Friends: Slain Memphis police officer was strong, but avoided confrontation

A makeshift memorial rests on the sidewalk Monday, Aug. 3, 2015, at the location where Memphis, Tenn., Police Officer Sean Bolton was fatally shot. Tremaine Wilbourn, the ex-con accused of killing the Memphis Police Officer turned himself into federal authorities Monday, after a two-day manhunt.

MEMPHIS -- Slain police officer Sean Bolton's physical strength and powerful, melon-sized hands served him well in tight situations, like when he subdued two suspects at one time. Still, friends say he avoided confrontation whenever possible, and dedicated his life to protecting others.

Bolton, 33, was shot multiple times and killed Saturday night during a struggle with an ex-convict, police said. Bolton had interrupted a drug deal in a neighborhood in Memphis, a city long listed as one of America's most violent, and was confronted by Tremaine Wilbourn, a 29-year-old convicted armed bank robber, police said.

After a two-day manhunt, Wilbourn turned himself in to authorities to face a first-degree murder charge. He has a court appearance Wednesday.

Friends say Bolton overcame a financially troubled childhood - during which he sometimes had no bed and slept on the floor. He attended the University of Memphis, spoke multiple languages and served in the Marines in Iraq. He enjoyed handing out school supplies and candy to children because he knew what it was like to grow up with so little.

Bolton was a loyal but shy guy who never married. When his best friend died, he took in his distraught mother. He liked to lift weights, read world history books and watch Police Academy movies.

"Sean is a very smart guy, incredibly intelligent. ... He knew that it was a dangerous job," said longtime friend Stephen Clements, who used to live in Memphis but now resides in Nashville. "But he was also a great guy and he knew that his talents could be best used helping protect others. I don't know that he ever lost any sleep or was worried about things being dangerous out there."

Bolton's family has asked for privacy, and his friends said he didn't talk about them much. Bolton was the best man in his brother Brian's wedding June 20, and nearly two weeks later, Bolton's father, a Vietnam veteran, died.

He was buried at West Tennessee Veterans Cemetery, the same place Bolton will be laid to rest Thursday. His father's obituary in The Commercial Appeal did not mention Bolton's mother.

Bolton was on the wrestling team at White Station High School. There, he became friends with Jeffrey Klitzner, who was a year older and took Bolton under his wing.

"He was really shy. He really didn't talk to anybody," said Minda Klitzner, Jeffrey's mother.

Bolton graduated in 1999 and went to the University of Memphis. He lived with Clements, who also attended the college. Clements said Bolton had a rough upbringing.

"He didn't have a bed for a long time. He was happy to have shoes that fit, things like that," Clements said.

His father had been a Marine, and Bolton enlisted, even though he'd watched his father struggle with the scars he brought home from the Vietnam War, his family wrote in a statement they issued through the police department.

"During his tour in Iraq, there were horrible moments but also, in typical Sean fashion, moments of surprising humanity," the family wrote. "He happened to meet an Iraqi farmer who spoke Spanish and they started having a conversation in broken Spanish, there in the middle of Iraq."

Bolton talked to Clements about his experience in Iraq's Al-Anbar province. The poor living conditions of Iraqis concerned him, so he did what he could, such as giving children candy and school supplies, Clements said.

"They had nothing, and Sean, growing up, he didn't have much either," Clements said.

Bolton joined the police force when he returned from Iraq and had moved in with Jeffrey Klitzner. When he died in their condo four years ago, Bolton found the body. He handled the funeral arrangements, and let Minda Klitzner move in with him for a time until she moved to Seattle.

"He was, in a Jewish word, a 'mensch'," said Klitzner, referring to the Yiddish word for a person with honor.

Bolton, who stood above 6 feet tall, had hands that "were about the size of cantaloupes," Clements said, and "an incredible amount of physical courage."

Bolton was white, and Wilbourn is black. Bolton's death comes amid heightened scrutiny of police relations with blacks, stemming from the deaths of African-Americans during altercations with white officers in Memphis and other parts of the country.

"Sean genuinely wanted to help all Memphians to live safely and peaceably within our community," the family wrote in their statement. "Sean's concern, his only concern, was not the color of the skin of the person he was dealing with but rather whether or not they were committing a crime. When others ran away, Sean was the first to run toward danger, regardless of his personal safety."

Clements and Klitzner both told a story about Bolton taking down two suspects when he was an officer, breaking his own wrist during the struggle. But Bolton would "bend over backward" to avoid a physical confrontation, Clements said.

"There wasn't a bully bone in his body," he said.