A wealthy man in his early 30s named Beekman Winthrop walked into the newsroom of The Charlotte Observer in November 1973 with a stack of documents and said he had a story.
Tipsters walk into newspaper offices across the country every day. Often the story isnt much of a story, at least not for a wide audience. Winthrop was steered to a cub reporter in his early 20s, Mark Ethridge.
This tip was a good one. It led to some high-profile stories and, nearly four decades later, to a new movie, Deadline, which has a special showing at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Regal North Hills theater in Raleigh.
Deadline was inspired by the story Winthrop brought Ethridge: Wallace Youmans, an 18-year-old black man, was shot in the head and killed in May 1970 in tiny Fairfax, S.C., while walking home from his girlfriends house shortly after midnight.
After more than three years, no arrest had been made. In Winthrops view, there hadnt been much of an investigation.
Winthrop was an unlikely crusader for justice in rural South Carolina. He was heir to a banking fortune and descendent of the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
He had never met Youmans, who was poor. Winthrop lived in an elegant house in the tony Georgetown section of Washington, D.C. But he lived part of the year on his familys 25,000-acre plantation near Fairfax in Allendale County.
Winthrop was consumed by the case and spent 18 months investigating it to the displeasure of some of his blue-blooded relatives, who thought he should leave it alone.
Winthrop (the university in Rock Hill, S.C., is named for a relative) convinced Ethridge there was an important story to be told about this unsolved murder. Ethridges editor paired him with John York, a wily and accomplished veteran reporter.
They dug in and published several stories about the case in 1974.
In a lengthy story about Winthrop, Ethridge described him as slight, soft-spoken and self-effacing. If I had met Wallace Youmans, I doubt I would have been drawn to him personally, but I am more than morally offended by what happened to him, Winthrop told Ethridge.
Once Ethridge and York started writing about the case, People magazine wrote an article headlined, A Rich Do-gooder Named Winthrop Turns Detective to Solve a Brutal Murder.
Eventually, five white men were indicted, including a former magistrate and a former policeman.
A jury of seven blacks and five whites acquitted two of the defendants.
The prosecutor dropped charges against the other three.
Residents of the county of 10,000 (about two-thirds of whom were black) were satisfied that the case eventually received the attention it deserved from the criminal justice system.
There was a real fundamental change in that part of the world because of what he (Winthrop) had done and what the newspaper had done, Ethridge said this week in an interview. It was very clear that you couldnt just kill black people in this little town and not have any consequences.
The story stuck with Ethridge, now 62. He became managing editor of The Charlotte Observer (I was a reporter on his staff) and eventually left daily journalism.
He still lives in Charlotte and is president of Carolina Parenting Inc., which owns Carolina Parent magazine in the Triangle.
Ethridge and members of the cast are on a 43-city tour promoting the movie and raising money for charities. Proceeds from the Raleigh event will benefit the Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina.
Ethridge is also a novelist. His 2006 book, Grievances, was inspired by the Youmans case. That gave birth to Deadline, for which he wrote the screenplay. Deadline stars Eric Roberts as the veteran reporter, Steve Talley as the young reporter and Charlottes Lauren Jenkins as the well-to-do crusader.
Yes, Beekman Winthrops character has been changed into a beautiful young woman.
Hey, its a movie. There are other changes, including the movies setting in present-day Tennessee and Alabama.
Ethridge said that although the book and movie were inspired by the Youmans case, they stand on their own.
But what is the same in the book, movie and Youmans case, Ethridge said, is the newspapers role in bringing the case to light. The movie, he said, is a really, really positive message about the importance of newspapers and investigative reporting and enterprise reporting.
Newspapers cannot solve societys problems. We are not equipped to do that, and thats not our role. But newspapers can, and should, shine a light into dark places and reveal new information. Then the people and their representatives, armed with information, can decide what to do.
Nearly 40 years after helping to bring the Wallace Youmans murder to light, Ethridge still believes in journalism.
Drescher: 919-829-4515 or email@example.com. On Twitter @john_drescher