Authorities: Man accused of setting I-85 fire could face federal charges

Basil Eleby has already been charged with arson in the incident.

The man accused of setting the fire that resulted in the fiery collapse of Interstate-85 could now be facing federal charges, officials confirm.

Basil Eleby was already charged with arson and criminal damage to property after authorities said he put a chair on top of a shopping cart and set it on fire while smoking crack cocaine last Thursday.

Larry Priester of the Atlanta Field Division of the ATF said that his office gathering information to present a case to the U.S. Attorney's office for federal charges against Eleby. The fire led to the collapse of I-85 and a massive traffic nightmare expected to impact drivers for months.

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People who know Eleby told 11Alive he's homeless and has the mental capacity of a 15-year-old. They also said Eleby, who had been arrested numerous times before on drug and battery charges, had been in-and-out of a drug addiction program for 20 years.

Marcus Coleman, who works with a non-profit, Save Ourselves, is taking the charge to secure attorneys for Eleby.

“It’s easy to point the figure at someone who is homeless and allegedly smoking crack but you also need to look at the deeper picture of how that fire was able to arise to the temp that it did,” Coleman said. “This is not to make excuses or condone his actions, but when you want to dump this entire disaster -- which has gotten national attention -- on one man’s shoulders, then that's just not going to happen on our watch.”

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Marietta attorney Kim Kehely Frye agrees and called Eleby a “scapegoat.”

When asked that, Georgia Department of Transportation commissioner Russell McMurry responded: "I won't speculate on what people call the person that caused this fire."

Frye disagrees.

"He's somebody else to point the finger to look at," she told 11Alive’s Chris Hopper. "You have to prove that he intentionally set a fire, and to some extent knowingly set it in order to cause damage, not just accidentally set it."

Frye said investigators should instead be looking at how the non-combustible yet highly flammable piping material was stored under that bridge.

Images from the street view a 2016 Google Maps rendering show that the area was fenced off but there appeared to be a solid path worn around the edge of that chain link fence that leads right into the area under the bridge.

McMurry admits that the fencing was really to keep the material from being stolen or remove from the area. But the commissioner said Tuesday if they knew what they know now they, would have stored the material differently. McMurry said they’ll be looking at all things to make sure another disaster like this does not happen again.

The federal government has promised $10 million in aid to help with the repairs, which are expected to be complete by June of this year.

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