The small town of Latta has received national attention during the past week because its mayor fired the police chief and a town councilman released an audio recording that implied the mayor did this because the chief is gay.

The real story may be a bit more complicated than that, and no one expects the ending to be written before June 24.

That's when voters here decide if the mayor should keep his job.

Ryan Wilson of S.C. Equality said perhaps the most notable thing is how many people in this Dillon County town of 1,400 have rallied behind former Chief Crystal Moore amid signs that her sexuality led to her firing.

"They don't care who she goes home to at night," Wilson said. "That's an important part of all this: that the people of Latta are supporting the chief even though she is a lesbian."

So far, Moore's supporters have raised about $3,000 for her legal bills and living expenses, said Wil Brown, a supporter who organized the fund drive.

"It's been overwhelming the support local people have given it. When we started it, we recognized most of the names of people donating," he said, adding even more was given after the story was picked up by MSNBC. "Now we don't recognize any of them."

The story of Moore's firing became national after Councilman Jarett Taylor released a recording of his conversation with Mayor Earl Bullard in which the mayor expressed concern about Moore's "lifestyle."

"I would much rather have... and I will say this to anybody's face... somebody who drank and drank too much taking care of my child than I had somebody whose lifestyle is questionable around children," the mayor reportedly said.

Taylor said Wednesday he volunteers with law enforcement and was taught to document everything, so he made the tape and released it.

"It appears he's the only one who has a problem with Crystal," Taylor said of the mayor. "I don't think I've ever seen this town united behind such a cause. Maybe on September 11."

Bullard did not return a message left Tuesday but told WPDE NewsChannel 15 that Moore's sexuality was not a reason behind her firing. He said he could only talk about those details if Moore signed a paper authorizing him to do so.

Bullard added he can talk about what led to Moore's firing if she gives the town permission.

"Right now, it's a hot issue. It's getting media attention across the nation because of what they say I did," he told the station. "And they say I fired her because of her sexuality and nothing could be farther from the truth."

Brown said he has known Moore all his life - they grew up in the same small town, and Brown's mother taught Moore in school. Meanwhile, he also said that Latta Town Council decided this week not to hire a new chief for two months.

On June 24, the town's voters are scheduled to decide if the town should keep its current strong mayor form of government or change it to a weak mayor-strong council form.

"In theory, if the referendum passes, she could be rehired in 60 to 90 days," he said. "I don't think the current mayor is going to hire her back under any circumstance. It's really kind of a wait-and-see."

Moore has been on the town's police force for two decades but served as chief for only a few years. The mayor has been in office only four months, since the municipal election in December.

The chief's firing comes as S.C. Equality and other gay rights advocates have been pressuring the General Assembly to do more to prevent workplace discrimination against homosexuals. They have had little success to date, but the Latta incident could help.

"We've been talking about this issue for the past year and people often say, 'Does this ever happen?' " Wilson said. "The only justification that has surfaced so far is that she lost her job because she's a lesbian."

Brown said while the incident has had its ugly side, he has been encouraged that 75 people have felt strongly enough to contribute to help Moore.

"That's one of the things I'm most proud of, is how the town has come out and been supportive of her and showed how tolerant it can be," he added.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.