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Columbus County magistrate removed from office following hearing

The brick Columbus County Courthouse from the side.
Nikolai Mather
Columbus County magistrate Robert Worley stepped down following a trial last week.

Last week, a Columbus County judge ordered a magistrate to step down from office following testimony from the Whiteville Police Department. Joseph Williams from the Whiteville News Reporter has been covering this story. He joined WHQR rural reporter Nikolai Mather to discuss the case.

Nikolai Mather: Alright Joseph, thanks for joining us. So Judge C. Ashley Gore made an order last week – Robert Worley, who was a magistrate with Columbus County, should be removed from office effective immediately. What was the rationale behind the judge's order?

Joseph Williams: Sure. So, C. Ashley Gore, the senior resident superior court judge here in Columbus County, she held a removal hearing for Robert Worley, a magistrate here in the county, on May 30th.

Gore, after hearing about five hours worth of testimony on May 30th, ended up rendering her decision on June 6. And in her decision, she found that the comments that Worley had made – both in public on Facebook as well as in private to a few officers at the Whiteville Police Department – she said that his unsavory Facebook posts and the comments that he made to these officers were, "at minimum, unbecoming of a professional adult," and at worst, they "poisoned the well" of the Columbus County judicial system.

Gore also found that Worley violated the NC rules of conduct for magistrates, which detail proper and improper acts related to a magistrate's professional conduct, both in and out of the office.

NM: Wow. Okay, let's back up for a second. Like you said, the judge heard testimony on this case on May 30th — including from the Whiteville Police Department. Tell us about that.

JW: We heard from several officers with the Whiteville Police Department, including those who had had personal interactions with Robert Worley. When these officers took to the stand, they said that some private statements that he had made to them drew into question whether or not he could be an impartial and fair magistrate.

There was one comment made to Officer Maria Cruz at the Whiteville Police Department. Back in October of 2023, there was an incident in the Walmart parking lot in Whiteville where Worley ended up getting, apparently bumped by a fleeing larceny suspect. He fell to the ground, sustained some superficial injuries to one of his arms. At a later date, Worley spoke to Cruz and he questioned her about why she didn't charge that larceny suspect with assault on a government official.

He apparently grew heated. She said that his face was red, and he effectively told her that the two would have to have a "come to Jesus meeting."

NM: And that wasn't the only time Worley butted heads with the Whiteville Police Department. 

JW: Yes, that's correct. Robert Worley's wife Stephanie Worley ended up getting in a car accident in downtown Whiteville back in April of this year. The responding officer to that wreck was Whiteville Police Department officer Ethan Thompson.

Sometime after that incident, Worley spoke to Thompson, and he effectively asked Thompson why the other driver hadn't been charged in the wreck. Worley said that he had learned that the other driver apparently had had their license revoked as of the time of the car accident involving his wife. Worley told Thompson that he felt as if this wasn't the first time that he had been screwed, and that's his word by the department. So Worley kind of had these two issues going on in the background.

NM: I see. So, last question: you reported that Worley can move forward with an appeal if he wants one. Do you think he'll do that?

JW: As of the current moment, I'm not presently aware of whether or not Robert Worley plans to appeal this decision, but if we catch wind of that at the News Reporter, you can best believe that we'll follow up on that lead.

NM: And you can best believe we'll read it. Thank you, Joseph.

JW: [laughs] Thank you, Nikolai.

Read more of Joseph Williams' coverage at the News Reporter.

Nikolai Mather is a Report for America corps member from Pittsboro, North Carolina. He covers rural communities in Pender County, Brunswick County and Columbus County. He graduated from UNC Charlotte with degrees in genocide studies and political science. Prior to his work with WHQR, he covered religion in Athens, Georgia and local politics in Charlotte, North Carolina. In his spare time, he likes working on cars and playing the harmonica. You can reach him at nmather@whqr.org.