On a sunny Sunday afternoon one year ago today, a Glynn County police officer walked up to the doorstep of Wanda Cooper Jones to deliver the worst news a parent will ever receive.
Standing outside the home, the officer dialed Jones on her cell phone to summon her to the door, she recalled. But Jones was not home. Instead, she answered the officer’s call from somewhere near Augusta, heading home after a weekend visit with relatives.
The officer asked if she was the mother of Ahmaud Arbery.
“I said, ‘Yes,’” Jones recalled. “He told me he had something that he would rather not tell me over the phone.”
Momentarily, the officer did so anyway, she said.
“He went on to share that Ahmaud had been involved in a burglary,” she said. “In the midst of the burglary, Ahmaud was confronted by the homeowner and there had been a struggle. And, unfortunately, Ahmaud had been shot and killed.”
Ahmuad Arbery, 25, was her youngest son, survived by an older brother and sister. He suffered a violent death that day, shot three times with buckshot at close range by a man wielding a 12-gauge shotgun.
A year later, that man, his father and another man remain in jail, accused by Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents of pursuing Arbery in pickup trucks as he ran for his life toward a fatal showdown. Travis McMichael, 35, Gregory McMichael, 65, and William “Roddie” Bryan, 51, were charged with murder, aggravated assault, false imprisonment and criminal attempt to commit false imprisonment. The three remain in the Glynn County Detention Center awaiting trial.
A year later, Ahmaud Arbery’s name is known across the land, one of several victims adding to the volume of a vehement demand for racial justice across the nation over the course of an emotionally heated summer.
Arbery was Black. The McMichaels and Bryan are White. Travis McMichael allegedly uttered a vulgar expletive followed by the “N” word after shooting Arbery, GBI agents learned. Also, GBI agents found alleged racially-charged texts, including use of the “N” word, on the cell phones of Travis McMichael and Bryan.
A year later, Jones still agonizes over the day a county police officer informed her that her son had been killed.
“He was my baby,” Jones said. “I think about it all day, every day.”
Bryan took cell phone video during the chase that showed its horrific conclusion in graphic detail. The video spark national outrage on May 5.
Arbery has since become a cause, his name and face a standard-bearer in the name of racial justice.
But Arbery also was a loving son, brother, uncle and friend, Jones said. He was polite, helpful, generous.
“Ahmaud was a giver,” Jones said. “He had a heart of gold. He would reach out to you with a smile. He would tell everyone when he departs, ‘I love you.’ And another word he used a lot was ‘Thank you.’ He was a very kind young man.”
Arbery worked for his father’s landscaping company, although sometimes he did electrical and carpentry work with his uncles in Waynesboro, she said. He lived with his mom at her home in the Fancy Bluff community, off U.S. 17 about a mile south of Satilla Shores.
A former all-star linebacker at Brunswick High, Arbery loved to jog. Jogging was his escape; it brought him peace of mind.
He frequently cut into the Satilla Shores community on his runs. A couple of Satilla Shores residents told The News last spring they had often seen Arbery jogging through the neighborhood.
“He was a jogger,” his mother said. “When he ran he was at peace. Running was his therapy. He ran every day. If it was not raining, Ahmaud got his run in.”
As the sun went down 12 months ago to this day, the only thing Jones knew was that her son had been killed in a burglary gone bad.
Very little information on the killing of Arbery was available the next day. Or the day after that.
Arbery died of gunshot wounds at around 1:15 p.m. in the road near the intersection of Satilla and Holmes drives, The News reported. Police made no arrests and had not named the men involved in the shooting. A department press release indicated police were investigating in conjunction with the District Attorney.
The News learned on Feb. 27 that Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney Jackie Johnson had recused herself from the case immediately, citing an unexplained conflict of interest.
The next day it was learned that Waycross District Attorney George Barnhill had been assigned the case. He noted that police found Arbery in the road with two armed men standing over him: Travis McMichael and his father Gregory McMichael.
The elder McMichael had retired a year earlier from a career spanning more than two decades as an investigator with the Brunswick DA’s office over which Jackie Johnson presided. He had served seven years as a Glynn County police officer prior to that.
