Diego Perez told the outlet that he accompanied former police officer Gregory McMichael, 64, and his son Travis McMichael, 34, on a Feb. 11 search after a local property owner sent him a video of a man entering a construction site. Perez later identified the man as Arbery.
The owner, Larry English, has since told CNN that he did not report a crime after seeing the video, and Arbery did not touch anything onsite before leaving.
Perez, who had previously volunteered to keep an eye on the property, went to investigate after English texted him the video. Perez claims he saw Travis McMichael drive up to the property from the opposite direction as he approached the property.
English told the Journal-Constitution that he did not know the McMichaels nor had he communicated with them.
"Travis saw him in the yard, and Travis stopped," Perez told the outlet. "He confronted (the man) halfway into the yard. He said (the man) reached for his waistband, and Travis got spooked and went down the road."
McMichael then allegedly returned with his father, who was armed, and called the police. When authorities arrived, Perez said he recognized the man from security videos at the construction site over the previous months.
"All we knew about him was that he was the guy who kept showing up on our cameras," Perez said. "No one knew who it was."
Perez said he arrived at the scene of the shooting on Feb. 23 and immediately recognized Arbery as the man from the earlier confrontation.
Arbery was fatally shot while jogging in the Satilla Shores neighborhood about two miles from his home in Brunswick. Gregory McMichael, who previously worked for the local district attorney's office, told police that he and his son armed themselves and followed Arbery in their truck after recognizing him as a suspect in nearby break-ins.
Police did not initially charge the men. Prosecutor George Barnhill, who has since recused himself from the case, told police there was "insufficient probable cause." He argued that the two men were legally armed and cited the state's citizen's arrest and self-defense statutes.
The McMichaels were only charged with murder and aggravated assault after the video was leaked three months later.
In an April 7 letter obtained by the Journal-Constitution, Barnhill wrote that Gregory McMichael was involved in an earlier prosecution of Arbery when both men worked for the Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney's Office.
Arbery was sentenced to five years probation when he was in high school after being charged with carrying a weapon on campus and obstructing a law enforcement officer, according to the newspaper. He was later charged with shoplifting in 2018.
McMichael, who retired in 2019, did not mention his involvement in the previous case to police.
"This family are not strangers to the local criminal justice system," Barnhill wrote in a letter to the Georgia attorney general's office. "From best we can tell, Ahmaud's older brother has gone to prison in the past and is currently in the Glynn jail, without bond, awaiting new felony prosecution. It also appears a cousin has been prosecuted by DA Johnson's office."
S. Lee Merritt, an attorney for the Abery family, criticized the prosecutor for focusing on unrelated events in his investigation of the fatal shooting.
"This speaks to the wider issue of mass incarceration," Merritt told the Constitution-Journal. "If black people have any kind of criminal record, somehow that justifies their murder."
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms called the killing a "lynching" and said she believed the suspects would not have been charged if not for the video.
Arbery's best friend, Akeem Baker, told CNN that he was a "man of principles, loyalty, respect and love."
"We would just share our stories together, we would just talk about dreams, just achieving in life. He always spoke about how we would both be at the top together someway, somehow, some day," he recalled. "He'd say, 'I love you, bro.' He spoke those words, 'I love you,' to everyone he came across."