Police chief fired after arrest

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MIDDLESEX — Former Police Chief William Murray was stoic Thursday as he turned in his equipment and gathered his belongings. The 43-year-old lawman was fired after town board members learned of his Wednesday arrest related to a domestic dispute.

“He’s been here 14 years. He’s been here his whole career,” said Middlesex Mayor Lu Harvey Lewis Jr. “As I said, it is a tragedy for him and the town. It really is, but sometimes you have to make a change.”

Murray was arrested by Nash County deputies, then turned over to deputies in Franklin County, where he was charged with misdemeanor counts of communicating threats and assault on a female. He was jailed without bond but posted bond Thursday.

Franklin County sheriff’s Chief of Staff Terry Wright said a 43-year-old woman told investigators about an assault that took place around 8 p.m. Tuesday in the county. According to the arrest warrant, Murray assaulted the victim by “pushing her in the back, grabbing her arms, grabbing her by the hair, slamming her against the kitchen door and hitting her in the back of the head.” The warrant also states that Murray threatened to kill the woman, who was not seriously injured in the assault.

Lewis said he learned of the arrest from media reports on Wednesday, describing his reaction as “shocked.” Murray was arrested a year ago in February, charged with two counts of cyberstalking. The charges, one of which related to the simultaneous arrest of the town’s administrative assistant, were later dismissed. At the time, the police chief who’d been with the town since 2004 faced no disciplinary action as officials stood by his side.

This time, Lewis said enough was enough.

Around noon Thursday, the town clerk announced an emergency meeting to go into a closed session at 12:30 p.m. The short notice infuriated some residents, including frequent town board critic Becky Strickland, who believed the meeting was illegal because 48 hours’ notice was not given.

“‘An emergency meeting may be held concerning a generally unexpected circumstance that must require immediate consideration by a public body,’” said town Clerk Jennifer Lambert, reading aloud the state’s open meetings law.

Lewis said a delay to the meeting would have conflicted with the schedules of some board members.

“We needed to do something,” Lewis said after the meeting. “We needed to act, and we needed to do it today.”

North Carolina Press Association general counsel Amanda Martin, an expert on the state’s open meeting law, said addressing the police chief’s arrest likely qualified as an emergency and said the meeting appears to be lawful. She noted that emergencies qualifying for a same-day meeting are rare, but said Middlesex made a convincing case for urgency.

Middlesex’s Code of Ordinances states that the police chief reports to the town administrator, but only the Board of Commissioners can hire or fire the chief.

It didn’t take long for board members to reach a decision to fire Murray, coming into an open session and voting all before 1 p.m. Around the same time, Murray posted a $5,000 bond and headed to Middlesex.

Murray showed no emotion as he turned in his equipment and left, declining to comment on the incident.

Meanwhile, Lewis said, law enforcement in the town will be balanced between the remaining staff — two full-time officers, five reserve officers and two auxiliary officers — and patrol by the Nash County Sheriff’s Office. No other special board meetings have been scheduled to consider police department staffing.

bhandgraaf@wilsontimes.com | 265-7821