In response to a public records request, the Glynn County Police Department released its initial report on the shooting to The News on April 2. In his own words, Gregory McMichael told police he was in his front yard when he saw Arbery run past on Satilla Drive, the report said. The McMichaels suspected Arbery had just burglarized a nearby home, McMichael said. McMichael ran inside his residence and told his son, Travis McMichael, to grab a gun, the report said.
The two men got inside a Ford F-150, Gregory McMichael armed with a .357 magnum handgun and his son with a 12-gauge shotgun. They pursued Arbery as he ran, McMichael told police, trying on two occasions to cut Arbery off and talk to him, the report said. At some point, Travis McMichael stopped the truck, stepped out of the cab and confronted Arbery, McMichael said.
Travis McMichael shot Arbery three times as Arbery struggled to take the gun from him, the report said. Arbery died moments later.
Reports in The News in the first week did not match circumstances under which Jones was told her son died, she said. He died on a street a block and a half away from the alleged target of the burglary, not in a confrontation with the homeowner.
“When I saw your (news) articles roll out, I reached back out to (the officer) and tried to get some explanation of what really happened,” Jones said. “Because what I was reading in the paper wasn’t what he told me. I thank God for The Brunswick News. What they told me on that Sunday afternoon, we didn’t find out anything different until your articles started coming out.”
Jones and other family members objected to DA Barnhill’s involvement. His son was an assistant attorney with the Brunswick DA. The case was turned over to Hinesville DA Tom Durden on April 13.
Arbery’s shooting death gained national attention later that month, including articles by the New York Times and reports from major news networks.
May 5 was a big day for the case. That is the day the video of the shooting quickly went viral after being posted online. It is also the day GBI agents took over the case.
GBI agents arrested Gregory and Travis McMichael two days later, after 2 1/2 months of inaction in the case. Two weeks later GBI agents arrested Bryan, who had joined the chase of Arbery in his own pickup truck after watching Arbery run by his house on Burford Road with the McMichaels in pursuit.
On May 25, the video went public of African American George Floyd dying while a Minneapolis, Minn., police officer kneeled on his neck for more than seven minutes. In June, African American Rayshard Brooks was shot dead by an Atlanta Police officer. Protests erupted in large cities across the nation, some accompanied by destruction and rioting.
Over the course of several weekends, thousands gathered in front of the Glynn County Courthouse to demand justice. A couple thousand other protesters marched peacefully but vociferously through the Satilla Shores neighborhood on May 5.
Local clergymen and civic leaders, Black and White, gathered on the courthouse steps to call for justice. No violence occurred locally.
“It offered a sense of encouragement, back in the summer when I saw the protests,” Jones said. “I was in my weakest moment, and it gave me strength. We lost Ahmaud, but he didn’t die in vain. His name alone will bring about change.”
However, Jones insisted on stating that she is in no way a supporter of one local organization established in her son’s name. The 2:23 Foundation began as “I Run With Maud,” on a Facebook page last spring. Jones said she supported and worked with the group early. But the organizers alienated her when they applied for a trademark on May 9 without first consulting her.
“I found out they’re launching a foundation and building around the loss of Ahmaud and nobody told me,” Jones said. “Nobody told us anything about it.”
Arbery was killed more than a block away from the house Gregory and Travis McMicheal alleged he broke into. The home in question was under construction, its doors and windows open. The home’s owner has said security video inside the home reveals no wrongdoing by Arbery when he went inside that day.
Arbery was unarmed. He wore cargo shorts, T-shirt and athletic shoes — the outfit of a jogger.
“It wasn’t nighttime — they could see by the way he was running he didn’t have a weapon or any stolen goods in his possession,” his mother said. “And yet still you chased him and boxed him in and confronted him, and you had a handgun and you had a shotgun.
“It’s so senseless,” Jones added. “I lost a son, but (his siblings) lost a brother. His nephews lost an uncle. Also, some young woman lost a good husband, and some child lost a good father.”