Last Thursday, one of the stranger infrastructure debacles in recent American history saw a portion of a five-lane interstate overpass in Atlanta completely collapse after lighting on fire, somehow leaving not so much as a scratch on anyone. But even though no deaths or injuries have been reported, at least one local is unlikely to walk away unscathed: Basil Eleby, a black man who was living in a tent near the highway
According to an arrest affidavit, Eleby, 39, told investigators he met up with a couple who frequent the area on the afternoon of the fire. He added that he discussed smoking crack with a woman, Sophia Brauer and her boyfriend, Barry Thomas. But by his own account, at least, Eleby decided to consume the stuff himself.
This is where the story gets more complicated. Eleby has maintained he did his thing and left the area before the fire that caused the overpass collapse began. But Thomas told investigators the day after the incident that he saw Eleby put a sofa on top of a plastic shopping cart and then reach underneath and ignite it. "He gave this evil smile and said, 'Ha, ha, ha. I did that.'" Brauer later told a local TV channel, echoing her boyfriend's account.
Once it started, the fire in the state-owned storage lot under the highway apparently fed on high-density polyethylene pipes, ballooning into opaque walls of black smoke and eventually crumbling the road above.
Within 24 hours of the interstate's collapse, the local fire department pinned Eleby as a suspect, charging him with with first-degree criminal damage to property. When he appeared in court Saturday, Eleby was also charged with first-degree arson, and bond was set at $200,000. He pleaded not guilty, but the official thinking is best summed up by Sergeant Cortez Stafford, a spokesman for the Atlanta Fire Department, who told the Washington Post the blaze was "maliciously set."
So for now at least, Eleby—who has a history of mental health and drug problems and 19 arrests since 1995—is being blamed for the city's worst transportation disaster in recent memory. This despite what many call a national infrastructure crisis that has seen major bridges collapse across the country in the face of decades of neglect. The incident and its aftermath raise questions about the connection between homelessness and the criminal justice system in America—and whether Eleby is being used as a scapegoat for a transportation crisis affecting millions.
For his part, rapper and Atlanta native TI was quick to express doubt that Eleby is to blame. "Now I've heard some far out sh*t in my day.. but this shit here tho?!?! In all my experiences wit crack and/or crackheads I ain't NEVER seen nothing like this sh*t!!! Js in my hood never set anything but da DOPE on fire!!!," he said on Instagram, following it up with an #OnlyInAtlanta hashtag.
But a man who lives in the same encampment as Eleby named Kevin told a local CBS affiliate that people starting fires to intimidate others is a regular occurrence. And Mona Bennett, who runs Atlanta Harm Reduction Coalition—the only needle exchange operation in Georgia— told me fires are used in homeless encampments to keep warm, with smoky fires in particular used to ward off mosquitoes.
Kevin suggested police should investigate other suspects. "He doesn't seem like the kind of person to do something like that," he told the outlet, later adding, "Last night, it was a nice eight-man tent. Today, it's a no-man tent… I don't know why someone would want to burn down their own spot." (Brauer, one of the other initial suspects, used a similar justification: "We were homeless," she told the local news channel. "Why would I want to burn up my own spot?")
What led the fire department to hone in on Eleby, Brauer, and Thomas is still not entirely clear. But their centrality to the case highlights the city's large (albeit decreasing in recent years) population of people experiencing homelessness— estimates vary between 4,000 and 7,000 people— many of whom have mental health and substance abuse issues.
A longtime friend of Eleby's, Dave Sloan, told the local CBS affiliate that the suspect has been fighting addiction issues. "There have been times when he's stayed sober and been really happy and really motivated and really excited and just overflowing with joy about it, and then he hasn't been able to stay sober, and then he collapses into despair and remorse and shame, and those are the cycles that I've watched him go through over the years," he said, adding, "I believe, and a lot of other people who know Basil believe, that he needs mental-health care."
Meanwhile, a new policing program called pre-arrest diversion is set to debut in a portion of Atlanta this summer. The program, which has been operating in Seattle for years and yielded declines in recidivism and savings for the city, offers services like housing and treatment for mental health and substance abuse as alternatives to jail. Had it been around at the tail end of the crack epidemic in the 90s, when Eleby had his first interactions with the cops, things might have turned out differently for him.
"With pre-arrest diversion, perhaps he would have been housed and would have been offered treatment," offered Bennett, with the Harm Reduction Coalition. "Maybe he and the two other people would not have been under the bridge. Maybe he would not be the scapegoat that he is now."
For its part, the mayor's office disputes the idea that Eleby is being unfairly blamed for the highway collapse. "Arson investigators did their jobs and followed where the facts led—that's the only thing that happened," Jenna Garland, a spokeswoman for Mayor Kasim Reed, told me. "There was no rush to make snap judgments or to identify individuals."
"The city's primary concern was to prevent the loss of life," she added.
If convicted, Eleby could do decades in prison. Brauer and Thomas, meanwhile, still face their own charges of criminal trespassing, which carry a lighter maximum penalty.
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