LATTA, South Carolina — When openly gay police chief Crystal Moore was fired by a mayor who condemned her lifestyle as "questionable," she feared her two decade career in law enforcement in this town was over.
Then, this conservative, small town rebelled.
The people of Latta, who voted overwhelmingly for a state amendment banning gay marriage eight years ago, turned against the mayor, stripped him of his powers and the town council rehired Moore. They said her dedication to the town mattered more than her sexual orientation.
Residents remembered Moore's civic spirit from as far back as 1989, when Hurricane Hugo tore through Latta. She was a high school student working part time as a police dispatcher, and helped cut downed tree limbs to clean up the debris. This February, when an ice storm crippled the town and left it without power for days, Moore piled her officers in her SUV and checked on as many people as she could.
"That's Crystal. All she does is help people. I don't get why he fired her. Maybe it's the ignorant people who talk the loudest. She was the same great Crystal yesterday as she is today, and she'll be the same person tomorrow," said lifelong Latta resident Dottie Walters.
Mayor Earl Bullard vehemently denied that he fired Moore because she was gay. Instead, he said she was dismissed for "sheer insubordination" during the three months he was her boss.
Moore said she hadn't received a single reprimand during her career until Bullard presented her with seven the day she was fired in April. Word of her termination spread fast in this tobacco hub of about 1,400 people, just off Interstate 95. About two dozen people gathered at her office in support on the day she was let go.
The support for Moore grew when Town Councilman Jarett Taylor started secretly recording his conversations with the mayor, which is legal in South Carolina. Taylor said he learned not to trust the mayor because he would tell him something, and later deny he ever said it.
In a conversation released to reporters after Moore was fired, the mayor said: "I'd 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 it's supposed to be."
Bullard, who has avoided reporters for much of the past three months, told The Associated Press that was him on the tape. He offered no apologies.
"I don't like the homosexual ways portrayed in front of children," Bullard told AP by telephone Thursday. "You can't explain to a 5-year-old why another child has two mommies or two daddies."
Since the story made headlines, Bullard said he had received a stack of hate mail that was "probably an inch-and-a-half thick."
Within days of Moore's termination, the town council passed a vote of confidence in her. They also set up an election that would strip the mayor of his power and give them more authority, including the ability to hire the police chief.
Moore, who played softball at Latta High School, walked up and down the streets for days before the vote, explaining her side of the story and calling for change. Last month, 69 percent of 475 voters approved of taking the mayor's power away. Now essentially a figurehead, it's not clear what he is going to do next. He ran unopposed in 2013 and still has three years left on his term.
When Moore returned to work June 30, people honked their car horns and gave her thumbs up as she drove around in her police SUV, according to television reports. When an AP reporter rode around with her recently, nearly everyone waved as she drove by.
"Crystal is a good chief and she loves this town," said Taylor, the councilman. "It made me proud of my town to see everybody come out for her the way they did."
Latta is a blink-and-you-miss-it town that started as a train depot and grew into a tobacco hub. Many people pass it on their way to Myrtle Beach, which is about 50 miles away. The only rainbow in town is on the Carolina Kidz daycare center.
Moore's firing turned her into an unlikely activist. Before, she would bring her partner to civic festivals, but avoided gay pride events because she didn't want to draw attention to herself.
Now she travels about once a week to talk to gay groups and encourage laws to stop discrimination against homosexuals. South Carolina does not have a statewide ban on firing people because of their sexual orientation.
"I think things are going to change, like they did in the civil rights movement," Moore said.
State unemployment officials sided with Moore, voting she was fired without cause and eligible for back pay and benefits for the two months she didn't have a job.
The fight left Moore with nearly $20,000 in legal bills. About $8,000 has been pledged from people through a Facebook site, but that still leaves a lot of debt for someone who makes less than $40,000 a year running a 10-officer department.
So the town is arranging a yet-to-be determined fundraiser, Moore said.
"It's just remarkable," she said. "I can't ever thank this place enough."
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