Share story

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — The sister of an ex-convict charged with fatally shooting a Memphis police officer during a struggle says her brother was just trying to defend himself because the officer was manhandling him and being too aggressive.

Callie Watkins, 28, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that her brother, 29-year-old Tremaine Wilbourn, told her during a phone conversation after the shooting but before his arrest that he was forcibly pulled out of a car by Officer Sean Bolton on Saturday night. Police have said that Bolton approached the 2002 Mercedes Benz on foot after pulling up in his squad car, and that it was parked illegally during a drug deal.

Watkins said her brother described the officer putting Wilbourn in a hold and telling him to put his arms up. But, she said, Wilbourn told the officer that he couldn’t because his arms were restrained. That’s when the scuffle escalated, she said.

Police said Wilbourn took out a gun and shot Bolton multiple times. Bolton died at a hospital.

“He needed to defend himself,” Watkins said. “It’s self-defense against an aggressive officer. It was kill or be killed.”

Memphis police spokeswoman Karen Rudolph said that she did not want to “entertain that comment” and that the evidence will speak for itself. Police have said Wilbourn got out of the car, confronted Bolton, and they got into a physical struggle.

Watkins said her brother did not own a gun, and she does not know where he got it. She said they were adopted along with other siblings when they were children, and her brother liked to play basketball and football in their neighborhood. She said they have the same mother but different fathers, and that’s why they don’t have the same last name.

“He wasn’t a bad kid,” she said. “He was a people person.”

Bolton, who was white, was the third Memphis officer to be fatally shot in slightly more than four years. Wilbourn is black.

Hundreds of Bolton’s friends and family, as well as police and firefighters, gathered at a church for a memorial service to honor the former Marine on Wednesday afternoon. A “Sea of Blue” procession of police officers was to ride through parts of the city, including the shooting scene, after the memorial. A funeral service and burial are scheduled for Thursday.

Bolton, who served in Iraq, was a strong but shy man who did not like physical confrontation, his family and friends said this week. They said he liked working out, reading history books and watching Police Academy movies with his buddy.

“Sean genuinely wanted to help all Memphians to live safely and peaceably within our community,” the statement said. “Sean’s concern, his only concern, was not the color of the skin of the person he was dealing with but rather whether or not they were committing a crime.”

Community members and businesses have honored Bolton in different ways. Firefighters placed a memorial sign in front of a fire station and a restaurant reserved a table for Bolton the day after the shooting. A bicycle club also was making a silent ride through parts of the city Wednesday.

In the parking lot of the church where the memorial service was held, two red Memphis fire trucks were parked, ladders extended, with a large American flag tied to the end of the ladders. Police cars from as far as Cincinnati, Ohio, and Oxford, Mississippi, were seen in the parking lot.

Police say Wilbourn turned himself in to authorities Monday, ending a two-day manhunt after the death of Bolton, 33. He appeared briefly in court via video link Wednesday and told a judge he does not yet have a lawyer. The judge scheduled a hearing for Aug. 12 to see whether a lawyer has been hired or a public defender will be appointed. He’s being held on $10 million bond.

Wilbourn was on probation for an armed bank robbery. He was sentenced to more than 10 years in federal prison and released on probation in July 2014. Wilbourn used marijuana in December 2014 and was ordered to undergo mental health treatment July 7, according to federal court documents.

It’s not clear whether Wilbourn was ever evaluated, but his sister said her brother was troubled because he “lived in a box” for so long.

“If you are a real human being, jail is not for you,” she said. She also said her family was trying to hire a lawyer.