Mercy for a Thief
A bar owner’s determination to find a lost wallet helps a young man change his life
A FRANTIC CALL came into Jimmy Gilleece’s bar this past March. A newly married woman who had spent the afternoon at the dive beach bar in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, couldn’t find her wallet. She didn’t care about her ID, credit cards, or $150 in cash—but her wedding ring was tucked inside.
Gilleece, 42, didn’t like the idea that a theft could have occurred at his place, Jimmy’s at Red Dogs. So he set out to find the wallet. He spent hours scouring footage from 16 different surveillance cameras, watching the woman’s every step in the bar until she went to sit on a bench outside and left when her ride arrived. Within minutes, a young man in a hoodie approached the bench, shoved something in his pocket, and walked off. Gilleece posted a clip on the bar’s Facebook page. “I didn’t want to crucify him,” he said. “I just asked if anybody knew who the guy was.”
Within hours, Gilleece got a text from 17-year-old Rivers Prather, who’d heard about the post from his sister. Prather owned up to having taken the wallet and told Gilleece he’d done it because he hadn’t eaten
in two days. He said he saw the ring but thought it was fake, so he took the money and threw the wallet off the public docks into the ocean. Then he bought a sandwich.
Gilleece, unsure whether he believed Prather, told the teen to meet him at the docks. There, they got to talking, and Prather revealed that he wasn’t getting along with his family and had been living in the woods for a week. Gilleece, a father of two with another on the way, took stock of Prather—his small stature, his ruddy cheeks—and saw him for what he was: more of a kid than a criminal.
But the stakes were high. The police were already on the case, and because of the missing ring, Prather could be facing felony charges. “He would be going to big boy jail, all
130 pounds of him,” Gilleece says. “I had to help him somehow.”
Gilleece recruited two local divers to search the waters where Prather had thrown the wallet. Meanwhile, the police had heard that Gilleece and Prather had spoken and wanted Gilleece to bring the teen down to the station. Instead, Gilleece called the police and told them, “He’s going to be at the docks with me tomorrow.”
A detective was waiting for them there the next day at noon. A crowd had gathered to watch the two divers search in the strong current. More than an hour passed, with no sign of the ring. Gilleece grew worried, especially when the detective began peppering Prather with questions, trying to get him to admit to keeping the ring. Each passing minute increased the chances that she would arrest the young man.
And then a diver popped up. In his hand was the wallet, and inside was the ring. Cheers erupted from the spectators. Even the detective was happy.
When Gilleece called the wallet’s owner, she burst into tears. She promptly dropped the felony charges against Prather for stealing the ring, and he was permitted to go through a misdemeanor diversion program for the theft of the $150.
But it wasn’t over for Gilleece. He’d been troubled about Prather sleeping in the cold woods. Gilleece knew his home was big enough to give Prather a place to live for a while. He told the teen he could stay with his family until the boy got on his feet again. He also gave the kid a job at his bar.
“Most people would have given the footage to police, and he chose to help me,” Prather told CBS News. “I say thank you to him every day.”
Gilleece saw Prather for what he was: more of a kid than a criminal.