A police officer testified Friday he planned to give Ahmaud Arbery a trespass warning for repeatedly entering a home under construction before the 25-year-old Black man was chased and shot dead by neighbours who spotted him running from the property.
Glynn County police Officer Robert Rash said he spoke several times to the house’s owner, who sent him videos showing Arbery visiting the site several times between Oct. 25, 2019, and Feb. 23, 2020 – the day Arbery was killed at the end of a five-minute chase by white men in pickup trucks.
Rash said he had been looking for Arbery, whose identity was unknown at the time, to tell him to keep away from the unfinished home. He said police had a standard protocol for handling people caught trespassing – a misdemeanour under Georgia law.
“Once we make contact with the person on the property, we explain to them the homeowner does not want them there, they have no legal reason to be there,” Rash said. He added: “I explain to that person, if you ever come back onto this property for any reason, you will be arrested.”
Arbery was killed before the officer could find him.
Father and son Greg and Travis McMichael armed themselves and pursued Arbery in a truck after he ran past their home five doors down from the construction site on a Sunday afternoon. A neighbour, William “Roddie” Bryan, 52, joined the chase in his own truck and took cellphone video of Travis McMichael shooting Arbery three times with a shotgun.
More than two months passed before the three men were arrested on murder and other charges, after the graphic video leaked online and deepened a national reckoning over racial injustice.
All three men are standing trial at the Glynn County courthouse in coastal Brunswick. Defense attorneys say the men reasonably suspected Arbery was a burglar and were trying to hold him for police. They say Travis McMichael, 35, fired his gun in self-defence when Arbery attacked with his fists.
Larry English, who owns the unfinished home, has said there was no evidence Arbery stole anything from the site. Still, he said he was concerned that the same person kept coming in the house after dark.
A patrol officer assigned to the neighbourhood, Rash said he was trying to track down the young man with tattoos and short twists in his hair who had been recorded inside English’s house. He shared the clips with neighbours, including Greg McMichael, 65.
Rash said he shared Greg McMichael’s phone number with English in a text message that noted Greg McMichael was a former police officer and retired investigator for the local district attorney. He said it was Greg McMichael’s idea to let English know he could help watch the property.
“Did you deputize Greg McMichael? Did you give him any authority as a police officer?” prosecutor Linda Dunikoski asked Rash.
“No ma’am,” the officer replied, saying he never intended for Greg McMichael to do anything other than call police if the man was spotted inside the house again.
“Greg has training and experience,” Rash said. “He in my opinion would be an expert witness to be on the phone with 911.”
On Feb. 11, 2020, less than two weeks before Arbery was killed, Rash was again dispatched to the neighbourhood after Travis McMichael called 911 and reported seeing the same man outside the unfinished home – and telling dispatchers the man reached for his pocket as if he had a gun.
The jury saw Rash’s body camera video, which shows him entering the home with a flashlight and his gun drawn. Rash said Travis McMichael’s report that the man could be armed made him more of a potential threat.
“So this was a different situation,” said Robert Rubin, one of Travis McMichael’s attorneys. “You’re going into a house with a man who might have a gun.”
Defense attorneys contend the McMichaels were justified in arming themselves before chasing Arbery because they feared he might have a gun. Police determined after the shooting that Arbery was unarmed.
When the Georgia Bureau of Investigation took over the case involving Arbery’s death in May, Bryan gave interviews to GBI Agent Jason Seacrist and rode in the agent’s car to retrace the route of the deadly chase.
Seacrist testified Friday that Bryan backed away from statements he’d made to local police that he used his truck to run Arbery off the road. He said Bryan told him that he wanted to take a cellphone photo of the running man to show police.
“I figured if I slowed down and got a picture, maybe something would happen in the end rather than him just getting away and the cops not knowing who he was,” Bryan said, according to an interview transcript Seacrist read in court.
Seacrist said he asked Bryan why police would need a photo of Arbery, and Bryan replied: “I figured he had done something wrong. I didn’t know for sure.”
Bryan’s attorney, Kevin Gough, noted that Seacrist had told Bryan at the time of their interviews that he was a witness in the case. The agent testified that Bryan wasn’t under arrest at the time and had been told he was free to leave and stop talking at any time.
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.