What started as a search for a possible criminal in Wrightsville Beach turned into a story of a second chance last week after divers found a missing ring in the wallet that was thrown into Banks Channel.
After his cooperation in helping find the ring, the 17-year-old homeless boy who threw the wallet into the channel was put into the New Hanover County Misdemeanor Diversion Program, avoiding a potential felony charge. But with his challenges stretching beyond the legal system, several local residents have stepped up to help the boy. (Due to privacy concerns around his relationship with his family, the Lumina News is not printing the juvenile’s name at this time.)
The boy’s saga began with the report of a lost wallet that had been left by a patron of Jimmy’s at Red Dogs on 5 N. Lumina Ave. The woman from New Mexico had placed a $10,000 ring in the wallet that she had left on the bench in front of the downtown bar during the daylight hours. But it was not lost for long, as the boy found it a few minutes later, pocketing it and later taking the cash from the wallet.
“He was homeless and he was hungry,” Jimmy’s owner Jimmy Gilleece said.
Realizing the wallet and ring were gone, the woman called the bar, and Gilleece reviewed the outdoor video and found footage of the boy taking the wallet. At first he meandered around it, then sat, slowing lifting it and putting it in his pocket. With nearly 5,000 social media followers on Facebook and Instagram, Gilleece put the bar’s network to work, trying to crowdsource the identity of the boy. Meanwhile, on March 22, the woman reported the wallet as stolen to the Wrightsville Beach Police Department.
Some leads emerged quickly and soon family members of the boy contact Gilleece, which was followed by a call directly from the boy, who was in Wrightsville Beach doing some labor for a boat owner. Gilleece said he didn’t encounter the careless or opportunistic person that many suspected, but rather a boy who was down on his luck, only to have some easy fortune come his way through finding the unattended wallet.
Though he had been living in Wilmington for about a year, he left the local relative’s house where he was staying after conflict with members of the household, and had been living in a tent in the woods. Another relative in Tennessee has full custody of the boy, who said he was trying to make a life in Wilmington because of his fondness for the area.
“It’s my favorite place in the world, I plan to live here for the rest of my life,” he said.
But without the help of a local dive team, he could have been living here with a criminal felony on his record, instead of being in the county’s misdemeanor diversion program, offering a chance to clear his record.
After speaking with the boy, Gilleece learned that he had used the money for food, but also discovered that the boy believed the ring to be a fake and tossed it, along with the rest of the wallet, into Banks Channel.
The priority for the ring’s owner was return of the ring, Gilleece said, with no questions asked about any missing cash. With that ring potentially on the bottom of the channel, Gilleece contacted Wrightsville Beach Diving, which operates custom dive charters out of the Bridge Tender Marina.
At around noon on Friday, March 23, divers Chris Slog and Brett Garner broke the waters of Banks Channel around the public boat docks at Wynn Plaza. Getting better visibility at high tide, the divers took into account the boy’s description of where he threw the wallet, along with the patterns of the current, and searched. After about 40 minutes of diving, Slog said he spotted the wallet, but was unaware of the drama unfolding on the docks.
“Sure enough, there it was,” Slog said. “Based on what he described, and there being no growth on it, as soon as I found it I knew we had it.”
With the missing wallet reported to the Wrightsville Beach Police Department, detectives were at the dock to question the boy, who was facing a potential felony for grand larceny if the divers were not successful. With time running out, Slog found the wallet, with cheers from onlookers erupting after the ring was found to still be inside.
The boy said he did find the ring, but believed it to be fake, and because he worried that he could get caught from fingerprints on the wallet, he said he threw it in the channel after taking the money.
“As soon as I found out the ring was real, I wanted to help get it back for her,” the boy said.
While he did not intentionally take the ring, Wrightsville Beach police said that since he made no effort to return it, felony charges could have been levied. Being that he boy had no prior charges and was still a juvenile in the legal system, he qualified for the diversion program, which offers him an opportunity to avoid any charges on his permanent record.
In the meantime, Gilleece has been helping the boy find both temporary and permanent housing, and the boy’s guardian is scheduled to come to Wilmington to visit him this weekend.