F.L. 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 Sims computer game: building a community, then dealing with the complexities and crises that emerged along the way.
There had been plenty during his seven years in office: a deadly, devastating tornado; the coronavirus pandemic; neglected roads that the city could not afford to fix. But Smiths Station pulled through. Mr. Copeland had devised a plan to pay for repaving roads. He was proud of businesses, like a truck stop, that he had brought in. He was contemplating another term. Many in the city would have welcomed it.
Then, on Nov. 3, sheriff’s deputies, who had been called by worried friends of Mr. Copeland to check on him, trailed 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 clothes and wearing makeup, and sexually explicit social media posts and fiction that the outlet said he had written about transgender women.
On the day he died, the outlet, 1819 News, published another article saying that some of Mr. Copeland’s posts and stories had used the names and photographs of local residents.
In and around Smiths Station, disagreement over the construction of the truck stop had once counted as controversy. Now, the city was wrestling with disbelief, confusion, anguish and anger.
“I cannot tell you that I fully understand or can explain the scope of this tragedy,” David White, a congregant, said from the pulpit during the first Sunday service after Mr. Copeland’s death at First Baptist Church of Phenix City, where Mr. Copeland had been a pastor.
“There are some things though that I do know are absolutely true,” Mr. White said. “I know that my friend Bubba Copeland loved this church and its people.”
Mr. Copeland, who was 49 and married with three children, had first been elected mayor in 2016 in the city of about 5,000, near where the Chattahoochee River forms the boundary between Alabama and Georgia. Residents had spotted him on Sunday afternoons filling potholes by himself. When an 18-wheeler jackknifed in front of the truck stop, he and his wife were in 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?” one asked) and posts on competing Facebook pages, including “What’s Happening in Smiths Station” and “What’s Really Happening in Smiths Station.”
On Nov. 1, 1819 News, whose editor used to work at the right-wing website Breitbart.com, published the first article. It said that Mr. Copeland had “operated social media accounts as a transgender woman,” and featured a photo of his wearing his wife’s sweater, makeup and a blond wig. The article also pointed to erotic fiction that it said he had written involving transgender people who were transitioning.
“It’s a hobby I do to relieve stress,” Mr. Copeland was quoted as saying to the outlet. “I have a lot of stress, and I’m not medically transitioning. It’s just a bit of a character I’m playing.”
When the article quickly circulated around Alabama and conservative corners of the internet, Mr. Copeland became the subject of scorn and mockery. Baptist officials in Alabama issued a statement saying that they had become “aware of alleged unbiblical behavior” on Mr. Copeland’s part and were “praying for the leaders of the church family as they seek to determine the truth concerning these accusations.”
That day, Mr. Copeland addressed the congregation at First Baptist Church from the pulpit. He said he had “taken pictures with my wife in the privacy of our home in an attempt of humor.”
He apologized for the turmoil but said, “This will not cause my life to change,” adding, “This will not waver my devotion to my family, serving my city, serving my church.”
On Nov. 3, 1819 News published another article, this one saying that Mr. Copeland had posted a fictional erotic story online that contained a character who had the same name as a business owner in the community; in it, the article said, the narrator described stalking and killing the business owner and assuming her identity. The outlet also reported that Mr. Copeland’s explicit posts on social media and websites included names and photographs of other people in the Smiths Station area, including a minor pictured in a post appearing to promote gender transition.
“I will say this has caused me a lot of anxiety and panic attacks,” one of the women who appeared in photos that had been posted, a hair stylist who now lives in Florida, told NBC News.
She declined to comment further to a reporter for The New York Times.
The second article did not say whether the outlet had reached out to Mr. Copeland for comment or to confirm the writings and posts were his. The sheriff’s office in Lee County, where Smiths Station is located, has said it is investigating the circumstances surrounding Mr. Copeland’s suicide but not his online posts.
The news media has long reported on the private lives of public figures, publishing accounts of sexual misconduct or impropriety. Experts on journalism ethics said it requires balancing an individual’s privacy against the importance of the information to the public.
But the articles on Mr. Copeland were widely condemned. Cameron Smith, a conservative columnist for AL.com, suggested in an opinion essay that 1819 News should have brought the information to leaders of Mr. Copeland’s church, and that doing so “could have resulted in a stronger church, a stronger community, and Copeland’s survival.”
The 1819 News reporter who wrote the articles about Mr. Copeland, the editor in chief and chief executive of the outlet did not respond to messages seeking comment. But 1819 News has defended its coverage, arguing that residents of Smiths Station and congregants of First Baptist Church had a right to know about Mr. Copeland’s behavior.
In a podcast late last week, Jeff Poor, the editor in chief, and Bryan Dawson, the president and chief executive, emphasized that their reporting had started with a tip and that they had found Mr. Copeland’s posts on “publicly available” websites.
“A mayor, a public official in a town, 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 anybody should do? You’re just wrong, OK?”
“It’s unfortunate what happened after this,” he added. “But in the lead-up to that, I feel like we were justified. We were on solid ground.”
In an opinion article on Saturday, the outlet called Mr. Copeland “a very sick man” who encouraged “a lifestyle that, according to the tenets of his Baptist faith, is neither recognized nor approved.”
Some in the community have expressed gratitude for the articles, particularly the reports of Mr. Copeland using the names and photographs of residents online. In the community Facebook pages, one woman called the writer of the articles a “hero.” Others said they felt as though they had been deceived by Mr. Copeland.
Some in the community gathered one evening for a vigil where pastors preached a message of unity and compassion. Mr. Copeland’s name was not mentioned once — a conspicuous absence, as there was no doubt about why they were praying.
“God, we’re going to be honest: Our hearts hurt,” the Rev. Lynn McManious, the pastor of Beaver Creek Baptist Church in Phenix City, said during the vigil. “Lord, for some there’s hurt; for some, there’s anger. There’s others that have confusion.”
His voice trembled as he continued his prayer.
“We love to think we have the answers,” he went on, “but we do not.”
If you are having thoughts of 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.