Andy Fillmore, Austin L. Miller and Carlos Medina
DUNNELLON — Ocala Police Chief Greg Graham died Sunday morning when the small plane he was piloting crashed into a field in southwest Marion County.
Marion County Fire Rescue received the call at 11:32 a.m. The single-engine private plane crashed into an open field in the 9700 block of Southwest 140th Avenue, not far from the Marion County Airport, a county-owned facility in an unincorporated area near Dunnellon.
The Marion County Sheriff’s Office said no one else was injured and that Graham was the only person aboard the plane. The Sheriff’s Office and the Federal Aviation Administration are investigating.
Ocala Mayor Kent Guinn said he received word of the tragedy from OPD Deputy Chief Mike Balken. Guinn has named Balken interim chief.
According to Guinn, Graham had recently obtained his pilot’s license. He said the chief enjoyed skydiving and scuba diving and always had a fascination with flying.
“It’s hard to believe,” the mayor said.
Graham had served as chief since January 2012. At the time, the Star-Banner noted that he was the agency’s 30th chief. (The police department dates back to 1869.)
Graham worked at OPD for many years, raising to the rank of deputy chief. He was interim chief for a short time in 2003 until Sam Williams was appointed.
Graham left the agency in 2008 to become police chief in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He was the first chief to be selected from outside the Cedar Rapids department in 30 years.
While in Iowa, he guided the department through rising flood waters in June 2008. Talking with a Star-Banner reporter at the time, Graham said, “It’s trial by fire. I feel like I’m back in Florida during the 2004-2005 hurricanes we had, and we had to get ready for them.”
Graham came back to become Ocala chief after Williams resigned in late December 2011.
In 2013, after one year at the helm back in Ocala, Graham told the Star-Banner he was paying a lot of attention to department morale and best practices.
“Graham said he felt a disconnect between the administration, officers and civilian employees,” the paper wrote at the time. “So he engaged personnel, similar to an approach he used in Iowa, and adopted a few tenets he hoped would break down barriers.
“They were simple: Do the right thing, ask for forgiveness instead of permission, find ways to say yes, treat everyone with respect and have fun.”
In 2016, Graham was placed on paid administrative leave when a grievance was filed on behalf of three police officers alleging racial discrimination, sexual harassment, hostile treatment and retaliation. He was reinstated in January 2017 after a law firm hired by the city cleared him and recommended that he be reinstated with all rights and benefits.
Despite that finding, and City Council’s decision to reinstate Graham, the city later agreed to pay $500,000 in settlements to the officers.
In February 2018, through the leadership of the mayor, Graham and other community members, the police department started a special Heroin/Opioid Amnesty Program. Simply put, the program allowed anyone experiencing a drug addiction problem to come forward and receive help no judgment and no penalties.
“Graham said the goal is to get those who need help the assistance they need because the agency will never be able to ‘arrest our way out of this crisis,’ ” the Star-Banner wrote at the time.
Earlier this year, Graham was a presence when demonstrators in Ocala gathered in the wake of George Floyd’s death. When a group marched from downtown to a local park, Graham was there with them, bullhorn in hand, so he could be heard.
“He affirmed the group’s right to gather and said he shared their dismay about what happened in Minneapolis,” the Star-Banner reported at the time. “He said members of the public could call him personally if they believe one of his officers has done anything wrong. He promised that any such complaint would prompt an investigation and consequences, if wrongdoing is confirmed.”
In Ocala’s system of government, the mayor oversees the police department.
“His leadership was responsible for changing the direction of the department,” Guinn said of Graham on Sunday. “I couldn’t have asked for anybody better.”
As the news spread on Sunday, leaders and residents began posting reactions on social media.
“An incredibly tragic day for Ocala. Please pray and send comforting thoughts to the entire Graham family,” City Council member Matt Wardell posted on Facebook.
“I will miss you my friend,” former school board candidate and community leader Shelia Arnett wrote on Facebook.
The police department itself posted a Facebook tribute. Meanwhile, more than two dozen law enforcement vehicles, light bars activated, were parked in tribute outside police headquarters on Pine Avenue just south of Silver Springs Boulevard. The flag in front of the building was lowered to half-staff.
“We have had the great privilege to have called him a friend, a boss, and a part of our family for well over thirty years,” the department’s post said. “He was the heart of the Department. His heart beat for Ocala, for his community, for his department, and especially for his family.
“We will miss his passion for community and law enforcement; his candor and personality; his strong leadership; and most definitely his smile.”
Sheriff Billy Woods, himself a former OPD officer, said at a news conference on Sunday that he and others were shocked and grief-stricken when they heard the news.
Woods said he had the pleasure of serving with Graham for more than 30 years in law enforcement. He said investigators don’t have all the answers, but will be working the case in the coming days.
Woods and Balken met with Graham’s wife and family, and the sheriff said the Grahams will need the community’s prayers. He and Balken also spoke to the OPD staff, and they too will need support.
The sheriff said his agency and OPD have enjoyed “a great working relationship.”
“I call him a friend and mentor,” Woods said. He said Graham loved being chief and loved Ocala, and that Ocala loved him, too. He said Graham did “quite a bit and was taken too soon.”
Also at the news conference, Balken said the area has “lost one of greatest lawmen I’ve ever known.” He called Graham “a true mentor,” and “a true leader.” Balken said Graham was “a forward-thinking professional,” and one of the greatest friends he has ever had in his life.