When Columbus police officer Billy Ray White Jr. arrested a 24-year-old man for shoplifting at a south Columbus grocery store earlier this month, the case took an unexpected turn that led to a good deed.
The suspect had taken $5.04 worth of ground beef from the South Lumpkin Road Piggly Wiggly, White said.
“He said he was trying to feed himself and his mom,” White said. “That is why he basically shoplifted the meat.”
After 10 years on the force, all as a patrol officer, White can tell when someone “is throwing shade” at him. But there was something in this man’s story that struck a chord.
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Still, White arrested the man and took him to the Muscogee County Jail. White then checked the man’s criminal history and there was nothing there, “not even a traffic infraction,” White said.
White then went to the south Columbus apartment where the man and his mother lived.
“His mother told me they had moved here to escape an abusive relationship and that’s why they were down here,” White said. “The mom is a disabled veteran and is working on VA disability to get regular income. Now, they are just going through hard times.”
White asked the mother if she minded if he looked in the refrigerator. He found no food.
“I told the mother, ‘Let me help you,’” White said. “She shook her head and just started crying. I told her to make me a grocery list and I will go buy you some groceries and help you out.”
The woman handed White a piece of paper with four items — ground beef, spaghetti noodles, spaghetti sauce and canned biscuits, he said.
“After work, I went back to the Piggly Wiggly and bought groceries,” White said.
White didn’t stop with the items on the list, he bought bacon, eggs and other essentials to last a week or more. The bill was $115 and the store manager chipped in and gave him a $25 gift card.
The mother and her son did not want to be interviewed for the story, but she did say “Officer White was like an angel sent from heaven.”
White said he looked at the situation through the lens of what if he were in that situation.
“I wouldn’t want to come home with no food,” he said. “I have a wife and daughter. I wouldn’t want them to go without. I got plenty of my own at my house. I got what I need and they didn’t have anything. So, I felt the need to help them.”
It’s a good story if it ends there, but White took it another step and that is when he got the attention of Robin King, the public defender representing the suspect when he appeared in Recorder’s Court the day after the arrest.
White was told the man he arrested was to start a new job the next day.
“Officer White approached me and started talking to me about the case,” King said. “... After the arrest, Officer White went and communicated with my client’s mother and found that everything my client had said was true.”
White then told King he wanted to have the charges dismissed. White had explained the situation to the store manager, who agreed to drop the charges.
“That was the first surprise and it was great for my client,” King said. “He is someone without a criminal history and you want to protect someone from having a criminal history. Normally, we have to fight for that and this officer was doing it on his own accord.”
King then learned of the groceries White had purchased.
“I thought that was such an act of compassion,” King said. “As he explained more and more about the situation with my client and his mother and how had come from such a difficult time and really were hungry, it really spoke to me.”
King, not White, is the one who brought the case to the attention of a Ledger-Enquirer reporter. She thought it was a story that needed to be told.
“This was a time where Officer White did everything he was supposed to and then went above and beyond to make sure everyone was taken care of,” she said. “It came out of his heart, not just out of his pocket.”
Sometimes defense attorneys and officers are at odds as each side does its job in the criminal justice system.
King acknowledge that other officers have done such over the years, but she call White’s actions “a concise story that showed the good side of law enforcement.”
“We all have our jobs to do ... and there is a check and balance system,” King said. “He was like the check and the balance. Justice was served in every way for everyone. Even the manager was satisfied with what was going on and was OK with just a stay-away order. It took a lot of work. ... It showed a sense of humanity.”