On the first day of his new job at the Transylvania County Sheriff’s Office, a 21-year-old David Mahoney experienced a bullet whizzing by his ear.
Thirty-one years later, with the last 16 as Transylvania County sheriff, last week Mahoney sat in his partially-deconstructed office to reflect on his career.
“My last day is Nov. 30. The new job starts Thursday, Dec. 1,” laughed Mahoney, surrounded by empty walls lined with half-packed boxes of awards and framed accomplishments. “I’ve signed a contract to go to work with a company called Southern Software.”
Mahoney will continue living in the county but will be traveling across the country in his new job.
“They offer a variety of things but most prevalent is their records management system, like a jail management system, to public safety agencies,” Mahoney said. “They’re actually hiring me to be a relationship manager to the sheriffs of North Carolina and South Carolina.”
The company gets the benefit of having an experienced sheriff, said Mahoney, “who’s been there and done that and can relate to the sheriffs who are using this product.”
“I get the benefit of continuing to maintain relationships that I’ve built for these last 16 years,” he said.
When asked why he decided to retire, Mahoney said he knew at the end of his last election in 2018, he would hit the 30-year milestone to be eligible for retirement benefits.
“There really came a point in October of last year that through all of that thought and prayer I just got complete peace that it was time to close this chapter,” he said. “I wish there was a way I could accurately portray how much time I spent thinking and praying about it because it’s such a big decision. This career is so much of who I’ve always been. I’m 52 years old and 31 of those 52 years I’ve been right here.
“The last 16 I’ve had the honor of leading the ship and so your identity kind of gets tied into that. I struggled with that decision for a very long time.”
Most people will never know the pressures of being an elected official, he said.
“There’s not a time that that lets up,” he said. “Couple that with an incredibly difficult job of a law enforcement officer and even more so difficult in the last few years. It would be really easy to kind of lose track of a lot of things under that pressure. Thankfully, I didn’t get to that place.”
The Transylvania County Sheriff’s Office has 86 full-time staff.
Mahoney said some will never believe how tough the decisions they have to make are.
“I can tell you our hearts are in the right place and we’re doing everything we can to make the right call and do the right decision for the betterment of the whole community, and sometimes we know that people just aren’t going to see that,” he said. “We’ve got a motto here that we’ve said for years about doing the right thing — the right way — for the right reason. That’s been our commitment from day one and I think throughout all of these past few years —of this kind of national rhetoric against law enforcement — we’re just simply saying the same thing we’ve said for 16 years.”
“I’ve sat in this office behind that desk and laughed with folks,” he said, pointing to the large mahogany centerpiece. “I’ve sat here and cried with some folks. I’ve knelt down right here on this table and prayed with some folk and about everything you can think of in between over the years.”
Mahoney remembers vividly the very first day he was sworn in as sheriff in 2006 and felt “on top of the world just happy as I could be.”
“I got back down to the office and had been there about an hour and a gentleman came in to see me and his son had overdosed and died before I got elected — and he absolutely just tuned me up,” Mahoney said.
Mahoney said the man was angry and shouted, “‘My son died, Y’all know who did it, Y’all know who sold him the drugs. Y’all have not done anything about it.’
“I just spent probably an hour and never said a word – just got fussed at,” Mahoney said. “I just told that gentleman, I said ‘You know, I’m going to look into this case, I’m going to see where we’re at’ and tried to explain to him the challenges in prosecuting a case like that.”
Mahoney said over the next couple of years the father would “pop in periodically, just to give me a fresh tune-up.”
Three years later, the office conducted a successful investigation and the suspect was arrested for selling drugs in the community.
“(The father) came into my office one day and I was kind of expecting this next installment of the tune-up, but instead he just had a little tear coming down his cheek,” Mahoney said. “His hand was shaking. He reached out and shook my hand, and just said, ‘Thank you.’ That was all he said. What I’ll never forget about that is the fact that our folks face things in their life all the time – that hurt – and we are called upon because something devastating has happened in that family’s life. The idea of just working hard and trying our best to be in a position to do the right thing for that family was just solidified to me in that case right off the bat.”
When asked how someone can get up every day, to go to work and be met with problems day after day, Mahoney said you “don’t get caught up in the fact that there’s a problem.”
