Many support mayor accused of charity theft

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GREENBRIER, Tenn. (AP) - A small-town mayor charged with stealing from the Toys for Tots charity he founded hasn't been drummed out of town, or even out of office.

Many people in Greenbrier say they can't believe that Mayor Billy Wilson would steal from charity. Many others say they are withholding judgment and waiting to see whether he is found guilty.

It's clear that Wilson has built up a lot of goodwill in the community of about 6,500 people where he has been mayor since 2004. Wilson also is chief of the Volunteer Fire Department and until earlier this month he ran a charity called GreenRidge Toys for Tots, which supporters say did much more than helping children at Christmas.

Melanie Edward said she has known Wilson for many years.

"I've never seen anyone more involved in their community," she said. "It's hard for me to believe he's done anything intentionally wrong."

Edward said Wilson would often give people money to help them pay their bills or for other needs.

"Not anything can tarnish his name in my eyes, and there's quite a few people who feel that way," she said.

Wilson was arrested Nov. 4 and charged with stealing $60,000 from the Toys for Tots program, which is not affiliated with the national program run by the U.S. Marine Corps. He is accused of taking the money for his personal benefit between Nov. 1, 2005, and Oct. 31, 2013.

He was released on $5,000 bond shortly after his arrest. Wilson declined interview requests and his attorney did not return repeated phone calls. A settlement date in the case is scheduled for Jan. 24.

Edward said she believes the only thing Wilson may be guilty of is poor bookkeeping, a sentiment echoed by others in interviews and on a "Support Greenbrier Mayor Billy Wilson" Facebook page that had 594 likes as of Thursday.

A number of those supporters don't even live in Greenbrier but know Wilson either because they used to live there or because he has helped them in some way.

For example, Debbie Valentine, who lives in Nashville, credits Wilson with saving her son Austin's life.

In 2007, the family was driving the main road running through Greenbrier when an impaired driver smashed into their car.

Valentine said she heard later that Wilson had just sat down to dinner at a local restaurant when he heard the accident and came running. He was the first person on the scene, pulling the 11-year-old boy from the car, riding with him in the ambulance and praying over him at the hospital.

Wilson returned the next day to check on Austin and remains a family friend to this day, always remembering to send birthday and Christmas cards, Valentine said.

"We always tell people he's a blessing sent from God," Valentine said. "He's our angel."

Wilson earns a salary of $800 a month as mayor. Greenbrier Superintendent Tommy Maitland said the position is supposed to be part-time, but Wilson treats it as a fulltime job. Several people said Wilson owned a home improvement business although they were not sure whether it was still operating.

Maitland said the state comptroller's office also is auditing the city's books, although he feels confident they will find nothing amiss there.

"Our books are wide open," he said.

Meanwhile, the management of Toys for Tots has been turned over to the GreenRidge Civitan Club, which works in Greenbrier and neighboring Ridgetop.

Ruth Buckner, owner of Greenbrier flower and gift shop The Potting Shed, is helping collect toys and money for the charity. On a recent visit to the store by a reporter, the toy box was full, but a plastic jar to collect donations was nearly empty.

Buckner said she supports Wilson because she has personally witnessed him helping a number of people.

"I can attest to his character," she said.

(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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