A framed drawing of a little boy in overalls gazing at a sheriff’s patrol vehicle has a special place in Rick Singleton’s office — eye level across from the desk of the Lauderdale County sheriff.
“That picture reminds me of me,’’ Singleton said. “I was always fascinated with police cars. Back when I was kid and we got model cars, I’d turn every one of them into a police car.”
Of course, it’s not just the blue lights and sirens that drew the 70-year-old into law enforcement so many decades ago.
While it might have begun with him rushing home from school each day to actor Broderick Crawford in “Highway Patrol,” Singleton and those close to him know it was God’s purpose for his life to serve and to protect others.
“He is a strong, strong Christian man,’’ said Peggy, his wife of 46 years. “I’ve heard him say many, many times that it’s not like work to him. He enjoys what he does.”
“I don’t feel like he would have handled this past week or so as well as he has if it was not for his faith,’’ she said.
Singleton, who will retire in January after 50 years in law enforcement, was thrust into the national spotlight on April 29 when Vicky White, the assistant commander of operations at the Lauderdale County Jail, walked out of the north Alabama lockup with capital murder suspect Casey White.
Unbeknownst to Singleton, and almost everyone, Vicky White had established a jailhouse romance with Casey White up to two years earlier. She devised a calculated plan to break him out of jail, turning in her retirement papers a day earlier.
Casey White was taken into custody Monday in Indiana following a police chase that ended in a crash. Vicky White fatally shot herself in the head as police closed in.
As the escape launched a massive manhunt, Singleton vowed to chronicle “the good, the bad and the ugly.”
“It’s all on the table,’’ Singleton said.
Lauded for his transparency, and criticized that such an escape could happen under his watch, Singleton said he’s been the subject of memes and bristled when a national news anchor referred to his deputies as “keystone cops.”
He takes it in stride, knowing that Alabama folks are often easy targets.
“We wear that badge whether we like it or not — we’re called a bunch of rednecks and hillbillies that don’t know what the heck we’re doing and that’s all because we talk funny I guess,’’ Singleton said.
“I understand I’ve be the subject of all kinds of memes on social media — my voice, my looks, and everything else,’’ he said. “I learned a long time ago not to let that bother me. I’ve even been called Buford T. Justice.”
Make no mistake about it though, there’s a lot more to Singleton than his southern accent and his shiny badge.
The north Alabama native is a husband, father, grandfather, and former owner of a family barbecue restaurant and an ambulance service.
He builds model trains, toils in the garden, sang in a barbershop quartet and, perhaps most surprising, spent at least a decade as professional wrestler with the National Wrestling Alliance, where he even headlined a few main events as Dr. Death. His wrestling mask and boots are proudly displayed in his office.
“He’s such a man of integrity,’’ said the Rev. Chad Hess, Singleton’s pastor at Woodmont Baptist Church in Florence. “He does things the right way, which is why he’s been in that position so long.”
“He handles things with a lot of grace but always tells the truth, and that’s what I appreciate about him the most,’’ Hess said.
‘I have looked down the barrel of a few guns’
Singleton began his law enforcement career in 1972. He started just two weeks shy of his 21st birthday as a reserve deputy.
It was Friday, Sept. 8, 1972, when he first donned the uniform — one he had to pay for out of his own money — to park cars at a Lauderdale County high school football game.
“It was hot and muggy. I was sweaty and you know how dirt clings to you when you get sweaty, but I was loving every minute of it,’’ he said.
“Two of the deputies drove me out there because I was going to ride with them after the game,’’ he recalled.
“One of the deputies turned around a said, ‘Why would you do this? Why would you spend money out of your pocket to buy that uniform and come out here on a Friday night? You’re a young man, single and work for no pay,’ and I said, ‘Because one day I want to be sheriff.’’’
“I was 20 years old,’’ he said. “I think everybody who comes through these doors wanting a job has that aspiration probably.”
