The lives of Willard Wayne Hathaway’s family were changed forever in 1997 when the then-Sharpsburg police chief was shot and killed while responding to a domestic violence call.
Hathaway’s niece, Carie Jones, led an effort to remember the ultimate sacrifice paid by him and more than 400 other North Carolina law enforcement officers on a Christmas tree in her yard.
The snow-white tree is illuminated with blue lights in remembrance of the thin blue line, a colloquial term for police forces. Jones had cards with the pictures of all the officers from across the state who’ve been killed in the line of duty dating back to the 1800s.
“To hang every picture on the tree was sad. I just kept looking up to the sky and thinking about all these angels God has now,” Jones said. “It is hard to see so many officers hang on that tree and know that their families went through what my family went through.”
Hathaway was shot once in the head at point-blank range before the gunman shot his wife, Gloria Brown Nicholson, multiple times. Both victims died and the suspect, Abner Nicholson, was captured a few hours later after fleeing the scene into a corn field.
Abner Nicholson was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder and sentenced to death, but the death sentence was changed to two life sentences without the possibility of parole in 2010 after a judge determined the suspect was “mentally retarded” and could not be executed.
“I will never forget my uncle’s heart. He just had an amazing heart and he loved everyone,” she said. “He was kind to everyone.”
Hathaway’s legacy even influenced Carie’s brother to join the Rocky Mount Police Department, where he now works as a detective.
“For me, (my uncle’s death) makes me appreciate them more,” she said. “I look at officers differently than before my uncle passed. Now, I try to thank an officer if I see one, just like with the military. I want them to know people are appreciative of what they do.”
Jones said the tree will be an annual addition to her holiday decorations.
“I am doing this to honor all North Carolina police officers,” she said. “I think a lot feel they are forgotten, but this is my way of saying ‘thank you’ to all of them.”
The N.C. Fallen Law Enforcement Memorial Tree was a collection of donations and will be on display throughout December in front of Jones’ home on Bend of the River Road.