‘Deadline:’ The Real Story of the Murder of Wallace Youmans

The movie Deadline is based on a real story, one that echoes a dark side of American history even as it offers characters so wild they could only be real life.

Here is the real story:

In 1970, Wallace Youmans was 18 years old. The  African-American man was gunned down in Fairfax, North Carolina, returning home after visiting his girlfriend. He was shot as he passed a white-owned grocery store in the night.

No charges were filed. It seemed the case was bound to languish.

Then, in 1972, a former constable in Fairfax gave a shocking confession as he lay dying. He said that he and five other white men had conspired to shoot the next black man who walked by. It was apparently in retaliation for violence on a white man the week before.

Despite this allegation, authorities did not investigate the case or charge the men.

The next year, in 1973, a wealthy South Carolina aristocrat named, appropriately, Beekman Winthrop, read about the story while vacationing with his family. Winthrop, a direct descendant of the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, earned multiple degrees at Columbia,  had studied divinity at Harvard, and was in his early 30′s. Heir to a massive bank fortune, he lived and worked in Washington DC, but vacationed at the family plantation of 25,000 acres in Allendale County.

He was the last person one would expect to be a Civil Rights crusader.

Shocked that such brutal racial violence was allowed to occur in his South Carolina of the 1970s, Winthrop made it his business to investigate the murder and pester the authorities. One day he walked into the offices of The Charlotte Observer and said he had a story.

Because such tips rarely lead to big stories, he was handed off to a cub reporter named Mark Ethridge who determined that there was a story indeed.

They started publishing in 1974.

People magazine picked up the story. The pressure led to an indictment of the five surviving conspirators, including a former magistrate and a former policeman.

But they were never convicted. A jury of seven African-Americans and five Caucasians aquitted two defendants. Charges were dropped against the other three.

Still, the African-American community is said to have felt justice was served because the deeds of darkness were exposed in the light of the justice system.

Ethridge went on to be Editor of The Charlotte Observer and write Grievances, on which the movie Deadline is based. Some characters were changed for the film, most notably Beekam Winthrop altered into a beautiful young heiress. The newspaper was moved to Tennessee and the murder to Alabama.


Sources for this story: People Magazine 1974: A Rich Do-Gooder Named Winthrop turns Detective to Solve a Brutal Murder

NewsObserver.com: Drescher: ‘Deadline’ Illuminates Newspapers’ Vital Role

This article was written as part of the Patheos Movie Club for Deadline.