Singleton said his first few years were “a little bumpy.”
“I found out it’s not all black and white,’’ he said. “I was a little disillusioned and not sure this was what I wanted.”
In 1973, just six weeks off the training car, Singleton shot and killed a man in the line of duty.
Singleton said he was attempting to serve an “insanity warrant” on James T. Williams when Williams attacked another deputy with a fishing knife. The other deputy was injured, and Singleton fatally shot Williams.
He doesn’t like to talk about it much, but he said it shaped him into the cop, and man, he would become.
“It happened on June 8, 1973, and I remember it like it was last night,’’ he said. “It happened at 12:30 a.m. and then next afternoon I was back at work at 4 p.m.”
There was no time off or counseling like today’s protocols.
“That’s why I became a workaholic. That’s how I coped,’’ he said. “As long as I stayed busy, I could deal with it. If I ever got idle, I’d start feeling depression and all the other things that go along with post-traumatic stress, so I had just had to learn how to manage it on my own.”
“I never had hobbies or anything because every spare minute I was either working a second job or working overtime or running a business,’’ he said. “That’s why I’m still working at 70.”
At age 26, Singleton made his for bid for sheriff of Lauderdale County.
“Like I thought I was qualified,’’ he said with a chuckle.
His boss had died from cancer just one year into his term as sheriff and the man appointed to fill in for him had decided not seek the position permanently.
“I decided I was going to run, along with 11 other people,’’ he said. “I came in fourth in a 12-man race and there were only 800 votes that separated me from the frontrunner.”
“I was disappointed at the time but when I look back, that was a pretty decent showing really,’’ he said.
His career shifted gears, though, and he went to work for the Florence Police Department. He spent 32 years and four months there and would serve more than 16 years as chief.
Before being named chief, he again ran for sheriff in 1990. The current sheriff at the time was going for his fourth term and was the first sheriff in history of the county to have served three consecutive terms.
Though Singleton got roughly 45 percent of the vote, his bid again came up short.
“I woke up the next morning and no desire to be sheriff,’’ he said. “I resigned myself,’’ that it would be an office he would not hold. Ever.
He was appointed police chief in 1996 and served until he retired in 2012.
“I had planned on staying a couple more years, but our mayor was retiring, and he called me one day. He asked me if I had considered running for mayor and I said I’d never given it a thought,’’ Singleton said. “He said, ‘Well you ought to at least think about it.’”
“Here I go. My wheels start turning,’’ he said with a laugh.
And with that, Singleton was a mayoral candidate. He came within 400 votes of winning, but it was a no-go.
He was approached the very next day about running for sheriff.
Singleton said he had no interest. Though the department was full of good men and women, he said, it was disorganized. He didn’t think he had the energy to restructure and rebuild the department after having already done so at the Florence Police Department.
In the end, however, he ran and that time won. He took office in 2014, as the county’s first Republican sheriff, and ran again in 2018, this time unopposed.
He survived it all physically unscathed.
“I have looked down the barrel of a few guns, and I’ve been in a few scuffles, but my whole career I’ve never drawn one penny of workman’s comp.”
BBQ, ambulances and Dr. Death
Singleton’s life hasn’t been all law and order.
He grew up in the barbecue business, which took his family from Decatur to Florence.
“By the time I was 11 or 12, I was washing dishes and mopping floors and bringing in wood for the pit,’’ he said. “By the time I got in high school, I was on the cook line helping them cook.”
His father and uncles retired, and the family business went on break.
“Everywhere I went people would say, ‘I wish y’all would open back up,’’ Singleton said.
He considered it and opened Singleton’s Bar b Que in 1993. Just like the ambulance service he had owned several years earlier, he considered it a backup plan should police work become too much to handle.
“It was my safety net,’’ he said.
His wife ran the restaurant, but Singleton was a familiar face there as well.
