I-85 Collapse Allegations Lead To Grand Jury Indictment
The Fulton County District Attorney's Office announced that a grand jury handed up indictments for the burning of construction materials that caused the collapse of a portion of I-85. The evidence presented to the grand jury was sufficient, at least initially, to charge Basil Eleby with first-degree arson and criminal damage to property. Eleby faces 25 years incarceration and a $50,000 fine, or both if convicted according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Eleby is presumed innocent on all charges until the state proves him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt at trial.
The information about the investigation released to the public thus far suggests Eleby started the fire intentionally. It indicates that Eleby was under the highway around 4 p.m. on that fateful Thursday afternoon. The allegations supporting an arrest warrant suggest that Eleby admitted to fire investigators that he was familiar with the area because he would frequent the spot under the bridge. Eleby said he was near the area of the fire but walked away before it started. Eleby also told investigators allegedly that he discussed smoking crack cocaine with two others but decided to keep it for himself and smoke it somewhere else.
Evidence compiled by investigators from two other witnesses tells a different tale. One witness told investigators from law enforcement and fire agencies that Eleby placed a piece of highly combustible furniture such as a chair or sofa in a shopping cart. The witnesses say that Eleby then reached under the piece of furniture and lit the chair. The flames then spread to the conduit and other construction materials stored under the bridge from the shopping cart.
Once that happened, thick black smoke emitted from under the bridge. One of the witnesses saw Eleby nearby the fire. She told investigators she confronted him about the smoke and flame. According to her statement, Eleby turned to her and said, "Ha, ha, ha, I did that," while flashing a devilish smile. Within a short period of time, the fire spread and the road collapsed.
Eleby was arrested about 24 hours after the fire started. There was no information available as to how investigators identified Eleby and the two witnesses. Additionally, investigators have not alluded to other sources of evidence. Right now, the case stands on the word to two people who contemplated smoking crack cocaine at the time of the fire. What happens in criminal court remains to be seen.
But there is a larger question to be answered. The evidence introduced at trial may explain the question of whether Eleby intended to cause the collapse of the road. Eleby's public defender has defended him in the media by saying he is a scapegoat for the state's failure to secure construction material stored under the Interstate.
Eleby deserves to be punished severely if the government proves that he is guilty of starting the fire. There is no question that he was trespassing. If proven, his actions have caused enormous monetary damages and inconvenience to hundreds of thousands of people who live and work in the greater Atlanta area. But, investigations continue as to why the materials were stored under the road by the state. A spokesman for the Georgia Department of Transportation has indicated that it was not foreseeable that setting fire to the materials would cause the road structure to fail.
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