Brer Rabbit recovered: Sheriff reveals how he cracked case, busted Brer Rabbit’s captors

By David Pendered

A stupid teenage prank that went awry, not politics, was the reason behind the theft of a statue of Brer Rabbit, according to Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills.

The possibility of politics as a motive was first raise by Lain Shakespeare, executive director of the Wren’s Nest, the Atlanta home of Brer Rabbit author Joel Chandler Harris. Shakespeare feared the theft was connected to intemperate remarks by a Colorado congressman who compared President Obama to the “Tar Baby” in an Uncle Remus story.

However, Putnam Sheriff Howard Sills said confessions gathered in the investigation showed that the theft was a dumb stunt. Sills provided a full report of the probe that rocked Eatonton, where the statue was taken from the front yard of the Uncle Remus Museum, and wobbled the Wren’s Nest, where Shakespeare does a yeoman’s job of keeping Harris relevant.

Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills with Brer Rabbit, whom he retrieved from kidnappers. Credit: Putnam County Sheriffs Department.

Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills with Brer Rabbit, whom he retrieved from kidnappers. Credit: Putnam County Sheriffs Department.

As recently as Friday, U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), was apologizing for calling Obama a tar baby. Shakespeare saw the clear connection between Lamborn’s remarks early this month and the tar baby story, and raised a question that some in Eatonton also raised – was the statue stolen in retaliation?

Earlier this year, Shakespeare provided insights on the sanitized version of Mark Twain’s “Advenutures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.” The new book, released by Alabama-based publisher NewSouth, Inc. removes every instance of the n-word and replaces it with the word “slave.” Shakespeare said he prefers the original version, just as others may prefer the modern release.

But at this point of the Brer Rabbit heist, it appears that politics had nothing to do with the theft. The statue was taken as a lark by young men who broke the statue, knew they were in for big trouble, and tried to hide from their deeds, according to the sheriff’s account.

Here’s what Sills said in an email about the investigation that led to the arrest of four teenaged men in connection with the theft of the statue:

“The general response from each of them was pretty much the same and it went like this: ‘Sheriff, we were out Sunday night just goofing around (and drinking) so we decided to take the rabbit and we were going to bring it back, but then we broke it and didn’t know what to do. We were going to try to fix it and paint it.  Then it was all on TV and you were looking for it and us, etc., etc., etc.

“Two of the boys are college students. One at Ga. Southern (Adam Beckstine) and one at Valdosta State (Caleb Reaves). One is employed by a local pest control company (Austin Coleman) and one is unemployed (Shaun Bachan). All of them went to high school together here in Putnam County.

“All of the media attention resulted in me getting a couple of calls about who was ultimately responsible. I finally received a personal call from an anonymous person that gave me the general location (very general within about 50 acres) but I knew from the description of the property exactly where it was because the property at one time belonged to my family and I had hunted extensively on it throughout my youth.

“That person also gave me a couple of names of those responsible for the theft. The first boy I questioned asked me who told me. I, of course, told him I wasn’t about to tell him. He responded that only 11 people knew they had taken Bre’r Rabbit. I broke down in almost uncontrollable laughter at that juncture.

“None of these boys has any criminal record. It was just one of those dumb things young boys and men do, but they picked the wrong thing to steal. As I told them, ‘It ain’t like you boys took a watermelon where I would scold you, call your parents, and send you home without arresting you.”

Sills threw the book at the four – charging each of them with felony theft by taking. He said at the outset that he’d be inclined to let the suspects go if the statue were recovered unharmed. But he would respond severely if the statue were damaged, because the statue is a local treasure.

But the statue was damaged: An ear was broken off, and recovered, and the smoking pipe was broken off, and apparently not recovered.

If the charges stick, each faces from one year to 10 years in prison. The charges could be reduced or the judge could sentence them to a misdemeanor penalty – punishable by up to 12 months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000.

Here are the names of the four suspects:

  • Shaun Michael Bachan,19 of Eatonton; released on $1,000 cash bond;
  • Adam Bernard Beckstine, 19, of Eatonton; released on $2,000 property bond;
  • Austin Clark Coleman, age 19 of Eatonton; released on $2,000 property bond;
  • Caleb Lawrence Reaves, 18 of Social Circle; released on $2,000 property bond.

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

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