“I would leave the office and go back and hang out there until closing time,’’ he said. “It was sort of my golf. I didn’t have a hobby or anything. When I’d grab a spatula, I didn’t think about the mess.”
The restaurant closed in 2015 when Singleton’s wife retired to care for her ailing mother.
It was during his early years in law enforcement that Singleton also made another lifelong dream a reality.
At the age of 21 — while a police officer and college student — Singleton was also a pro-wrestler.
“Some kids want to be astronauts. I wanted to be two things — a cop and a wrestler,’’ he said. “I was privileged to get to do both of them.”
Singleton — aka Dr. Death — wrestled under Nick Gulas, a famed promoter in the southeast.
He did that for 10 to 12 years, hanging up his boots and mask in his early 30s.
“I think I was good,’’ he said. “We have a reunion every year and the slogan on our t-shirt is, “The older we get, the better we were.”
“I guess you gauge whether you’re good or not by where you fall on the card,’’ he said. “I was in a few main events, so I guess I was doing OK.”
Through it all, family and faith has remained at the top of Singleton’s priority list.
He met Peggy during a roadblock — a driver’s license checkpoint — in 1975. There were three couples in the car, and the driver had an expired license.
A few days later, one of Peggy’s friends called Singleton under the guise that she wanted to learn how to wrestle. “She was supposed to bring Peggy into the conversation, but she never did,’’ he said.
So, Peggy then called him and the two set up a date to meet at the Pit Grill, an all-night coffee shop. The date was set for 1:15 a.m. after Singleton ended his shift.
He drove by early to scope it out. “I looked and there was only one woman inside, and she was old enough to be my mama,’’ he said. “I thought, ‘Well, if that’s Peggy, I ain’t stopping.”
But when he returned at the agreed-upon time, Peggy — younger and prettier — was waiting for him.
“We stayed about 1 ½ hours,’’ he said. “My friends owned the ambulance service and they stayed up all night, so I left the Pit Grill and went over there and told them, ‘I just met my wife.’ I just knew it.”
That was September 1975. They got engaged two months later and married the following June.
“She’s been a trooper,’’ he said. “This job, the spouses are the unsung heroes. The missed family events, Christmases, birthdays. They pay a high price.”
The Singletons have two daughters — schoolteacher Stephanie and lawyer Scarlett — and two step granddaughters.
“They adore their dad,’’ Peggy said. “And if anything comes across, and it does, negative about him, they get so upset. They take it so hard. I think it bothers them more than it does him.”
They also have two fur babies, Gypsy and Lady. Singleton said he considers the pups his children.
Watching television and taking care of the dogs constitutes a large part of his social life, he said.
“When I was a patrol officer, we’d all get together, our families, and go bowling or cook out. The higher up you go, the less of those events you get invited to‚‘’ he said.
He quoted lines from “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
“It’s like that poem — Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink,’’ he said. “I’ve got thousands of friends but the people I actually socialize with, I could probably count on two or three fingers.”
His pastor said Singleton is always in church and always sits in the same place.
“He’s always there and always faithful,’’ Hess said.
Hess said the church did a mission project during the COVID-19 pandemic where they wanted to feed the inmates at the Lauderdale County Jail. Singleton, he said, signed up to help cook the food.
“Just the humility of him to be in the role that he is in but then to serve the people experiencing a difficult time in their lives,’’ he said. “I’ve just watched that play over and over in different scenarios and different ways but that’s the one that sticks out to me the most.”
Hess said he constantly prayed for Singleton during the manhunt and knows Singleton’s faith sustained him.
“His family is such a strong family of faith and I think being able to go home at night with all of this going on and know his family was praying for him and lifting him up, I think that carried him through as well,’’ he said.
“He was sharing what he was able to share but also at the same time experiencing a deep sadness and grief because Vicky had been there so long,’’ the pastor said. “I think people underestimate the closeness of trust that has to exist in law enforcement and when someone has been there that long and proves themselves, and then to do what they did, it was like grieving the loss of a family member for them.”
