LATTA, S.C. — The front desk phone at the Latta Police Department has been ringing nonstop for the past minute-and-a-half, and Chief Crystal Moore wants nothing more than to pick it up. But she can't. She's not the chief anymore.
"It's a public building," she says, "so I'll sit here."
Moore's friends say they saw the writing on the wall in December, just before Mayor Earl Bullard won an uncontested election and took office next door at Latta Town Hall. They had heard the new mayor didn't take too kindly to gays and lesbians, which meant Moore — as both the first female and first openly gay chief in the tiny town near the North Carolina border — had better watch her back. As a precautionary measure, Town Council passed a vote of confidence in Chief Moore during a February meeting.
Sure enough, on the afternoon of Tues. April 15, Mayor Bullard did fire Chief Moore, but Bullard's stated reasons for the firing had nothing to do with sexual orientation. Directly after an employee grievance meeting in which Chief Moore had helped mediate a complaint by a town employee against his supervisor, the mayor called Moore into his office. When she stepped inside, the mayor handed her a stack of seven written reprimands.
"He said, 'I'm gonna hand you these right here, and I want you to read them out loud,'" Moore says. "As I read them, I could not believe what he had written down, because they either had something to do with an investigation I was doing, or it was the policy. Genuinely, I had to laugh at some of them."
Moore says she told the mayor she wanted to speak to her lawyer, but the mayor told her she needed to sign the reprimands before leaving the room. When she refused, the mayor told her to turn in her badge.
Mayor Bullard's side of the story remains unknown. The City Paper spent all day Monday in Latta, and although the mayor spent more than an hour in an interview with TV station WPDE, he said he was too busy to give the paper an interview. In the TV interview, Bullard only said that "personnel policy" wouldn't allow him to comment on the reason for Moore's firing beyond saying that it had "nothing at all" to do with her sexual orientation.
So what really happened? One possibility is that the chief really did break the rules seven ways to Sunday, although some Town Council members say Bullard's claims are dubious at best.
A second possibility is that this is a case of anti-gay discrimination — which would technically be legal in South Carolina, one of 29 states that allows you to fire someone because of his or her sexual orientation. In a recorded conversation with a councilman, Bullard said he would "much rather have somebody who drank and drank too much taking care of my child than I had somebody whose lifestyle is questionable around children."
A third possibility is that Moore's firing is just another example of small-town politics gone awry. At the time of her firing, Moore had questioned Bullard's wisdom in hiring a man with a record of reckless driving to the Parks and Recreation Department, and Bullard had demanded to have the final say on a pending female hire to the Police Department.
Whatever the reason, Latta's full-time police force shrunk by 10 percent with Moore's firing. It's Lt. Derrick Cartwright, the temporary stand-in for Moore, who eventually comes in to pick up the ringing front desk phone. When he finishes talking on the phone, he doesn't have much to say to the press.
"He's got us pretty frozen with the media right now," Cartwright says, twitching his head toward Mayor Bullard's office. "But definitely do your story."
“I would much rather have somebody who drank and drank too much taking care of my child than I had somebody whose lifestyle is questionable around children.” —Latta Mayor Earl Bullard
Moore's allies from Town Council and the town at large filter in and out of the police headquarters all day long, trading gossip and fielding inquiries from the press, who come calling on a regular basis now that Moore's firing has become national news and her potential reinstatement has become a cause célèbre of the gay rights movement. Last week, when Mayor Bullard shut down discussion of the chief's firing at a Town Council meeting, Moore supporters staged an impromptu protest on the front lawn.
Some talk as if the mayor were already removed from office and refer to him as "Mayor Bully" within earshot of Town Hall. Moore takes interviews inside the police department in a back room the size of a supply closet, sitting not quite in her old office but directly next door to it.
