Homeless man scapegoated in fiery Atlanta bridge collapse, attorney says

By: Rhonda Cook, Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Updated:

The attorney for a homeless man accused of starting the fire that caused a chunk of Interstate 85  through downtown Atlanta to collapse said her client was being singled out unfairly in the fiasco.

“I think he was scapegoated,” Liz Markowitz said after suspect Basil Eleby’s arrest.

A booking photo of Basil Newman Eleby provided by the Fulton County Jail. Eleby is suspected of starting a raging fire that caused a portion of Interstate 85 to collapse.
Fulton County Jail/AP

Markowitz, who works for the Fulton County Public Defender’s Office, declined to say more because Eleby may have a team of private attorneys in place to represent him within the next 10 days. 

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Eleby is accused of setting a chair on fire, which, in turn, ignited construction material being stored under the elevated stretch of interstate by the Georgia Department of Transportation. On Tuesday, state officials said they were reviewing those storage policies.

Eleby’s high-profile case is attracting attention from would-be defenders. Markowitz said at least six other attorneys have approached Eleby about representing him.

She said she has had to tell the jail that no lawyers are allowed to meet with the 39-year-old man, unless she is there.

Markowitz has introduced him to one attorney who expects to file a notice with the court in a few days that she will be representing Eleby at no charge; at least three others are expected to be on the team defending Eleby.

“I have dedicated my entire career to protecting indigent clients who are human beings and not causes,” Markowitz said.

 

She said she would “do everything I can to protect” Eleby until he finds a set of attorneys he likes and who are “comfortable with him and his case.”

Eleby was arrested March 31, some 24 hours after a section of the bridge caught fire and collapsed. He is charged with arson. Eleby had been arrested at least 19 times before the fire, most of them for drug-related offenses.

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Authorities say he and two companions were there on March 30, talking about smoking crack, shortly before the fire began under the bridge. They say Eleby started the fire by lighting a chair that engulfed coils of high-density plastic conduit the Department of Transportation had stored under the elevated interstate, burning hot enough to melt the concrete and steel supporting it.

Eleby’s was jailed on a $200,000 bond. He is scheduled for a court appearance on April 14.

The other two are charged with misdemeanor criminal trespass.

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