It’s like an essay question in a personality test: A man kills a cop. He flees. You’re a pastor. You convince him to surrender and you escort him to the police. There’s a $50,000 reward. Should you collect it?
“Anybody who renders public service, to do something such as that, there’s going to be a reward for that,’’ says Rev. Ralph White, whose answer isn’t hypothetical – it percolates from his own real-life drama.
The longtime South Memphis preacher is suing the city of Memphis trying to collect a $50,000 reward for arranging the surrender two years ago of accused cop-killer Tremaine Wilbourn.
It’s an image burned in the city’s collective conscious: Two days after Sean Bolton was shot and killed on patrol – one of four officers killed on duty since 2011 – Wilbourn, then 29, turned himself in to U.S. Marshals, surrounded by loved ones, an attorney and White, who had known Wilbourn since he was a child.
“He said, ‘I don’t want to turn myself into the police because I think they will probably kill me,’ ’’ says White, who’s taken some heat since news dribbled out about his lawsuit.
Some of that criticism comes from Buddy Chapman, who, as executive director of CrimeStoppers of Memphis & Shelby County, makes a living handing out rewards to solve crime.
“I just don’t think it’s appropriate for a man of the cloth to be applying for a reward for doing what he’s supposed to be doing – for doing God’s work,’’ Chapman said.
White, who’s worked for years with troubled youth and who says he’ll contribute at least part of the reward money toward that effort if his suit is successful, is unmoved by such criticism.
“These people who have those feelings are doing nothing. They’re doing nothing but on the radio, on talk shows. Talking and doing nothing. Everybody has got a great opinion about what to do. None of them ever thinks about the thousands of dollars me, my ministry, we spend every year in the neighborhood.’’
Understanding White and his controversy requires a journey through Riverview, the impoverished neighborhood where both White and Wilbourn grew up, through tales of hardship, gun violence and distrust of police.
“I went to school there. I was a paperboy there,’’ White says. “So, this is my community. We decided to remain in that community and not to move out. Because these are people we serve.’’
He’s proud of the fact that unlike some others, his church, Bloomfield Full Gospel Baptist Church, didn’t relocate, didn’t head for safer Zip codes as the inner-city declined. Wilbourn’s grandmother lives across the street. But the story of how White helped turn in Wilbourn isn’t as simple as that.
In the aftermath of officer Bolton’s Aug. 1, 2015, killing, news airways lit up. Then-mayor A C Wharton was on TV talking of a $10,000 reward. Soon, with Wilbourn still in hiding and his picture all over the news, the offer was up to $50,000.
“I saw him on TV,” White said. “Told my wife, ‘I know this young guy.’ And she looked at me kind of crazy. I said, ‘I’m going to have him to turn himself in.’ ’’
According to White’s lawsuit, he drove the morning of Aug. 3 to a car wash “where he knew individuals who could contact’’ Wilbourn. “I happened to know some guys,’’ White says, picking up the story. “I said, ‘Look. Tell so-and-so if he knows anything about Tremaine, have him to give me a call.’ So, I get two calls.’’
But as White worked out details, another pastor’s phone was ringing, too – four short blocks away. Though White’s involvement in the case is popularly known, the role Rev. Eric Winston played that day has remained largely unknown.
“The police department had nothing,’’ says Winston, describing the manhunt still underway when a parishioner called him, telling him Wilbourn’s family wanted his help to surrender the fugitive. Soon, family members were in his office at Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church. Then, Wilbourn himself was on the phone.
“Tremaine told me, ‘Pastor, I’m on my way to the church to turn myself in.’ He said he didn’t want to die. And that he wanted to make sure that, you know, police wouldn’t kill him,’’ Winston recalled.
Vowing to help, Winston called Wharton.
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SOURCE: The Commercial Appeal – Marc Perrusquia