A mayor’s suicide leaves an Alabama town searching for answers

FL Copeland Jr., a Baptist pastor and grocery store owner known as Bubba, once told a colleague that being mayor of Smiths Station, Ala., reminded him of a real-life version of the popular computer game The Sims: building community, then dealing with complexities and crises that appeared along the way.

There was a lot during his seven years in office: a deadly, devastating tornado; pandemic; coronavirus neglected roads that the city could not afford to repair. But Smiths Station got away with it. Mr. Copeland devised a plan to pay for road repairs. He was proud of the jobs, like the truck stop, that he brought. He was considering a second term. Many in the city would welcome that.

Then, on Nov. 3, sheriff’s deputies, called by Mr. Copeland’s worried friends to check on him, followed him until he pulled over miles from Smiths Station and fatally shot himself.

Two days earlier, a conservative online news outlet in Alabama published an article detailing what it described as “Mr. Copeland’s secret life.” There were photos of him in women’s clothing and makeup, as well as sexually explicit social media posts and fiction that the outlet said he wrote about transgender women.

On the day he died, the publication, 1819 News, published another article saying that some of Mr. Copeland’s posts and stories used the names and photos of local residents.

In and around Smiths Station, the disagreement over the construction of a lorry stop was once seen as a controversy. Now the city wrestled with disbelief, confusion, anguish and anger.

“I can’t tell you that I fully understand or can explain the magnitude of this tragedy,” said David White, a worshiper, from the pulpit of First Baptist Church in Phenix City, where Mr. Copeland was pastor, during the first Sunday service after Mr. Copeland.

“However, there are some things that I know to be absolutely true,” Mr. White said. “I know my friend Bubba Copeland loved this church and its people.”

Mr. Copeland, who was 49 and married with three children, was first elected mayor in 2016 in the city of about 5,000 residents, near where the Chattahoochee River forms the border between Alabama and Georgia. Residents spotted him filling potholes by himself on Sunday afternoons. When the 18-wheeler crashed in front of the truck stop, he and his wife were on the road directing traffic.

Since his death, the community has expressed its pain and frustration through prayer vigils, notes left on the steps of City Hall (“Is nothing sacred?” asked one) and posts on rival Facebook pages, including “What’s Happening at Smiths Station” and “What Really Happens at Smiths Station.”

On November 1, 1819, the News, whose editor once worked for the right-wing website Breitbart.com, published its first article. It states that Mr. Copeland “operated social media accounts as a transgender woman” and included a photo of himself wearing his wife’s sweater, makeup and a blonde wig. The article also pointed to erotic fiction he was said to have written about transgender people who are transitioning.

“It’s a hobby I do to relieve stress,” Mr Copeland told the outlet. “I’m under a lot of stress and I’m not in a medical transition. It’s just the character I’m playing.”

When the article quickly circulated in Alabama and the conservative corners of the Internet, Mr. Copeland became the subject of derision and derision. Baptist officials in Alabama issued a statement saying they had become “aware of the alleged unbiblical conduct” by Mr. Copeland and were “praying for the leaders of the church family as they try to determine the truth of these allegations.”

That day, Mr. Copeland addressed the congregation at First Baptist Church from the pulpit. He said he “took a picture with my wife in the privacy of our home in an attempt at humor”.

He apologized for the turmoil but said: “This will not cause my life to change,” adding: “This will not waver in my devotion to my family, to serving my city, to serving my church.”

On November 3, 1819, the News published another article, stating that Mr. Copeland posted a fictional erotic story online that featured a character who had the same name as a community business owner; in it, according to the article, the narrator described stalking and killing a business owner and taking over her identity. The outlet also reported that Mr. Copeland’s explicit posts on social media and websites included the names and photos of other people in the Smiths Station area, including the minor pictured in the post promoting gender transition.

“I will say that this caused me a lot of anxiety and panic attacks,” one of the women who appeared in the published photos, a hairdresser who now lives in Florida, he told NBC News.

She declined to comment further to a New York Times reporter.

The second article did not say whether the outlet had contacted Mr. Copeland for comment or to confirm that the writings and posts were his. The Lee County Sheriff’s Office, where the Smiths Station is located, said it was being investigated the circumstances surrounding the suicide of Mr. Copeland, but not his online posts.

The media has long reported on the private lives of public figures, publishing reports of sexual abuse or misconduct. Journalist ethics experts say this requires a balance between individual privacy and the importance of information to the public.

But the articles about Mr. Copeland were widely condemned. Cameron Smith, a conservative columnist for AL.com, proposed in the opinion essay that the 1819 News should have brought information to Mr. Copeland’s church leaders and that it “could have resulted in a stronger church, a stronger community, and Copeland’s survival.”

An 1819 News reporter who wrote articles about Mr. Copeland, the publication’s editor-in-chief and executive director, did not respond to messages seeking comment. But the 1819 News defended its reporting, arguing that the residents of Smiths Station and First Baptist Church had a right to know about Mr. Copeland’s behavior.

In a podcast late last week, Jeff Poor, editor-in-chief, and Bryan Dawson, president and CEO, emphasized that their reporting began with a tip and that they found Mr. Copeland’s posts on “publicly available” websites.

“The mayor, a public servant in the city, is writing slasher erotica, pornographic fiction about someone in his community,” Mr. Poor said, “and you’re telling me that’s not a story that 1819 or anyone should be doing? You’re just wrong, OK?”

“What happened after this is unfortunate,” he added. “But on the eve of that, I feel we were vindicated. We were on solid ground.”

In an article published on Saturday, the publication called Mr. Copeland a “very sick man” who encouraged “a way of life which, according to the tenets of his Baptist faith, is neither recognized nor approved.”

Some in the community expressed their appreciation for the articles, particularly the reports of Mr. Copeland using residents’ names and photos online. On community Facebook pages, one woman called the article writer a “hero.” Others said they felt cheated by Mr. Copeland.

Some in the community gathered one evening for a vigil where the pastors preached a message of unity and compassion. Mr. Copeland’s name was not mentioned once—a conspicuous absence, for there was no doubt why they were praying.

“God, we’ll be honest: our hearts are hurting,” said the Rev. Lynn McManious, pastor of Beaver Creek Baptist Church in Phenix City, during the vigil. “Lord, for some there are injuries; for some there is anger. There are others who are confused.”

His voice trembled as he continued to pray.

“We like to think we have the answers,” he continued, “but we don’t.

If you are thinking about suicide, call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources.

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