Moore's advocates plan to restructure the town's government from strong mayor-weak council to strong council-weak mayor. It would mean that the mayor only gets one vote out of seven in matters of employment, with the firmly pro-Moore council wielding the other six. From there, it would be a simple matter of voting to give Moore her badge back, 6 to 1 if necessary.
Town Council has already passed a motion to restructure the government, pending a public referendum. Now the future of the police department's leadership rests in the hands of Latta's 1,357 residents, who will vote June 24 on whether to make the change.
"I'm just ready to come back and get to work," Moore says. "I'm off the street, and that takes another officer to fill in here at the police department. The town does not deserve that."
Moore's law enforcement career started in the dispatch center in 1989, when she was still a senior in high school. All she ever wanted to do was be a police officer, and her lifelong dream was to be the chief in her town.
After finishing a school-to-work program, Moore took a full-time dispatcher position. The week after she turned 21, she earned her badge, becoming the area's second woman in uniform after another officer at the Dillon County Sheriff's Office. Moore says then-Mayor Alan Brigman told her he wasn't sure Latta was ready for a female cop, but he gave her a shot anyway.
Moore says she knew she'd won the town's confidence when the local schools asked her to serve as a school resource officer after the 1999 Columbine High School shootings. She rose through the ranks until 2012, when she moved up from lieutenant to chief.
During her 20-plus years keeping the peace in Latta, Moore says she never received a formal reprimand from a mayor. But as of last week, she finds herself with seven reprimands and no job.
"I respect everybody, just like they have respected me," Moore says. "The community has never had a problem. Never."
The people of Latta responded quickly to news of the chief's firing. A Stand With Chief Moore fund to help cover her living expenses and insurance was set up at First Bank in Latta, and a GoFundMe online donation page raised nearly $2,000 for Moore in the first three days. A Colorado woman started a petition on Change.org asking the S.C. State Ethics Commission to investigate the legality of Mayor Bullard's actions, and the number of signatures is quickly approaching Latta's total population.
But Cathy Hazelwood, deputy director of the Ethics Commission, says her department does not intend to investigate the matter.
"Firing someone because of their sexual orientation is not a violation of the Ethics Act. Being a bully isn't a violation of the Ethics Act," Hazelwood wrote in an e-mail. "If he fires her and then hires a family member, we can get involved. This certainly appears to be a strong-mayor power play."
Six-and-a-half miles off of I-95, past farmhouses, manufacturing plants, and rippling seas of radiant yellow canola, downtown Latta (pronounced "LAT-uh"), roughly halfway between Rock Hill and Myrtle Beach, is the sort of half-vacant main drag that any traveler of South Carolina backroads has seen a dozen times before. A swarm of bees tumbles down Main Street in an angry ball one afternoon, and no one is outside to take cover from their stings. An Amtrak passenger train shoots like an arrow through the heart of town, gone almost as soon as it arrives, and then the midday silence resumes.
Word of mouth travels fast in Latta. Fashion Barber College, a storefront school owned by Town Councilwoman and Mayor Pro Tem Lutherine Williams, is just 80 steps from Town Hall and the Police Department, and it's also next door to the Little Tokyo restaurant where Chief Moore liked to eat lunch with the district judge back when she still had her job.
A sign taped up in the window of the Barber School says, "NO VISITING," but the rule appears to be largely disregarded this afternoon as Williams welcomes constituents who've come to talk about the impending bloodless coup.
"We've tried everything possible to have [Mayor Bullard] removed from office, and there's too many hurdles. You'll never get through them," says Williams, head architect of the government restructuring plan.
When it comes to the seven formal complaints against the former chief, Councilwoman Williams is calling bullshit — although she would never use such crude language. First of all, she says, town code clearly states that if the mayor wants to fire an employee, he must bring the matter before Council for a final decision. Second of all, the mayor's reprimands are bogus.
