The day before he was found dead in a Cary motel room, Carrboro's former fire chief had again violated a domestic violence protective order by calling his former longtime girlfriend, police say.
About 4:30 p.m. Friday, Rodney Murray called Gina Ambrosecchia at work, said Sgt. Mike Ballard of the Morrisville Police Department. An arrest warrant was drawn up a few hours later.
"We looked for him Friday and all day Saturday," Ballard said, "then got word from Cary he was found at the La Quinta."
Murray, 58, was found dead after 10 p.m. Saturday in a motel room near the airport.
Police are awaiting an autopsy report and are investigating all possibilities on the cause of death, including suicide, said Capt. Dave Wulff of the Cary Police Department.
Colleagues and friends remembered Murray, 58, as a dedicated public servant who gave money from his own pocket to fire victims. But they also expressed dismay that a man once known for his gentle nature had seemed to lose his mental balance, especially after suffering a heart attack and losing a longtime girlfriend late last year.
"He was a very well-respected professional and well liked by the people who knew him casually like I did," Orange-Chatham Chief District Judge Joe Buckner said. "But all of a sudden he starts to do something out of character, and you just have to wonder whether something went wrong, either physically or mentally."
A career firefighter, Murray spent 26 years in Chapel Hill before becoming Carrboro's fire chief in 1993.
Carrboro Police Chief Carolyn Hutchison remembered a generous man, an advocate for fire safety and a great listener.
He donated money to families burned out of their homes and his own sick time to Carrboro employees who needed it.
"He offered friendly advice, and I benefited from that advice on occasion," Hutchison said.
Harold Horne worked with Murray in Chapel Hill in the 1970s and 1980s.
"I remember him helping me do CPR on a 4-year-old child that he had pulled out of a burning house," he said. "And taking money out of his pocket when he didn't make that much money to give to families burned out of their homes. And raising money to help pay for a kid for a bone marrow transplant."
Murray's longtime nickname was "Zipper" because he was so skinny.
"When he turned sideways and stuck out his tongue, he'd look like a zipper," Horne said.
Chapel Hill Police Chief Gregg Jarvies met Murray in 1975 as a rookie public safety officer. Murray stuck in Jarvies' mind as one of the most supportive leaders in the department.
"I remember him telling us, 'Don't worry about what's being said politically. You just need to do the best job as a firefighter,' " Jarvies said.
Murray was born in Durham and had two sons. One of them, Christopher Murray, declined to comment Monday.
Recently, health problems and a difficult breakup seemed to send Murray over the edge.
He was first arrested on Christmas Eve.
He was on intermittent leave after a November heart attack, and Ambrosecchia had recently told him she was ending their relationship.
Between Dec. 23 and 6 a.m. Dec. 24, he called her eight times from his Carrboro-issued cell phone, and called directory assistance 17 times, records show. He also drove by her house and ran up to ring the doorbell, according to police.
Murray announced in January that he would retire from his post as chief effective March 1.
He was last arrested in March after he violated probation and apparently checked into a hospital in South Carolina the month before. After that, he spent about two months in jail until a May court date.
Then he pleaded guilty to stalking Ambrosecchia. After repeatedly violating a protective order, he was supposed to halt all contact with her, get a mental health evaluation and seek alcohol-abuse treatment, Assistant District Attorney Kendra Montgomery-Blinn said.
In recent weeks, Murray seemed to be getting back on track, his attorney, James "Butch" Williams, said.
"I talked to him about a week ago, and he was in good spirits," he said Sunday.
But a month after the conviction, Murray called Ambrosecchia again.
About eight hours later, Murray checked into the motel near the airport about 1 a.m. Saturday.
(Staff writers Benjamin Niolet and Meiling Arounnarath contributed to this report.)
Staff writer Jessica Rocha can be reached at 932-2008 or firstname.lastname@example.org.