A small-town Alabama mayor and preacher told a friend he was facing "dark days" after a conservative news site published stories that alleged he used an online alter ego to post photos of himself in women’s clothing and pictures of community members on an adult website.
Smiths Station Mayor F.L. "Bubba" Copeland died by suicide Friday, 48 hours after 1819 News published its initial story, which included what it alleges are photos of Copeland in women’s bras, makeup and wigs.
Another story, published the day Copeland died, alleges that he wrote violent fantasy fiction and posted photos of people from his community to his Reddit page and elsewhere without their consent.
"After watching for a day or two people just relentlessly attacking Bubba [online], I was quite bothered by it, and I just decided to reach out to him," former Phenix City School Superintendent Larry DiChiara told NBC News on Monday.
"It was the day before he passed away. I said: 'Bubba, keep your head up. You’re a good man with a great heart. Don’t ever forget that. Call me if you need me.' And his response was: 'Thank you. It’s been some dark days.' And I said: 'I’m sure; just hang there. It will pass.'"
'Obvious concern for his welfare,' sheriff says
Copeland reached out Wednesday to another friend in the public eye, Lee County Sheriff Jay Jones, who recounted Copeland's anguish after the story was published.
"It was a friend calling a friend," Jones said Monday. "Let's just say he was concerned about the article. I think 'upset' would be a good way of putting it."
Two deputies went first to Copeland's home and then to a market he owned before they found him driving on a county road, officials said.
The deputies turned on their emergency lights and tried to get Copeland to pull over. Jones declined to call it a "chase," as the two cars never surpassed the speed limit.
After 10 minutes, Copeland pulled over on Lee County Road 275, near Road 279, and got out of the car. He died by suicide, Jones said.
"We had no idea" Copeland would die on the spot, Jones said. "There was obvious concern for his welfare, and they [deputies] were attempting to get him to stop, make contact with him and assess the situation and then take action based on that assessment."
Jones said he doesn't know what could have been differently from Wednesday to Friday last week.
"It's just tragic all the way around," he said.
Emails to the website’s editor in chief and the article’s author weren't immediately returned.
DiChiara, the school superintendent, blamed Copeland's death on those who mocked, and continue to ridicule, the late mayor.
"Some people are just heartless even in the man’s death," he said. "His son is really having a hard time with it. His teenage son is taking it pretty tough."
In addition to his son, Copeland is survived by his wife and two daughters, according to an obituary posted on his church’s Facebook page.
Copeland apologized in his last sermon
In his last sermon at First Baptist Church of Phenix City on Wednesday, Copeland addressed the initial article, saying: "I’ve been an object of an internet attack. The article is not who or what I am."
Copeland said he had "taken pictures with my wife in the privacy of our home in an attempt of humor, because I know I’m not a handsome man nor a beautiful woman, either."
"I apologize for any embarrassment caused by my private and personal life," he said. "This will not cause my life to change. This will not waver my devotion to my family, serving my city and serving my church.
"I have nothing to be ashamed of. A lot of things that were said were taken out of context," Copeland added, before he thanked the "hundreds" of people "who have reached out to me in love."
"I love my family, they’re No. 1, and again I’m sorry for what my actions have caused," he said.
Confusion in Smiths Station
Some of the residents Copeland allegedly used in his fiction and postings were struggling to understand Monday how they were unknowingly pulled into the dark fantasy realm.
"Our whole town is in chaos," said Courtney Norrell, a local hairstylist whose maiden name was allegedly used in one of Copeland’s writings.
Smiths Station, near the Georgia border about 80 miles east of Montgomery, Alabama’s capital, has a population of about 5,400 people.
Ansley Summerlin, a Florida hairstylist who knew Copeland when she lived in Alabama, found pictures of herself taken off her social media accounts and allegedly posted to Reddit by Copeland.
"I will say this has caused me a lot of anxiety and panic attacks," Summerlin told NBC News on Monday. "There’s just so many emotions that comes with this. After reading those stories, with the names of girls I know, it’s all very disturbing."
If you or someone you know is in crisis, call or text 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline or chat live at 988lifeline.org. You can also visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional support.