Here are the mayor's complaints against the police chief, as reported by TV news station WBTW:
1. Running background checks without properly signed authorization
2. Failure to report to supervisor about problems in other departments
3. Using office/position to seek revenge against another for personal affront
4. Questioning authority of supervisor
5. Questioning authority of mayor to look at job applications for potential employees
6. Failure to maintain order, contributing to disorder at council meetings
7. Contacting news media to help bring about disorder and disruption to the town of Latta
Item 6 is nonsense, Williams says. The mayor is responsible for maintaining order at meetings; police only get involved if the mayor requests their help.
Item 7 stems from a Feb. 25 memo that Bullard sent to all town employees stating that "any public comments relative to any public situation or controversy is not acceptable and will not be tolerated." The reasoning behind Items 2 and 3 remains unclear.
Items 1, 4, and 5 appear to refer to a dispute between the mayor and the chief about some recent hirings. Early in his administration, Bullard gave Moore the go-ahead to hire two police officers, but when Moore tried to hire a third officer — a female this time — Bullard demanded that he be allowed to interview the candidate, according to Moore.
In February, Moore questioned Bullard's decision to hire a man named Vontray Sellers, a former rec department employee in the neighboring city of Dillon, as director of the Latta Parks and Recreation Department without conducting a background check. Lt. Cartwright ran his own background check on Sellers, and Moore conducted an investigation that found Sellers was driving a town-owned van with a suspended driver's license. Latta police arrested Sellers, who is now awaiting a jury trial in the case.
Around 1:30 a.m. on June 30, 2013, seven-and-a-half months before taking a position with Latta's recreation department, Dillon Parks and Recreation Department Athletic Program Coordinator Vontray Sellers ran over a large crape myrtle and crashed his car into a ditch. He abandoned the vehicle and walked to the Dillon Parks and Recreation Department, where police found him walking out of a women's bathroom wiping his face with paper towels.
Sellers, who the officers noted smelled strongly of alcohol, said he had been listening to his police scanner in the middle of the night when he heard that the fire department had been dispatched to some fields managed by the Parks and Recreation Department. Hoping to catch some vandals who had been stealing city-owned flags, Sellers says he decided to drive over to the scene. Along the way, he said he lost control of his car, and some acquaintances who were riding with him spilled alcoholic beverages on his car seats.
When asked about the strong boozy smell coming off of his body, Sellers told Dillon police officers that, while taking morphine pills for pancreatitis, he had drunk a fifth of liquor and then driven up the road to buy two pints of brandy from a bootlegger.
After Sellers failed a field sobriety test, police arrested him on suspicion of driving under the influence and drove him to the jail, where he fell asleep and began drooling during a 20-minute observation period, then refused to blow into a Breathalyzer when asked. He was charged with DUI, although he later pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of reckless driving.
Mayor Bullard was either unaware of Sellers' bootleg brandy bender, or else he did not think it was pertinent to the hiring of a man whose responsibilities would include driving a town-owned van.
At the time Sellers was hired to run Latta's recreation department in February, Mayor Bullard was either unaware of Sellers' bootleg brandy bender, or else he did not think it was pertinent to the hiring of a man whose responsibilities would include driving a town-owned van.
The fight over Sellers' hiring took on new shades of irony two months later when Bullard fired Chief Moore — particularly after Town Council member Jarett Taylor released to the media an audio recording of the mayor saying he'd trust a heavy drinker before he trusted a gay person.
Taylor, a nurse anesthetist who also carries a pistol at his waist as a volunteer state constable, says he was surreptitiously recording the mayor with a smartphone because the mayor had been telling "boldface lies" and he wanted evidence (Under South Carolina law, it is legal to record a conversation as long as at least one party is aware of the recording).
"Whoever said it, 'The truth shall set you free,'" Taylor says.
