With investigators closing in and public clamor high, the Bessie Smith Cultural Center employee believed to be the culprit behind the theft of nearly $60,000 turned to community leaders he trusted and then turned himself in to police Monday afternoon.
Torrey Lamar Hines, 35, is charged with burglary, vandalism and theft over $50,000 after taking responsibility for the June 10 burglary that quickly sobered the mood along M.L. King Boulevard just hours after some 6,000 people attended the popular Bessie Smith Strut.
Hines first went to a local pastor with his confession. Both then turned to City Councilman Moses Freeman, an old friend of Hines' father. Freeman said he reached out to a local attorney who arranged for the meeting where Hines told police Detective Larry Grubb that he stole the money.
Hines also confessed to vandalizing the interior of the center with spray-paint to make it look like a crime committed by white supremacists, sources with knowledge of the investigation said.
Freeman said Hines was remorseful and told him he needed the money, in part, to help his mother with her mortgage. Hines told Freeman that money from the center also went to pay some other loans and to buy a few tanks of gas. Hines worked as a custodian and helped set up for events at the Bessie Smith Center but told Freeman he was not bringing in enough money.
"I was delighted that he came forward and I was particularly pleased that he had some confidence and trust in me that he would come to me," Freeman told the Times Free Press. "I think him turning himself in is the beginning of a healing process for him. It certainly resolved the issue."
At a news conference following the confession, new Chattanooga Police Chief Fred Fletcher said Hines returned more than $30,000 of the proceeds from the Strut.
Fletcher said police have no reason to believe others were involved and that his department will work with events like the Bessie Smith Strut to prevent similar thefts in the future.
"I think it's offensive," Fletcher said. "I think that's why Lt. [Jerome] Halbert and his detectives worked so diligently to make sure we solved this crime. Anytime somebody is victimized and subject to a property crime, it's offensive. But in this case it was an organization trying to help their community, and that offends all of us."
Hines was placed on probation for six months and ordered to do 10 days of public service in 2008 after he pleaded guilty to possession of marijuana. He also pleaded guilty to possessing marijuana in 1999. Other than a few traffic citations, those two drug charges make up his local criminal history.
On Monday afternoon he was being held at the Hamilton County Jail under a $40,000 bond. Hines is scheduled to appear in Sessions Court July 15.
Freeman said he would like to see the possibility of a pre-trial diversion explored so Hines could work to pay back what he spent.
"I hope for the best for him in light of the fact the money has been returned," Freeman said.
Contact staff writer David Cobb at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6731.
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