Lawyers for Basil Eleby, the homeless man accused of starting a fire that brought down a section of I-85, are asking for witnesses to call them because they believe there are people who can help show that Eleby did not do what authorities have said he did.
At the same time, the attorneys raised questions at a Friday news conference about the Georgia Department of Transportation and law enforcement accounts of what led to the collapse of an elevated portion of that interstate. Eleby’s lawyers said GDOT shares in the blame.
“This is not just railroading,” said Mawuli Davis, one of Eleby’s four attorneys, who are all working at no charge. “It’s railroading on steroids because you have this catastrophic outcome and you come and get the little guy.”
Davis said the legal team is still studying Eleby’s case and the evidence authorities have collected, but they already know they will question GDOT’s decision to store flammable material under the interstate. “All parties involved in storing the materials have to be held accountable,” he said.
Davis said Eleby’s “mood is one of frustration” and dismay. He said the team believes Eleby’s responsibility in setting the fire is “none at all. Zero. None. It’s too early to know who started the fire.”
“We think it’s a rush to judgment,” said Lawrence Zimmerman, another attorney representing Eleby.
Eleby’s legal team has set up a telephone line to take tips — 1-800-237-6072.
A massive fire late in the rush hour on March 30 brought down a chunk of I-85 just north of where the highway merges with I-75 to form the Downtown Connector. Both the northbound and southbound lanes in that section will be closed at least until mid-June, which has further compromised Atlanta’s already challenging traffic.
Eleby was arrested the day after the fire and is being held in the Fulton County Jail on a $200,000 bond on felony charges of arson and criminal damage to property.
Law enforcement said the 39-year-old homeless man was under the bridge, using drugs, when he set fire to a chair placed on top of a shopping cart. Fire officials say the cart melted and then ignited coiled plastic conduit stacked in rows under I-85 near Piedmont Road.
Eleby is scheduled to enter a plea in court on Tuesday. Advocates for the homeless have asked supporters to pack the courtroom.
A coalition of about 25 groups has set up a website — www.basileleby.com — that is supposed to include information about what people can do to support Eleby. As of Friday afternoon, however, the only thing shown was a “Basil Eleby” T-shirt that is being sold for $24 to $35.
“Mr. Eleby will not be the scapegoat or the fall guy,” said Marcus Coleman, who spoke for the coalition.