A man charged with stealing a Confederate monument during a bizarre ransom scheme that threatened to turn the relic into a toilet said he had shown how “police do not always get the right man” after authorities recently abandoned the national headline-making prosecution against him.
“If anyone out there has had their position changed on that based on my ordeal, then I suppose at least something positive came from it,” Jason Warnick, a New Orleans tattoo shop owner, said in a statement to the Guardian after Alabama prosecutors dismissed a theft case they had filed against him.
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In 2021, the district attorney in Selma, Alabama, publicly accused Warnick or someone he knew of learning about the Jefferson Davis memorial chair during an annual tour of local historic homes.
Warnick denied ever having gone to Selma. But after news reports surfaced that the 500lb stone relic worth about $500,000 had been stolen, investigators came to accuse him of being responsible after a strange sequence of events.
A group calling itself White Lies Matter issued written threats to urinate and defecate on the chair if its owners – the United Daughters of the Confederacy – did not hang a particular banner outside their headquarters in Richmond, Virginia, by 9 April 2021, the 156th anniversary of the Confederate surrender ending the US civil war.
The banner boasted a quote from a Black Liberation Army activist wanted in the 1973 murder of a New Jersey state trooper that read: “The rulers of this country have always considered their property more important than our lives.”
After a $5,000 reward was put up for the chair’s recovery, officials were tipped off that the monument was being held inside a storage room of a tattoo shop that Warnick co-owned in New Orleans’s Marigny neighborhood, more than 300 miles away from the Selma cemetery where the relic sat.
Police in New Orleans arrested Warnick, his co-owner and another person on counts of possessing stolen property after officers said they found surveillance video showing several people hauling the stone chair out of the pair’s shop and into the back of a rental van.
Officers then recovered the chair on a street corner about two miles away from the tattoo shop after someone sent the monument’s GPS coordinates to the United Daughters of the Confederacy to cap off a chain of developments that attracted coverage from CNN, USA Today, the Associated Press, Slate and the New York Times.
Within a few months, the district attorney’s office in New Orleans indicated it would not charge Warnick or the two other people whom police had arrested. But prosecutors in Alabama secured a grand jury indictment charging Warnick with stealing the Davis chair, ignoring his denials that he had ever been to the Alabama city or had any affiliation with White Lies Matter.
Warnick pleaded not guilty and showed up with his attorneys Michael Kennedy and Miles Swanson for a trial that was scheduled to start on 16 October. Prosecutors dismissed the case against Warnick before the trial started, Kennedy and Swanson said in a statement.
The district attorney’s office in Selma could not immediately be reached for comment.
The Davis chair was commissioned in 1893 and commemorates the Confederacy’s only president, who was also an enslaver. Activists targeted such monuments for removal after the 2017 killing of a demonstrator who was protesting a white supremacist rally against the removal of a statue of the Confederate general Robert E Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Warnick’s attorneys called the Davis chair a “ridiculous piece of racist memorabilia” while also criticizing their client’s earlier public portrayal “as a thief or a radical activist”.
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“Mr Warnick knew that he was neither,” their statement read.
Kennedy and Swanson’s statement noted that no one contested Warnick’s assertion that he had never been to Selma. And they said Warnick demonstrated “why a zealous defense is essential in the American system of law, in every case, for every defendant”.
In his own statement, Warnick said receiving widespread media exposure for having “done nothing” was beyond surreal.
It was “awkward, painful, embarrassing, worrisome – and in the end, perhaps most especially, wholly incomprehensible”, Warnick said. “I felt like a pawn in the middle of something I didn’t know was happening.”
Warnick said he was grateful to those who supported him despite the authorities’ allegations against him. And he said he realized he was lucky to be able to afford “excellent attorneys who never backed down”.
“Not everyone is that lucky,” Warnick added. “But I am proof that the police do not always get the right man.”