The recording in question, now widely circulated online, was recorded after Latta Town Council's March meeting, weeks before Moore's firing. Here's what the mayor said, according to Taylor:
"I would much rather have — and I will say this to anybody's face — I would much rather have somebody who drank and drank too much taking care of my child than I had somebody whose lifestyle is questionable around children. Because that ain't the damn way that it's supposed to be. You've got people out there that — I'm telling you, buddy, I don't agree with some of the lifestyles that I see portrayed, and I don't say anything because that's the way they want to live. But I'm not gonna let my child be around it. I'm not gonna let two women stand up there and hold hands and let my child be aware of it. And I'm not gonna see them do it with two men neither. I'm not gonna do it, because that ain't the way the world works."
Mayor Bullard did not give the City Paper the chance to ask about the seven written reprimands or the Sellers investigation. His manner was brisk but polite as he strode through the Town Hall lobby, necktie thrown over his shoulder. "Let me call you, OK? If you would?" he said, taking a business card as he walked to his office. The mayor has not called since.
Councilwoman Williams, meanwhile, says she fully intends to put Moore back in office and clear the chief's name of the mayor's complaints.
"Anything for my chief," Williams says. "We couldn't ask for a better police chief."
Takiyah Abdullah, a visitor who stopped in to see Williams in her barber school Monday afternoon, was gobsmacked by Moore's firing and the mayor's attitude. "How can you have that much hate in your heart for another person who was made by the same Creator?" Abdullah says.
A block away at Lee Builder Supply, customers aren't talking about the seven complaints or the Vontray Sellers case. They're talking about Moore's sexual orientation, which was never a secret in town, and about the mayor's response to it.
"Before she was hired, people knew," says Frank Easterling, who pulls up a chair to talk with the owners inside the narrow-aisled hardware store. "Of course you have people that don't like it, but she did her job."
Other customers recall Moore's actions during the February ice storm that paralyzed much of the state, leaving Latta without electricity for five days. Every day during the power outage, Chief Moore could be seen knocking on doors, giving people rides out of town to be with family, and transporting elderly residents to safer lodging. The mayor, as Councilwoman Williams noted, was not seen outdoors during those dark days.
Another customer says her stepson once ran afoul of the law in Latta, driving his car under the arm of the railroad crossing and narrowly avoiding getting hit by a train. She says she traveled down to the police station to talk to Chief Moore after her stepson was picked up.
"She was very professional," the woman says. "She said, 'We'll never pick on people. We treat everyone fair.'"
South Carolina is a dark spot on the map when it comes to gay and gender rights in America. The felony of "buggery," still on the books in state law, was only invalidated in 2003 by the U.S. Supreme Court decision Lawrence v. Texas. In 2006, S.C. voters passed a constitutional amendment to define marriage as between a man and a woman. And like 28 other states, South Carolina does not have a statewide ban on firing people based on their sexual orientation.
Instead, legal protection has arrived piecemeal, with the municipalities of Columbia, Charleston, and North Charleston creating their own non-discrimination policies for city employees based on gender identity and sexual orientation. Folly Beach also passed an ordinance in 2012 protecting against housing and public accommodation discrimination based on sexual orientation, but the ordinance does not protect against discrimination based on gender identity. (Charleston County Council has also passed a non-binding resolution to protect people from discrimination in housing and public accommodations based on sexual orientation and gender identity.)
Moore says she has never hidden her sexual orientation. She and her partner Kristi Isgett are often seen together in town, although Moore says, "I'm one that agrees that there's a time and a place for affection."
Moore says she was surprised earlier in the year when Mayor Bullard demanded to interview the woman she wanted to hire at the police department. "He got real upset and started yelling and telling me to go get her application," Moore says. "And I said, 'Mayor, I'm not here to cause a problem; I'm flexible. I just want to know what has changed within a week-and-a-half.' And he slammed his hands down and said, 'I'm gonna tell you I have the power to hire and fire in this town.'"
Bullard has exercised that power. But for some Latta residents, including a few on Town Council, a mayor who would choose to hire a man like Vontray Sellers and fire a woman like Crystal Moore is not worthy to call the shots anymore.