrusts Georgia town into national spotlight

A small segregated town in Southeast Georgia is divided -- and at the center of a national conversation about race -- after a white father and son with ties to local police and the prosecutor were arrested two months after allegedly gunning down an unarmed 25-year-old black man as he was jogging less than three miles from his mother's home.

Gregory McMichael, 64, and Travis McMichael, 34, were arrested Thursday night and charged with felony murder and aggravated assault in the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery in Satilla Shores, a sleepy enclave in Glynn County about 15 minutes from downtown Brunswick.

The case was thrust into the spotlight after a cellphone video allegedly shot by the McMichaels' neighbor William Bryan showing the Feb. 23 killing recently surfaced on social media, prompting outrage against the local authorities.

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Lee Merritt, a lawyer representing Arbery's family, told Fox News that the amount of time local authorities sat on evidence was staggering and underscored simmering prejudices.

"No family should wait 10 weeks for an arrest," he said. "That was extremely exhausting for the family. They began to lose hope."

On Friday, Georgia Bureau of Investigation Director Vic Reynolds also took a veiled swipe at the local police probe into Arbery's death.

"I can't answer what another agency did or didn't see but I can tell you that, based on our involvement in the case, considering the fact that we hit the ground running Wednesday morning and within 36 hours, we had secured warrants for two individuals for felony murder," he said. "I think that speaks volumes for itself and that probable cause was clear to our agents pretty quickly."

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Merritt said Arbery's mother, Wanda Cooper, had to move out of her home because it had been too painful to remain, and that the people in the community had taken sides largely along racial lines.

"Over the past two months, the majority of the community stood behind the McMichaels," he said. "They knew what happened. They were OK with it. That doesn't bode well for a fair trial."

The lawyer from Philadelphia also told Fox News he would be asking for a special prosecutor to handle the case and will ask the Department of Justice (DOJ) to consider federal charges against the McMichaels under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

Georgia is among a handful of states in the nation that does not have a hate crime law.

Over the past two months, the majority of the community stood behind the McMichaels. They knew what happened. They were OK with it. That doesn't bode well for a fair trial.

— Lee Merritt, a lawyer representing Arbery's family

Merritt also wants to have the case moved out of Brunswick -- an area he described as a "small city deeply entrenched in nepotism and cronyism" and one where white people living there know "law enforcement has their back," he said.

The investigation into Arbery's death has been passed through three district attorneys in the two and a half months since he was killed.

Before becoming a suspect in Arbery's death, Gregory McMichael had a long career in law enforcement and had only recently retired. He worked at the Glynn County Police Department for seven years, and until 2019 had spent several years as an investigator for Glynn County District Attorney Jackie Johnson. The connection caused Johnson to recuse herself from the case.

Travis McMichael operates a boat tour company.

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The elder McMichael told police he suspected Arbery was the same man filmed by a security camera committing a break-in. He said his son grabbed a couple of guns and began a pursuit in his truck.

Gregory McMichael, 64, left, and Travis McMichael, 34, are facing charges in the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery, Georgia authorities say.

Gregory McMichael, 64, left, and Travis McMichael, 34, are facing charges in the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery, Georgia authorities say.

The video shows Arbery running at a jogger's pace on the left side of the road. A truck is parked in the road ahead of him. One of the white men is inside the pickup's bed. The other is standing beside the open driver's side door. Arbery crosses the road to pass the pickup on the passenger's side and then crosses back in front of the truck. A gunshot sounds and the video shows the runner grappling with a man in the street over what appears to be a gunshot or a rifle. A second shot is then heard, and the runner can be seen punching the man. A third shot is fired at point-blank range. Arbery is seen staggering for a few feet and then falling face down.

According to the police report, Gregory McMichael told officers he and his son first tried to stop Arbery by shouting, “Stop, stop, we want to talk to you!” The father claimed Arbery attacked his son and they got into a struggle for a shotgun.

At a news conference before the arrests were announced Thursday, Gov. Brian Kemp said he was confident the state would find the truth.

"Earlier this week, I watched the video depicting Mr. Arbery's last moments alive," Kemp said. "I can tell you it's absolutely horrific, and Georgians deserve answers."

Though many people have spoken in support of Arbery -- including President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, as well as basketball star LeBron James and Russell Moore, a prominent leader of the Southern Baptist Convention -- others have thrown their weight behind the McMichaels.

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The group Christians Against Google purportedly changed their Facebook page name to Justice for Gregory and Travis Michael (sic), News4Jax reported.

The "about" section on the group's page claims the McMichaels are "2 God-fearing men" that were "only trying to protect their neighborhood."

"This area has had a string of break-ins and this man fit the description and did not comply with simple commands. Our hears [sic] go out to the McMichael family in their time of need. Amen."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.