The weight of the badge worn by sheriff’s deputies in Burke County is heavier this week with a black band strapped across it to signify the loss of one of their own.
Lt. William “Mac” McMurtray, 48, died Monday after battling COVID-19 for more than five weeks, said Sheriff Steve Whisenant. He left behind the love of his life, Angela, and their three daughters, 23-year-olds Karilyn and Kelsie, and 20-year-old Mackenzie.
“He fought a very brave, difficult fight against COVID, and did succumb to it,” Whisenant said. “His wife stayed by his side, supported him … the sheriff’s office prayed daily for that family, and the loss of Mac has been a tremendous emotional impact on all of us.”
McMurtray first came to the Burke County Sheriff’s Office on Jan. 29, 2008, when he became a detention officer at the downtown jail. About six months later, he was promoted to deputy sheriff and start climbing the ranks of the sheriff’s office.
He was promoted to sergeant with the patrol division on Dec. 8, 2017, and to lieutenant in February 2019. He led the sheriff’s office night patrol until his death.
Before working at the sheriff’s office, Mac had served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1992-96, and attended Western Piedmont Community College and Lees-McRae College.
“All of his men and women loved to work with him,” Whisenant said. “In fact, they’ve been going to his house. They had planned to do some work just recently, they were going to wash his car and have it ready for him when he was, hopefully, released from the hospital.”
On Saturday, deputies on McMurtray’s patrol unit surrounded his patrol car at his home and prayed for him.
In a post on former sheriff John T. McDevitt’s Facebook page, one copied from McMurtray’s wife’s profile, Angela McMurtray said it was while deputies surrounded his car in prayer that Mac opened his eyes for the first time in 23 days.
“That was a gift I will always be thankful for,” Angela wrote in the post. “I was then able to see the pain that Mac is in. I was able to see him struggling to keep his oxygen saturation and struggling to maintain a steady heartbeat. I was able to look in his eyes and see his hurt. The heartbreak that came after leaving the hospital was overwhelming. It made me physically sick.”
The loss of Mac is a hard one to process for everyone who knew him.
“When you lose an officer, you’re never really prepared,” the sheriff said. “It creates an emotional scar, a hurt. You hurt for the family, and the sheriff’s office is a family. Law enforcement is a family.”
Matthew Franklin, assistant fire chief at Triple Community Fire Department and a former employee of the Burke County Emergency Communications Center, said he had gotten to know Mac through working dispatch and from responding to medical and fire calls that needed backup from law enforcement.
“He’s always been a guy you can rely on,” Franklin said. “He’s always been really personable, his officers really seemed to love him. He was one of those lieutenants that you knew if anything were to ever happen, you could rely on him … He had a way about him that he’d talk to you like he knew you your whole life even though he just met you five minutes ago.”
The flag at Triple Community Fire Department was lowered to half-staff to honor Mac.
“Mac was a great person,” Franklin said. “He loved his family, he loved his kids, he loved his wife. You could tell that from any time he talked to you more than two seconds, he was loved all the way around. He loved everything about his job, he loved everything about his family. He loved spending time. He made sure he made time for his job, he made sure he made time for his family.”
Whisenant said his office believes Mac died in the line of duty.
“Obviously all of our officers are out on the front lines,” Whisenant said. “They’re constantly dealing with people we know that have come into contact with people that’s positive for COVID, yet this officer continued to do his duty, as well as that shift, and all of the law enforcement officers at the sheriff’s office. We think that it is a line of duty death, and we plan to pursue that.”
The sheriff said his office is working with Mac’s family for memorial services to make sure he is honored appropriately.
“He was always an officer that was dedicated and wanted to do a good job,” Whisenant said. “The thing that you don’t prepare yourself for is that, I’ve been out working on weekends and nights, backed Mac up, backed his men up, and you always think you’re going to see them walk in the door the next day, or the next shift, and to know that he will never be back is difficult.”
Memorial services for Mac still are being planned. More information will be published when it becomes available.