Is The Man Charged In The I-85 Fire A Scapegoat? Critics Think So

Basil Eleby has been charged with with first-degree arson and first-degree property damage in the fire that led to the collapse of an I-85 overpass.
Credit Henry P. Taylor and David Goldman / Associated Press
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Basil Eleby could be facing federal charges in connection with the fire that took out a segment of an Interstate 85 overpass Thursday. 

Authorities say Eleby, 39, started the fire, using a chair and a shopping cart, which then spread to construction materials being stored under the bridge.

Authorities haven’t offered much in terms of motive for Eleby setting the blaze, but phrases like “smoking crack” have been thrown around, and, Tuesday, the AJC reported on witnesses who said the man was “probably crazy,” and had given them an “evil smile.”

The level of ire surrounding Eleby, who authorities have said was homeless, could make sense due to the severity of the consequences of what he’s accused of doing, but there are some who say he’s being railroaded. 

“Homeless people are the ready victims in any situation. There is no mystery that there have been homeless people for years living under that overpass,” Anita Beaty, executive director of the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless, told the AJC. “I don’t think (the Eleby case) is clear at all. It is a fairly railroaded decision to arrest him on some really serious arson charges based on the evidence I have seen.”

When asked on Twitter, nearly 80 percent of people who responded agreed with a statement from Eleby’s lawyer saying he has been “scapegoated.”

Mayor Kasim Reed’s office gave a comment to Vice disputing the idea that Eleby has been treated unfairly. 

“Arson investigators did their jobs and followed where the facts led — that’s the only thing that happened,” Jenna Garland, a spokeswoman for Reed, told the news site. 

Still, it’s the stored materials that are giving people pause.

The Georgia state fire marshal said the spools of plastic and fiberglass conduit that had been kept under the bridge since 2011 were petroleum based.

“It is a petroleum-based product and that’s why you had black smoke,” fire marshal Dwayne Garriss told the Atlanta Journal Constitution. “When it started turning from solid into a liquid, it starts pooling.” 

The pooling led to sliding, which, according to Garris, is how the fire spread so quickly.

GDOT has not admitted wrongdoing, but has said it’s evaluating “all things” in relation to the fire, including its storage policies.

Eleby has already been charged with first-degree arson and first-degree property damage and remains in jail on a $200,000 bond. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said he could be charged with federal offenses after the U.S. attorney’s office reviews the incident.

Eleby has said he left the area before the fire started.

Sophia Brauer and Barry Thomas were arrested along with Eleby on Friday, both charged with criminal trespass. They were the witnesses quoted in the above mentioned AJC stories. 

After news of Eleby’s arrest, some took to social media to voice their skepticism: 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.