A small-town Alabama pastor and mayor killed himself Friday, days after a local conservative news website published a story that included photos of him wearing women’s clothing and makeup.
F.L. “Bubba” Copeland, who was the mayor of Smiths Station and the pastor at First Baptist Church in Phenix City, shot himself in front of police during a welfare check, the Lee County Sheriff’s Office said.
Copeland’s private life was exposed Wednesday by the conservative blog 1819 News, which was once owned by the right-wing Alabama Policy Institute and whose top editor is a former Breitbart News contributor.
That post, written by Craig Monger, had the rambling headline: The secret life of Smiths Station Mayor and Baptist pastor F.L. ‘Bubba’ Copeland as a ‘transgender curvy girl’: ‘It’s a hobby I do to relieve stress’.
1819 News published the username to Copeland’s Reddit and Instagram accounts, writing that he posed “in various outfits, some more racy than others.” The blog also said that Copeland used the pseudonym “Brittini Blaire Summerlin” and posted pornography and advice on chemically transitioning.
If you or a loved one are struggling with suicidal thoughts, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by dialing or texting 988.
The blog reported that Copeland, a Republican, confirmed that the accounts were run by him, saying they were a “hobby” he used for “getting rid of stress.” 1819 News reported that Copeland asked them to not out him, but they did so anyway, even though it does not appear he had taken any public positions against LGBTQ issues that could be construed as hypocritical.
1819 News published a short article on Friday without a byline to report Copeland’s suicide.
Copeland was elected to be mayor of Smiths Station, a town of about 5,000 near the Georgia state line, in 2016. He was thrust into the national spotlight in 2019 when a string of tornadoes ravaged the area and then-President Donald Trump visited. Copeland was photographed with Trump and used the picture to campaign for re-election in 2020.
Copeland’s extracurricular activities quickly turned into a community-wide controversy. His church referred to “unbiblical behavior” in a statement, and Copeland reportedly told his parishioners that the article did not represent “who or what I am.” He added that it would “not cause my life to change.”
“This will not waver my devotion to my family, serving my city, serving my church,” Copeland said Wednesday before giving his final sermon, which was live streamed online.
Copeland, who was married, said he was the subject of an “internet attack.” He added that “a lot of things were taken out of context” and that “hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people” had reached out to offer their support for him.
“Yes, I have 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,” he said. “I apologize for any embarrassment caused by my private, personal life.”
The uproar took a tragic turn on Friday, when Lee County Sheriff Jay Jones said that deputies who tried to pull Copeland over for a welfare check witnessed Copeland step out of his car and shoot himself.
A First Baptist Church of Phenix City official referred The Daily Beast to a statement posted to the church’s Facebook page on Saturday morning. The church changed its profile and cover photo to be black and white, seemingly to honor Copeland.
“Thank you all for your prayers and expressions of sympathy and support,” the church wrote. “First and foremost, we ask that you keep Pastor Bubba Copeland’s family in your prayers today, and in the days ahead.”
Defending his reporting on X, formerly Twitter, Monger responded to a since-deleted tweet saying, “‘Digging up someone’s personal life’ is reporting on what someone posts publicly on social media? Interesting take.”
In a separate post responding to criticism, Monger wrote, “Pictures posted to Reddit are now considered ‘private,’ according to the kiddy table of Alabama media.”
Monger has not posted since Copeland’s suicide.
Phenix City School Superintendent Larry DiChiara, who said he was an old friend of Copeland, shared his anger and heartbreak in a Facebook post.
“Please bare with me while I vent,” he said. “I am so angry right now and heartbroken. I witnessed a good man be publicly ridiculed and crucified over the last few days… to the point that he just took his own life today.”
DiCharia said he’d offered his “support and encouragement” to Copeland after he was outed on Wednesday and that Copeland acknowledged he was going through some “dark days.”
“I just want to ask you people who thought it humorous to publicly ridicule him, ‘Are you happy now?’ What crime did he commit? Some of you people make me sick,” DiCharia added. “I hope you are really proud. For our brother, F.L. Bubba Copeland, May God bless your soul and forgive those who took pleasure in your suffering. They should all be ashamed!”