“Out of grace and compassion toward Vicky, he was trying to tell her to come back,’’ Hess said. “He knew how this was going to end.”
‘I didn’t like her, but I still loved her’
The day after the dramatic end to the manhunt, Singleton sat at his desk with a yellow legal pad in front of him. It listed more than a dozen news agencies — including a Spanish-speaking radio station and Inside Edition — with which he had scheduled telephone, Zoom or in-person interviews for the day.
He patiently answered the same questions over and over, delighted to place a check mark by the agency’s name once the interview was finished.
Singleton was transparent, available and accommodating throughout the entire 11-day ordeal. As a graduate of the FBI National Academy — he also has a master’s degree in criminal justice — he knew what would be expected of him.
“I don’t necessarily enjoy the spotlight, but I’ve been doing this a long time,’’ he said.
“Somebody told me once, ‘The only time I see you on TV is when something bad happens,’’’ Singleton said. “Well, that’s when I’m supposed to step up.”
“The accolades go to the investigators for catching these guys because they did the work,’’ he said. “But when one of my employees pulls a stunt like this, that’s on me. It’s my time to step up to the plate.”
The day after Vicky White and Casey White disappeared, Singleton went with investigators to check out a tip in Tennessee. On the way, he told his chief deputy that if they didn’t find them quickly, the national media would grab hold of the story.
He wasn’t wrong.
“Anytime you have an escape, even if it’s some petty burglar, it’s a black eye,’’ he said. “But when you’ve got someone waiting for trial on capital murder and they get out of jail, it don’t get no worse than that.”
He said he did not know Casey White and wasn’t sure if he’d ever met him.
“I know he’s a dangerous man,’’ he said. “I was really concerned that if he came across (law enforcement) it would be really bad.”
He said Vicky White was a private person and he did not know that she was in a “relationship” with Vicky White, whatever that looked like to the jailer and the inmate. “This job was her life. Maybe she was just lonely, I don’t know‚‘’he said.
He was concerned initially that Vicky White had been somehow coerced.
“We knew if that happened, she would be in a lot of danger,” Singleton said. “The first day we began to get pieces of the puzzle that indicated she willing did this...He didn’t drag her out.”
The realization that she was not being coerced slowly came into focus, he said, as investigators watched the video of her leading him from the jail.
“This was her,” Singleton said. “Not the her we knew, but her.”
In the aftermath of her death, Singleton said he and his staff “have experienced a full range of emotions.”
“I don’t know why she took that action...I didn’t know if we would get them dead or alive,” he said. He thought Casey White might “go out in a blaze of glory.”
“He was a bad guy, and I knew we needed to get him off the street,’’ he said.
Singleton said he’s not totally surprised that Vicky White took her only life.
“Knowing Vicky White and I’m just being totally honest, I don’t think the charges against her were as much of a concern to her as her having to come back here and face her family and her friends after pulling a stunt like this,’’ he said.
“And probably having to spend several years, if not the rest of her life in prison, because she’s worked in a jail setting for 17 years and she knows what it’s like on the inside. So given those factors, I’m not totally surprised.”
He said it’s been a tough situation.
“I’m angry at her right now,’’ he said. “During all this I didn’t like her, but I still loved her. “
Singleton said never in his career has he been through anything like what’s happened over the past nearly two weeks, and he doesn’t want to go through it again.
With only seven or eight months left to ago, he and those close to him are beginning to contemplate what life will look like after 50 years of a law enforcement career.
“Physically, I’m ready,’’ he said.
Asked what he plans to do, Singleton said, “Whatever she (Peggy) tells me do,”
Peggy said she’s heard him say that more than once and tells him each time, “I’ll remind you of those words.”
“I think he’ll miss the job, seeing people. He’s very much a people person,’’ she said. “I think he will miss it more than he thinks he will and I do worry about him in that respect.”