HOLLY RIDGE – The Town of Holly Ridge is conducting an internal investigation of actions by its police chief as a local business owner alleges wrongful action by the police department during a "raid" to close his gym operating during the state shutdown.


Town Manager Heather Reynolds said Keith Whaley remains the chief of police for the Town of Holly Ridge but confirmed there is an ongoing internal investigation involving Whaley that is not criminal in nature.


Reynolds responded by email to questions from The Daily News about the investigation but did not provide further details on the investigation, citing it is a personnel matter, which is not public record under North Carolina law.


Whaley, she said, remains an employee with the town and was placed on investigation status with pay on May 14.


The town has 30 days to conduct an investigation.


________________________________________


Editor’s note: This content is being provided for free as a public service to our readers during the coronavirus outbreak. To support local journalism, please consider subscribing to The Daily News for as little as $1 per month.


________________________________________


"My hope is to have it completed soon," Reynolds said.


On Wednesday at 2 p.m., the Town of Holly Ridge announced they would be holding an emergency closed meeting at 4:30 p.m. to discuss the performance of a public official, citing N.C. General Statute 143-318.11 (a) (6).


That statute states a closed session of this nature may be held to consider the qualifications, performance, character, etc. of a public officer or employee, or to investigate a complaint charge against a public officer or employee.


Mayor Jeff Wenzel also confirmed there is an investigation and that Capt. E. Richards has assumed the chief’s duties while the investigation is underway.


Wenzel said the police chief reports to the manager and not to the town board.


The investigation comes amid allegations by the owner of Snap Fitness Holly Ridge regarding the police department’s recent actions in enforcement of N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper’s executive order closing certain commercial activity in response to the coronavirus pandemic.


Owner Nick Koumalatsos posted information as well as photos and a video on his business and personal social media pages explaining his concerns about a "raid" of the gym by Richards on May 7.


Koumalatsos said he wasn’t present when police entered but arrived soon after and confronted Richards.


"They came in hot, they blocked off the parking lot, they came in really fast," Koumalatsos said in comments on the video. "They came in, hands on guns, immediately started yelling at people."


He said in his opinion, the process and treatment of the patrons of the gym at the time was wrong.


In the video, Richards is shown talking to Koumalatsos outside Snap Fitness telling him he was being issued a citation for having the gym open.


Koumalatsos said he got a misdemeanor charge.


Koumalatsos said in the video that he initially agreed to keeping the gym closed during the first weeks of the state’s shutdown in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but made the personal decision to open the gym May 1 following CDC guidelines that included checking temperatures, proper cleaning and keeping people six feet apart.


Koumalatsos said after he returned home following the May 7 raid, Whaley came by his house to talk to him. A partial video clip, which shows Whaley telling Koumalatsos, "I told him, ‘I don’t think they’ve been warned,’" is included in the video Koumalatsos posted.


Another video clip shows Richards speaking with someone asking Koumalatsos to leave his citation on the porch for the police to pick up.


The video does not include the full clip of the conversation between Whaley and Koumalatsos, but Koumalatsos said he was told businesses were supposed to be issued three warnings before receiving a citation.


In an email to The Daily News, Reynolds confirmed the town’s process for those found in violation of the governor’s order are to issue three warnings, and then a citation. She also wrote that Snap Fitness was notified about violating the order three times.


In the video, Koumalatsos states he first opened the gym May 1, closed for approximately 24 hours on May 7 and reopened on May 8 when Phase 1 of the governor’s reopening plan began.


Koumalatsos said he received a call the night of May 8 from the town manager asking if he had opened the gym, and Whaley called him on May 9 and he was given a first warning after someone forwarded his email announcing the gym’s reopening during Phase 1.


There was no further action, Koumalatsos said, until May 18 when they police department told him again he had to close.


"I talked with you before, you need to shut the gym down, Nick," Richards can be heard saying in the recorded video clip outside the gym on May 18.


In the video, Koumalatsos said police used a 2010 membership card to gain access to Snap Fitness on May 18. Reynolds said the key card was a police card issued to allow the police department "access to the business for law enforcement purposes."


Koumalatsos said he called to talk to Whaley at that time and was told Whaley had been relieved of his duties.


"It’s exhausting, my heart is broken," Koumalatsos said. "All I wanted was to serve my time in the military and enjoy the freedoms that I fought for … and I can’t do that."



When asked about the general nature of the investigation or whether it was connected to enforcement of the governor’s executive order, Reynolds said that she cannot comment further on a personnel matter.


Reporter Jannette Pippin can be reached at 910-382-2557 or Jannette.Pippin@JDNews.com