Man accused of setting fire that brought down I-85 bridge may never see jail time

Basil Eleby struck and agreement keeping him from jail time as long as he remains off drugs.

ATLANTA — The man blamed for the Interstate 85 bridge collapse reached an agreement with prosecutors Friday that could keep him from ever standing trial if he can stay off drugs.

Flanked by a team of attorneys, Basil Eleby appeared before Superior Court Judge Constance Russell Friday afternoon.

Police charged Eleby after two witnesses claimed he smoked crack cocaine before lighting a chair on fire underneath the I-85 bridge that crosses over Piedmont Road in March.

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The fire spread through material that was being stored under the bridge, causing an inferno under the expressway. The bridge eventually collapsed from the flames.

Eleby was arrested, but now, he will not be prosecuted for arson and criminal damage. Instead he's going through an 18-month diversion program which requires him to complete drug testing and counseling for his addiction.

“My only concern is that two years from now I don’t want anyone to tell me, ‘oh he’s no longer acute, he’s back,'” Russell told Eleby’s attorney Friday, making it clear she does not want to see Eleby in trouble again. “Good luck Mr. Eleby. Go forth and do well. Don’t let me read about you.”

Eleby admits he’s struggled with inner demons but is adamant he didn’t torch the bridge.

"Even in my drug-induced state of mind, even I could see there's no way. The bridge is made (so) you can't light a fire and burn down a bridge. I don't care if you put gasoline on it those bridges, (they) are engineered not to burn so easily," Eleby told Channel 2's Wendy Halloran following the court hearing.

Eleby's attorney, Lawrence Zimmerman, said his client is an innocent man.

"We presented evidence from day one from polygraph tests, to alibi witnesses, to the state of Georgia that Basil had nothing to do with this fire whatsoever," Zimmerman said. "The Atlanta Police Department made a mistake."

Zimmerman said so did prosecutors.

“Charging him with arson was ridiculous,” Zimmerman told Halloran.

Eleby insists he’s a changed man.

"I am not the person that I used to be a few months ago,” Eleby said.

“I’m going to do what I need to do to stay sober,” Eleby told Halloran.

Zimmerman said they fully expect Eleby to complete the program and the case will be dismissed.