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Community says goodbye to former Cumberland County Sheriff 'Moose' Butler


Cumberland County Sheriff Ennis Wright descended from the pulpit and hugged the wife of the man he had just paid tribute to in church.

“I’m not a public speaker,” Wright said during his remarks about former Sheriff Earl “Moose’’ Butler. “This has been a long week for me. We were both alike.”

It was Butler who hired Wright to become a member of the Sheriff’s Office. And it was Butler who asked the Cumberland County Board of Commissioners to appoint Wright to fill the remainder of his term when Butler retired in December 2016 after serving 22 years as sheriff.

The 84-year-old former sheriff died Sunday.

Butler was lionized Thursday during a funeral that drew, among others, three pews of sheriffs from around the state, triple-digit law enforcement officers, local legislators, members of the judiciary, members of the county Board of Commissioners, District Attorney Billy West and Fayetteville Mayor Mitch Colvin.

The funeral was held before about 400 people in the Massey Hill Baptist Church where Butler had found solace for 63 years.

Outside, blue lights flashed as law enforcement vehicles blocked off a portion of Southern Avenue around the church in Butler’s beloved Massey Hill community.

A burial service followed at Cross Creek Cemetery.

Butler started from humble beginnings, growing up as a product of a mill village. It’s where he had come of age before graduating from Massey Hill High School in 1956. Larger than life, Butler evolved as an All-American football player at Massey Hill High before earning an athletic scholarship to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He was later drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers.

A U.S. flag was draped over Butler’s casket and floral arrangements were placed on each end. Overhead, a photograph of the former sheriff depicted a robust man still in his prime dressed in a dark suit and tie.

“All these years his public life – much of his life had been in the public eye. And that ended, so to speak, on Sunday morning,” Pastor Tim Evans said to those assembled inside the church. “And he made many sacrifices through the years because of being in the public so much.”

Butler was eulogized at length by Ronnie Mitchell, who served as a longtime legal counsel to the sheriff.

“Moose’s mind was keen to his last day. Let me tell you, Moose Butler was a smart man,” Mitchell said.

“Yes, he was,” someone muttered aloud.

Mitchell spoke eloquently of the former sheriff, saying Butler loved God, his family, his deputies, his county, his state and the people of his community.

“Moose loved the law. And the rule of law. And the protection that the law provides when it’s rightly understood, equitably applied and fully enforced and just and fulfilled,” he said. “I know that person because I spent hours upon hours talking with him.”

Mitchell said Butler’s “joy was made all the better with his great sense of humor. He could always bring laughter to any situation.”

He called Moose a man of peace.

"Thankfully, Moose is at peace now,” he said, “but he was, even on this earth, a man of peace, who was at peace. He was not only a peace officer, he was a peacemaker. There have been so many times that I have seen him intervene and I have listened to him cause others to listen to him and to reach peaceful resolution.”

 Mitchell said the city’s Bicycle Man project came to life because Butler arranged with then-sheriff’s Maj. Monroe Rascoe to work with the courts and the late Moses Mathis to get bicycles that had been stolen and recovered but were unclaimed out of the Sheriff’s Office and into the hands of children.

 The Shop with the Sheriff Foundation that Butler created continues to this day, providing children who are the most in need with the things that they need each Christmas, Mitchell said.

 He recalled a trip they made together to Richmond, Virginia, for a court hearing in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

 “... And I am sure you are not surprised that Moose said, ‘Boy, let’s stop. I’m hungry.’ ’’

 They couldn’t find his favorite country cooking spots so the two opted for McDonald’s.

 “So, we went inside, and in front of us in line was a lady with two little boys, who began to cry when she told them she couldn’t afford to buy them each a Happy Meal that had what appeared to be a plastic badge in it,’’ Mitchell said. “Sheriff Butler heard it, too, and he turned around, walked to the car, and came back with two of the shiny miniature metal badges that he had, and said, ‘Boys, here you go; you can be my real deputies, and you’ve heard that from a real sheriff.’ ”

 Mitchell paused to gather himself before adding, “They hugged him around his knees, and we left with Sheriff Butler telling them, ‘Always love your mama; she’s the only one you’ve got, and always do the right thing.’ ”

Maj. Joe Cotton, a sheriff’s deputy stationed at a training academy in Raleigh, never worked directly with Butler. But his wife, 1st Sgt. Sharlene Cotton, served as a sheriff’s deputy under his leadership.

“It was a very fitting tribute to a man that was loved by law enforcement officers and sheriffs across the state,” Cotton said from the balcony, where he shared a pew with other deputies. “He was very respected.”

Michael Futch covers Fayetteville and education for CityView TODAY. He can be reached at mfutch@cityviewnc.com. Have a news tip? Email news@CityViewTODAY.com.


Cumberland County, sheriff, Earl 'Moose' Butler, funeral