Funeral set for former Orange Co. Sheriff Pendergrass, known as ‘a tenacious lawman’

Sheriff Lindy Pendergrass, pictured in December 2006, before his swearing-in as Orange County Sheriff. He was one of the oldest and longest-sitting sheriffs in North Carolina.
Sheriff Lindy Pendergrass, pictured in December 2006, before his swearing-in as Orange County Sheriff. He was one of the oldest and longest-sitting sheriffs in North Carolina.

Funeral services have been set for former Orange County Sheriff Albert “Lindy” Pendergrass, who died Sunday afternoon.

Pendergrass, who turned 85 on May 13, died after an extended illness, Orange County Sheriff Charles Blackwood said.

The family will visit with friends at 11 a.m. Thursday at Chapel Hill Bible Church, 260 Erwin Road in Chapel Hill, Blackwood said in an email Monday night. A funeral service for Pendergrass will follow at noon Thursday. He will be buried in Westwood Cemetery on Davie Road in Carrboro.

Pendergrass spent his law enforcement career in Orange County, serving as sheriff for 32 years, from 1982 until his retirement in 2014.

“He was considered to be a legendary and very tenacious lawman,” Blackwood told The News & Observer in a phone interview. “He always got his man or woman.”

Blackwood said Pendergrass died around 2 p.m. with his family by his side.

Flags outside all county buildings are being flown at half-staff for the rest of the week in honor of Pendergrass, Commissioners Chair Penny Rich said in a news release Monday afternoon.

“Sheriff Pendergrass was a dedicated law enforcement officer who spent more than half a century protecting the people of Orange County,” Rich said. “Our thoughts are with his family at this time.”

Pendergrass was born and raised the oldest of seven children in Chapel Hill, Blackwood said. His father was a police officer, and his mother worked outside of the home, The News & Observer reported in a 2007 profile on Pendergrass.

After returning home from serving in the U.S. Marines, he joined the Chapel Hill Police Department in 1957, working his way up to major of investigations, Blackwood and county officials said. After retiring from the police department, he ran for sheriff in 1982.

He was an innovator at the Sheriff’s Office, Blackwood said.

“Many, many firsts came about during his tenure,” Blackwood said.

Those firsts included creating professional standards, the addition of take-home patrol cars, developing patrol districts and community watch programs in areas that had been overlooked. He also started Orange County’s student resource officer programs that puts law enforcement in public school, Blackwood said.

Pendergrass also expanded the number of sworn personnel from 20 to more than 100 by the time he retired, county officials said Monday, and promoted continued law enforcement training through classes offered by the Federal Bureau of Investigations, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Drug Enforcement Agency and others.

Pendergrass 1997.JPG
Orange Co. Sheriff Lindy Pendergrass, left, in 1997 with Chapel Hill police Lt. Marvin Clark, center, and Chapel Hill police chief Ralph Pendergraph. NEWS & OBSERVER FILE PHOTO
Eddie Caldwell, executive vice president and general counsel of the N.C. Sheriffs’ Association, also cited Pendergrass’ leadership in improving the professionalism of law enforcement statewide. He was a member and longtime chair of the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Education and Training Standards Commission, Caldwell said in an email.

Orange County Chief District Judge Joe Buckner, who has been on the bench since 1994, said he will never forget how Pendergrass took control of the chaos that followed a 1995 shooting spree in downtown Chapel Hill. UNC law student Wendell Williamson, who was later found not guilty by reason of insanity, killed two people and shot an officer.

“(He) came in with his sheriff’s officers and completely took command of that situation, which was just chaos, and he turned it into an orderly investigation in a matter of minutes,” Buckner told The News & Observer in a phone interview Sunday afternoon.

That was just Pendergrass’ style, Buckner said.

“You saw him do that on a much smaller, less public level every time,” Buckner said. “He wasn’t sitting in his office. He was on the scene making sure everything got done in an appropriate and professional manner.”

Pendergrass was also diligent about making sure the inmates at the jail “were treated humanly with dignity and with kindness.”

A 2007 profile in The News & Observer described Pendergrass, then 72 and the oldest sitting sheriff in the state, as almost always in uniform, listening to a police scanner and responding to calls.

“He will die in his patrol car,” then-Durham County Sheriff Worth Hill told The News & Observer.

Buckner made similar statements Sunday.

“The man never slept,” Buckner said. “He kept his scanner right next to his bed.”

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Virginia Bridges covers criminal justice in Orange and Durham counties for The Herald-Sun and The News & Observer. She has worked for newspapers for more than 15 years. In 2017, the N.C. Press Association awarded her first place for beat feature reporting. The N.C. State Bar Association awarded her the 2018 Media & Law Award for Best Series.