LATTA, S.C. -- Police Chief Crystal Moore was born and raised in this tiny farming crossroads and served as a volunteer police dispatcher while she was still in high school. She became the town's first female officer with a sterling 23-year record on the force -- until she was ordered into the mayor's office this month and summarily fired.
Mayor Earl Bullard handed Moore a list of seven reprimands citing, among other alleged transgressions, questioning authority and failing to maintain order at a council meeting.
But since the mayor was caught on tape condemning homosexuals, Moore and many Latta residents have come to believe she was fired because she is a lesbian.
"I heard that tape and thought, OK, that's the reason," Moore said. "I was fired because of my sexual orientation."
What happened next showed how swiftly attitudes toward gays are shifting, even in a rock-solid Republican county in the Bible Belt.
Hours after Moore was fired, residents of the town of 1,350 people thronged to Town Hall, berating the mayor and demanding the reinstatement of the woman they call "Miss Crystal." The next day, more than 100 people staged a silent vigil in support of Moore.
At an emergency council meeting last week, nearly 200 residents, some carrying protest signs, descended on town officials to demand Moore's return. Two petitions seeking her reinstatement drew more than 500 signatures each. The Town Council gave Moore a 6-0 vote of confidence and has set a referendum vote for next month to strip the mayor of his firing authority and give it to the council, where a majority favors Moore's reinstatement. A website, Stand With Chief Crystal Moore, has so far raised $3,400 for her living expenses.
The mayor has not discussed his reasons for firing her -- confidential personnel policies don't allow him to elaborate, he has said. Bullard did not respond to request from The Times for comment. In an interview April 21 with local television station WPDE in Myrtle Beach, he said Moore's firing had nothing to do with her sexual identity.
"They say I fired her because of her sexuality, and nothing could be farther from the truth," Bullard told the station. "That has nothing to do with this."
Moore has been a fixture in town for two decades in her blue police uniform and silver badge. She checked on sick people, made sure residents had heat and shelter during a February ice storm and was the resource officer at the local high school. She volunteered at the annual Christmas in the Park pageant and at the Haunted Forest Halloween festival.
"Crystal's sexuality has never even been talked about -- nobody cares," said Janette W. Dupree, the town's municipal judge. "We see her as just Crystal. She's loved and respected, and she's very, very good at her job."
Jarett Taylor, the town councilman who recorded the mayor's rant against gays, said he was surprised by the vehement response to Moore's firing.
"I mean, we're a laid-back little country farm town that doesn't get real upset about anything," Taylor said.
Moore's lawyer, M. Malissa Burnette, said Bullard represented "the old-style bigotry of rural South Carolina." But the people of Latta -- young and old, black and white -- have risen up to say that the old days are gone, Burnette said.
At the simple white frame house she shares with her partner, Moore, 42, tried to make sense of what had befallen her as Latta's longest-serving public official.
"I was crushed," she said of the mayor's taped comments. "My personal life has nothing to do with my job."
On April 15, Moore said, she met with Bullard, who turned on a tape recorder and ordered her to recite and then sign the list of reprimands. When she refused to sign because she considered the allegations "bogus," he told her: "Your services are no longer needed. Turn in your badge, your gun and your keys."
After Bullard was elected unopposed in December, Moore said, she heard rumors that he was anti-gay and that she and another lesbian town employee should "watch our backs." Moore and a council member confronted the mayor at a council meeting in February, asking him if he had a problem with Moore's job performance or sexual orientation.
According to a recording of the meeting, the mayor denied that he was a "bigot or prejudicial" and was satisfied with her job performance.
On March 13, Bullard was more candid about his opinions. In a recorded phone call with Taylor, Bullard said: "I would much rather have -- and I will say this to anybody's face -- 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 damned way it's supposed to be."
The mayor went on: "I'm telling you, buddy, I don't agree with some of the lifestyles I see portrayed. ... I'm not going to let two women stand up there and hold hands and let my child be aware of it. And I'm not going to see them do it with two men neither." Referring to gay couples with children, Bullard said: "Who's to say you aren't going to do something to that child?"
Taylor released the tape to a local TV station after Moore was fired to buttress his contention that the mayor fired Moore because she is gay. Taylor said he taped the conversation because he and other council members had been at odds with the mayor over several issues. South Carolina is one of 38 "one-party consent" states that permit recorded telephone conversations if one participant approves.
Moore has been heartened by the support. The town's eight full-time police officers want her back, she said, and she's received hundreds of Facebook messages from people around the country. "The town has been awesome," she said. "They've clapped for me and stood behind me, and that spoke for the job I've done."
Moore has wanted to be a police officer since she saw a cop on patrol while she was riding a school bus at age 9. She said she came out as gay in her early 20s, but that did not halt her rise from junior patrol officer to police chief. "Nobody cared about that because they know I did my job, and I did it well," she said. "But now ... my dream is gone."
Burnette, the lawyer, said she has requested a grievance procedure to seek Moore's reinstatement. "We'll give the mayor a chance to make it right, bless his heart," she said.
State Rep. James Smith has introduced a bill that would ban employers in South Carolina from firing employees for their sexual orientation.
Mayor Bullard's comments don't reflect the attitudes of most South Carolinians, Smith said, and "the good people of Latta have shown they don't agree with the views of the mayor."
For Dupree, the municipal judge, Moore's sudden firing has had one positive effect: "It's brought this town together."
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