“There’s always going to be a problem,” he said. “There may be two or three. You’re lucky if you just have one.”
“The mission has always been to serve our citizens the very best that we can. Hire the best people that we can. Train them the best that we can. Equip them the best that we can. Then turn them loose to go out here and serve in a way that brings honor to that code of ethics,” he said, pointing to the plaque behind him that outlines his office’s standards.
As a 9-year-old boy, Mahoney knew he wanted to have a career in law enforcement. After graduating from Brevard High School he went straight to N.C. State University.
“Really, I just wasn’t nearly mature enough to be that far away from home at that point in my life,” he said “I just was not flourishing.”
He returned home to Brevard from Raleigh after his sophomore year.
“I’m a pretty competitive person for those folks that know me,” he said. “My whole life, my whole career, from that moment until then that was that one thing that I let whip me and I never had peace about that.”
Years later, when he was already sheriff, Mahoney decided to transfer his previous credits and finish his bachelor’s of arts degree in criminal justice at Brevard College.
He was able to complete college courses online, at night, and whenever he had time, in addition to working full-time and serving on the executive committee for the Sheriff’s Association.
“It created this really unexpected but very cool opportunity, that while I was working to complete my degree, I was able to build relationships with the next generation of law enforcement,” he said. “Ultimately, I was able to recruit some really amazing people that graduated from Brevard College’s criminal justice program that still work here today. I walked the stage just like any 22-year-old would be proud to do. My mom and dad and family, my sister, my wife, everybody was able to be there and see it. It was awesome. I got to high-five some of my fellow classmates and then tell them to get to work.”
When asked, after seeing the worst crimes in the county, what he thinks leads some people to succeed, others to fail and what that ingredient is which lets some people rise up after being pushed down, Mahoney said the answer is two-fold.
“I’ve seen a lot of tragedy in these 30-plus years and the worst of that tragedy is when folks have just lost hope,” he said. “That doesn’t always associate to dying, either. There are plenty of folks who are still alive today who have lost hope and that’s just as tragic as any loss of life.
“I think that it’s incredibly important, as individuals, to do whatever it takes to always have hope. To understand that whatever I’m going through today does not have to dictate tomorrow. That whatever bad thing might be happening in my life, doesn’t define who I am. To be able to find a way — that hope — that tomorrow’s a little better.”
The sheriff’s office has just started a program in the detention center for inmates who have not graduated high school to obtain their GEDs.
“We just had our first graduates,” said Mahoney. “I think to me, the lack of education sometimes can be that thing that eliminates hope. Lack of connection can eliminate hope.”
The other ingredient to success: surrounding yourself with a “safety net” of “the right people.”
“At any point in any of our lives, we’re going to be a success; we’re going to be a failure; we’re going to be strong; we’re going to be weak; we’re going to laugh; we’re going to cry,” he said. “We’re going to be everything we want to be and then nothing that we want to be. But if we have that person, or those people, that we know beyond a doubt loves us and cares for us, then that’s the great stabilizer.
“If you surround yourself with all the right people that encourage you everyday, love on you everyday, that help guide your way every day — and never lose hope — I think you’re going to be successful. I’ve certainly been blessed in my life to have had a big handful of folks who have been that for me. I’ve tried really hard to be that to others.”
As for his soon-to-be successor, Chuck Owenby, Mahoney said he is going to do a “wonderful job” but “there is no way for anyone to be totally prepared to step into the world he’s about to step into.”
“He’s got what it takes — he’s experienced,” he said. “He’s got the respect of the men and women here at this office — and I’m excited about some of the changes that he’s talking about, quite honestly. I think it’s important to have that fresh breath of air every once in a while.”
On Tuesday, Nov. 22, from 4 to 7 p.m. the public is welcome to a drop-in retirement reception to honor Mahoney at the Transylvania Couinty Library.
“It’s important,” he said, “to make sure that our citizens understand how very much I appreciate the opportunity that they’ve afforded me to serve them.It’s been an honor and a privilege and I’ve never taken that for granted. The trust that they’ve put into me to run this office. I hope I’ve done right by them. I certainly tried to work hard every day to do that. Thank you to everybody for giving me that chance.”
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