Public defender: I-85 arson suspect being used as scapegoat

ATLANTA — Channel 2 Action News has learned the man accused of setting the fire that collapsed an overpass bridge along Interstate 85 will enter a plea of not guilty.

Channel 2 investigative reporter Mark Winne obtained exclusive video Thursday of Basil Eleby in the Fulton County Jail.

“He has been a model inmate at this time,” said Lt. Col. Derrick Singleton, with the Fulton County Jail.

Basil Eleby

Singleton said despite the allegations of the trouble Eleby caused under the I-85 bridge that collapsed due to a massive fire, he has caused no problems in his temporary home -- the Fulton County Jail.

Despite his high-profile status, Eleby has required no special security beyond what other inmates get in the jail medical unit.

“Mr. Eleby stated that he was comfortable and everything was fine,” Singleton told Winne.

Atlanta Circuit Public Defender Vernon Pitts confirmed to Winne that Eleby will plead not guilty to the charges of arson and criminal damage to property that he faces.

"We’re going to look at all the factors," he told Winne.


Pitts said his office, as Eleby's legal representative, is doing everything to protect Eleby's interests.

Public defender's office supervisor Liz Markowitz said she doesn’t think there's any question, “Mr. Eleby is being used as a scapegoat.”

She said it's interesting those most marginalized in our society -- and she cited the homeless, the developmentally disabled, the addicts-- are easily looked to for blame “as a diversion to what we really should be investigating.”

Markowitz said the Georgia Department of Transportation should be investigated.

Winne obtained a letter from Markowitz to chief jailer Mark Adger saying "it has come to our attention that a number of attorneys have been making attempts to speak with our client, Basil Eleby.”

“There are attorneys who are trying to visit Mr. Eleby. And from our understanding these individuals are not his attorneys,” Singleton told Winne.

What burned under the I-85 overpass.

The letter continues to say, “Mr. Eleby has expressed that the number of people attempting to persuade him to change representation has become overwhelming,” and it basically seeks limits on which attorneys can talk to him and how.

Markowitz said she's made herself available to any attorney who wants to call her, and a number of attorneys  both from inside and outside her office, have visited with Eleby appropriately.

She told Winne the letter does not preclude Eleby eventually retaining private attorneys.

When Winne contacted the GDOT about the issues raised in the letter, the department replied to his text message, saying, "No comment."

Calls for accountability

The call for accountability is growing after the I-85 bridge collapse.

Channel 2 investigative reporter Aaron Diamant spoke exclusively with a local congressman about the critical step he said the federal government has to take.

GDOT maintains it didn't break any regulations or laws by keeping construction material below the I-85 bridge over Piedmont Road.

"It's hard to fathom,” is how Rep. Hank Johnson described the impact of last week's fiery, catastrophic collapse of I-85. "I think we need a rule, a federal rule, that bans the storage of construction and other materials underneath bridges."

Johnson sits on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Diamant learned Thursday that the GDOT's years-long policy of storing large amounts of surplus polyurethane and fiberglass pipe in its right of way underneath the Piedmont Road overpass did not violate any agency policy or state or federal regulation or law.

"It's a first for this, so it's, certainly, the gap has been exposed, but there hadn't been a gap until there's something to reveal a gap,” said Joseph Hacker, public management expert at Georgia State University.

Hacker said the National Transportation Safety Board investigation into the collapse could lead to specific nationwide safety recommendations.

"I think it's a worthy cause, because we don't want this to be replicated somewhere else," Hacker said.

GDOT confirmed it's working with the state fire marshal for a top-to-bottom review of its storage practices.

"I believe that the federal government has a responsibility to the people to ensure that people can live and work in conditions that are safe," Johnson said.

A GDOT representative told Diamant that Johnson's involvement and call for national regulations demonstrates this is a national situation.

Johnson said in the meantime, he hopes every state department of transportation will do an assessment and remove any construction material from underneath highway bridges.

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