By Kristen Johnson
The News & Observer
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WAKE COUNTY, N.C. — Wake County sheriff’s deputy Ned Byrd was the kind of friend you could always rely on.
That’s how Jason Culbreth, one of his oldest friends, describes him. Culbreth first met Byrd 20 years ago at a jiu jitsu class in Raleigh. Since then, the two became like family and trained in martial arts together.
“He was the best friend you could ask for,” Culbreth told The News & Observer Friday. “He was really a terrific human being. Just the best.”
Byrd, 48, was fatally shot late Thursday night while on patrol with his police dog in eastern Wake County, according to the Sheriff’s Office. He was shot “more than once” while outside of the unmarked SUV he was driving, a spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Office told The News & Observer. Byrd was wearing a protective vest.
As of Friday evening, the Sheriff’s Office had not identified the suspect who shot Byrd, and the suspect remained at-large.
Culbreth was part of outpouring of grief for the deputy, one of five who has been shot in North Carolina in the last three weeks — one of them also fatal. On Friday afternoon, Gov. Roy Cooper ordered all U.S. and state flags at state facilities to half-staff in honor of Byrd.
Culbreth said Byrd lived in Raleigh with Culbreth’s brother and took his job as as sheriff’s deputy seriously. He was a New York native and started working for the Sheriff’s Office in 2009 as a detention officer transporting inmates. He became a deputy in 2018.
“It’s a terrible thing,” Culbreth said. “He was the type of person who was there for all of his friends anytime anybody needed anything. This is the worst.”
The shooting occurred near a gas station on Auburn Knightdale and Battle Bridge roads in Raleigh. Byrd was pronounced dead at the scene, according to the Sheriff’s Office.
“(Byrd) was the true definition of what it meant to serve others. He was the first person to show up and help, even when he wasn’t asked,” said Joel Schlieman, a longtime friend of Byrd’s. “He just did it because that’s the kind of guy he was. I think that’s what he was doing when he was working.”
‘If Ned could help you, he would’
Byrd, assigned to the K9 unit with the Sheriff’s Office, worked different shifts at the Sheriff’s Office and often worked late at night, Culbreth said. His patrol dog was found in the car when deputies arrived to find Byrd at the scene.
The Sheriff’s Office is still determining the circumstances that led Byrd to the location where he was shot. He responded to a call about a mile from where he was found, cleared the scene and entered notes before he was shot, the N&O reported.
For a man who was loved by many, the loss is tremendous, Culbreth said. He said he wants people to remember how much Byrd cared about others.
“He was always putting himself out there to help anybody,” Culbreth said. “If he could help you, he would. And if he couldn’t help you, he would find somebody who would. If the world had more people like Ned, the world wouldn’t be as crazy of a place as it is.”
Billy Dowey, an instructor at Royce Gracie Jiu Jitsu Academy in Raleigh, became friends with Byrd during his training.
“Once you knew Ned, you were family to him,” Dowey said in a phone interview.
A ‘fiercely loyal’ friend
Besides Byrd’s love for his job, he had a passion for the outdoors and fitness, particularly CrossFit and jiu jitsu, and had been training for 15 years at the Royce Gracie Jiu Jitsu Academy in Raleigh, Dowey said. He said he last saw Byrd about a month ago at the academy.
Byrd also trained at various gyms around the Triangle, he said.
Schlieman, an instructor at Royce Gracie Jiu Jitsu of Cary, said Byrd could “outlift people twice his size, and roll for days on the mat.”
“When he did something, he was all in. That included being a good friend, teammate and employee,” Schlieman wrote in a Facebook post about the deputy.
In a phone interview with The N&O, Schlieman said Byrd was one of his oldest friends and he was a “fiercely loyal” friend to everyone.
The two met in 2007 and have been training together for years. He was one of the people Byrd talked to when he first wanted to become a sworn officer.
Byrd also became a CrossFit coach in Raleigh alongside Schlieman.
The news of Byrd’s death was the first thing he woke up to on Friday morning, Schlieman said.
“I saw (Byrd) a lot less once he became a sworn officer, just with the schedule,” he said. “He’s one of those people you could not see him for a week, a month, a year, and you meet him and sit down and suddenly you’d been talking for three hours.”
Community mourns loss
The day before Byrd’s death, a Caswell County deputy was seriously injured after being shot while serving a domestic violence protective order in Semora, The N&O reported.
On Aug. 1, Deputy Matthew Fishman, 38, was shot and killed by a man in Wayne County while serving an involuntary commitment order with two other deputies.
Several law enforcement agencies around the Triangle have shared condolences following Fishman’s and Byrd’s deaths with some speaking of the dangers officers face on the job.
“What has happened in Wake County hits very close to home for us,” said Durham County Sheriff Steve Birkhead in a statement Friday.
In a Facebook post, the Holly Springs Police Department said Byrd “often assisted in serving our community and, as a result, was well-known and friends with many of our officers.”
Apex Mayor Jacques Gilbert, a retired police officer, said he understood the importance of the profession.
“(Byrd) was someone I knew and respected,” Gilbert said in a Facebook post. “Members of law enforcement that uphold the oath of honor consistently do so despite the inherent risks.”
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