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Suspect arrested in death of state schools official

Authorities arrested Jason Keith Williford, 30, of Raleigh, Friday in connection with the death of State Board of Education member Kathy Taft. Watch an update from police LIVE at 2 p.m. on WRAL-TV and WRAL.com.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Authorities arrested a Raleigh man Friday evening in connection with the death of State Board of Education member Kathy Taft.

Jason Keith Williford, 30, of 2812-D Wayland Drive, is charged with murder and first-degree forcible rape, according to Raleigh police. He was held for several hours at a Raleigh police substation on Atlantic Avenue before being transported to the Wake County Magistrate's Office for processing at 11 p.m.

"Hallelujah," Kathy Taft's daughter, Paige Fuqua, told WRAL News following the arrest. "I'm so relieved."

Taft, 62, died March 9 at WakeMed, three days after she was assaulted in the home of a friend and suffered a severe head injury. Search warrants released last Friday also state that she was sexually assaulted.

Police have not commented on what led to Williford's arrest, but said the investigation is ongoing. Police plan to hold a press conference Saturday afternoon. 

Williford was being held at the Wake County jail without bond. He was due in court on Monday.

Taft, of Greenville, had undergone neck surgery in Raleigh on March 5 and was recovering at the home of friend John Geil, at 2710 Cartier Drive. Geil was in Florida at the time.

Taft’s sister Dina Arnold Holton, of Oriental, called 911 on the morning of March 6 to report that Taft was unresponsive and that she thought it was a complication from her surgery.

She told the dispatcher that she couldn't get Taft out of bed and that there was "blood everywhere."

"I heard footsteps, and I know somebody was in that house," Holton said Tuesday. "I didn't know that house. I'd never stayed in that house before. Then, I found her, and that's when I called 911."

Police were called after Taft had been taken to WakeMed, when her surgeon examined her and realized she had been assaulted. A medical exam at the hospital also turned up evidence of a sexual assault.

Police have said that the attack occurred "some hours before" investigators were called, but the time of the crime hasn't been narrowed down from late March 5 to early March 6. The arrest warrant says the attack occurred "on or about" March 6.

Suspect lived nearby

Williford lived less than five minutes away from the Cartier Drive home where Taft was attacked.

"(It) freaks me out that he lived so close," said Amy Macgill, who lives in the Cartier Drive area.

Police were at the Williford's apartment for most of Friday afternoon and evening. Around 10 p.m., authorities towed a car from the scene.

Williford's neighbors said he kept to himself.  “I’ve never met him and talking to the rest of the folks up here, they’ve not met him either,” neighbor Judy Johnson said Friday.

Williford was found guilty of first-degree burglary in 2001 and breaking and entering in 1998 in Wake County, according to court records.

Williford was the founder, bassist and singer for the local band The Authority, according to the band's MySpace page. According to a YouTube video of the band performing that has since been removed from the site, Williford also went by the nickname "Lightning Rod."

Musicians who spoke with WRAL News on Friday evening said, though talented, Williford had drinking problems and would get "out of control and not show up for practice."

Family friends express relief, mixed emotions

State Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson said Friday that she felt the arrest would bring closure to Taft's family.

"I'm hopeful today's arrest will be the beginning of the end in resolving Kathy's murder. I know that her friends and family really want this to be resolved soon. And this is a giant step in that resolution," Atkinson said.

“It is an incredible conflict of emotions,” Taft's ex-husband, Tom Taft, said. "We're so relieved and on the other hand we are so upset.”

Tom Taft said he spoke with investigators who said they felt comfortable with the evidence they have in the case. He said they did not elaborate.

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