Suspect in I-85 burning said to have 'mental capacity of 15-year-old'

More about the man accused of starting the I-85 fire

ATLANTA -- Lawyers are lining up to take the case of a man police say caused Interstate 85 to burn and collapse.

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

Federal charges could be forthcoming. 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.

Those who know Eleby tell 11Alive that he suffers from mental illness, and has been in out and of a drug addiction program for 20 years.

Aside from living under two bridges – I-85 being one of them – Eleby also lived on a car repair lot.

RELATED | Man allegedly behind I-85 collapse described as quiet, helpful

Menege Gizachew owns GT Auto Repair. He said that he’s known Eleby for about 8 years, even letting him at one point sleep in one of the cars on the lot.

“I give him some daily work, to clean this, vacuum cars,” Gizachew said. “Every morning, every day here, he got some work, just to get something to eat.”

Gizachew said he was shocked to hear of Eleby’s arrest.

Marcus Coleman said there’s an even bigger issue.

“This is a gentleman that during 6 or 7 months he lived with an individual, watched nothing but cartoons,” Coleman said. “This is a gentleman who at best, it is said that he has the mental capacity of a 15-year-old.”

Coleman’s non-profit, Save Ourselves, is taking the charge to secure attorneys for Eleby.

Georgia Department of Transportation has admitted that a highly flammable, non-combustible construction material was stored under the bridge.

“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.

At least three local law firms have volunteered to take on the case, 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,” Coleman said.

Coleman said the little family Eleby has does not have any involvement in his life.

PHOTOS | 85 bridge reconstruction underway 

© 2017 WXIA-TV


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