A Wilmington officer was killed in an accident while on duty

Reported by Gavin Johnson - bio|email
Reported by Max Winitz - bio|email
Updated by Debra Worley - email

WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - A Wilmington police officer was killed during an early call Wednesday morning.

Early reports show 28-year-old Richard Matthews was responding as back up for another officer who had a car stopped on South College Road around 1:18 AM.

According to Chief Ralph Evangelous, Matthews was involved in trying to stop suspects who were throwing drugs out of their car.

The officer was traveling eastbound on Shipyard Boulevard when he crossed the median and hit a tree.

Chief Evangelous said there appeared to be a box in the middle of the road and Matthews veered away from the box and lost control of his car.

Matthews was transported to New Hanover Regional Medical Center where he was pronounced dead.

Three people are in custody who police say were involved in the drug case.  Authorities say because of the time of the incident, names of the accused cannot be released until Thursday.

District Attorney Ben David says he handled their first court appearances personally Wednesday morning, where he also doubled their bond.  He says all three are charged with possession with intent to sell and deliver marijuana.

The driver also faces charges for fleeing and eluding police and felony possession of a firearm.  That charge stems from a previous felony conviction in Pennsylvania.

When asked if more charges may follow, related to the death of Officer Matthews, David would not comment specifically but said he plans to prosecute the suspects to the full extent of the law.

Wilmington attorney Thom Goolsby told WECT the state may be able to press additional charges depending on the circumstances of the crash.  The state could have a case if Matthews was responding to a police chase that was still happening at the time of the accident.

Matthews was hired by the Wilmington Police Department in December 2006.  He had come to the area with prior law enforcement experience with the NYPD.

Sgt. Warren Kennedy spoke to Matthews just before he went on duty Tuesday.

"[He was] well liked - a joy to work with," said Kennedy.  "[He was] always eager to help, always had a kind word for people.  The folks who worked with him always knew you could count on him."

In January Matthews was issued a commendation for his acts of bravery, courage and professionalism.  He and four other officers awoke and evacuated residents inside a home that was engulfed in flames.

Matthews' family lives in Pennsylvania, and his father said they were notified about the accident early Wednesday morning.

"We were notified by our local police about 4:30 this morning," said Matthews' father, Dennis.  "He was very proud to be a police officer and he was doing what he loved to do."

In Wilmington the officer was a member of the Port City Church, where Matthews' pastor remembers him as a kind-hearted man who was always ready to lend a hand.

According to Chief Evangelous, funeral services will take place later this week and a memorial service will be held in a few weeks.

Donations in memory of Officer Matthews may be directed to:

TheWilmington Police Recreation Association
c/o Lt. Matt Hinson
615 Bess Street
Wilmington, NC  28401

It has been more than 30 years since a Wilmington police officer died on duty.

Officer Billy Nunalee was shot 15 times in April of 1978 at what was then a Seven-Eleven at the intersection of Dawson Street and Wrightsville Avenue.

No one has ever been charged in connection with his murder.