79-year-old Clover veteran facing jail time for keeping junk in his yard

Herald columnistSeptember 21, 2012 

— The Town of Clover court has rescheduled a contempt of court hearing for the 79-year old Clover man who was scheduled to appear in court Monday and potentially faces 30 days of jail time for not cleaning up his yard.

Patty Ramsey, wife of John Ramsey, said Friday afternoon that police hand-delivered a new summons to Ramsey that changed his court date to October.

John Ramsey, a Korean War veteran, was convicted in January of having too much junk in his yard, and ordered to clean up the yard or face jail. In August a judge found him in contempt after town officials argued the clean up was not satisfactory. Ramsey had used the junk he collected for resale to pay household bills.

He says he does not have $500.

In January, the town of Clover successfully prosecuted Ramsey for the misdemeanor offense of keeping too much junk in his yard. Ramsey collects everything from washing machines to bricks and wood, then cleans, fixes, strips and sells what he can.

That money pays for lights, running water and the medications to keep his disabled wife alive.

But keeping that stuff on his property was against the law of this town of about 4,000 people.

Last month in court, Ramsey was found in contempt because his cleanup efforts were deemed not good enough. He was fined $500 and given two weeks to pay it.

On Wednesday that deadline passed, so Ramsey, who lives on $898 a month in Social Security and veterans benefits, went to the Clover Police Department to turn himself in and “go to jail.”

But he was told by Clover town officials that he has a show-cause hearing Monday on the contempt of court charge. That has since changed to October.

Municipal Court Judge Melvin Howell will decide if Ramsey should spend a month in jail if he does not pay his fine.

On Thursday, Ramsey pointed to a fence that is under construction that he said will keep his bricks and other stuff from view. He is asked who is building the fence and digging the post holes deep in the earth.

“Me,” said Ramsey. “Ain’t got a dollar to pay fines; I sure ain’t got money to pay nobody.”

Ramsey said he has cleaned up much of the junk. All the washing machines and some of the other items are gone. Remaining stuff, such as windows and bricks, are neatly stacked.

Still, Ramsey will be back in court Monday because in Clover, rules are rules – even if only one set of eyes has ever complained of a problem.

No neighbor has complained to the town, court testimony showed in January. Nobody has ever complained about John Ramsey’s property except the code officer.

But the law is clear, the courts have ruled. Not once but twice.

Ramsey claimed in January, and claims now, that he bothers no one and his property is not unsightly except to one town official.

That’s why he went to trial in the first place.

In January, Ramsey was the world’s most honest defendant. He was so honest he admitted everything. He admitted he had junk, he even called it “junk” in court several times.

His lawyer at the time, spirited Judah VanSyckel from the York County Public Defender’s office, argued the town law was vague and illegal, that Ramsey was supporting his family in a way that should be cherished and not prosecuted, and that he was singled out by a rogue town department looking for violators.

A jury of six people was instructed by Judge Howell to follow the law only. In the time it takes to order coffee, Ramsey was found guilty. The judge gave Ramsey months to clean the place up, or face alternative punishment of 30 days in jail.

An appeal of Ramsey’s conviction by VanSyckel, the public defender, went nowhere.

Clover’s law states: “It is illegal for occupied and vacant lots upon which building materials, glass, wood, discarded and unused products and machinery, junk, or other matter or debris which is unsightly or detrimental to public health, sanitation, or safety is allowed to accumulate.”

Circuit Court Judge John C. Hayes III ruled in July that law prohibited Ramsey from collecting and keeping the junk on his property.

The law provided Ramsey with “fair, reasonable and clear notice” of what is prohibited in Clover, Hayes wrote, noting “the artful contention” by VanSyckel and Ramsey that “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” and “one man’s garbage is another man’s art.”

The problem, Hayes wrote, was facts.

“The facts of this case render these proverbs inapplicable,” he wrote.

Hayes added how the state Supreme Court has ruled: “One to whose conduct the law clearly applies does not have standing to challenge it for vagueness.”

So with an appeal denied, Clover’s code enforcement officer, Joe Funderburk, said that at the Aug. 27 hearing, he showed Judge Howell pictures and told the court that Ramsey’s progress was not adequate.

The judge ordered Funderburk to go back out to Ramsey’s property and take more pictures and bring them to him, Funderburk said Thursday. The judge looked at the pictures and ruled Ramsey was in contempt of his order to clean up his property.

The town has “bent over backwards” to give Ramsey every opportunity to comply with that order, Funderburk said Thursday.

“Mr. Ramsey has failed to do what the court ordered him to do,” Funderburk said.

So now Ramsey waits.

Ramsey is a former Ku Klux Klansman who once was convicted of burning a cross on the front lawn of the former police chief in York. Ramsey served time in prison before the conviction was later overturned on appeal, and Ramsey has maintained he took the fall for two other guys.

Ramsey said he is now reformed, that all of that is in the past. He flies American flags in his yard – yes, there are Confederate flags on his old 1993 truck with 300,000 miles on it, too – and a Mexican flag flies in the yard on a pole.

“My neighbors, Mexicans, they are the nicest people in the world and they asked me to fly it on my flagpole and I said I sure will,” Ramsey said. “All they do is work.”

His front yard is filled with rocking horses and even a miniature carousel of horses that he lets neighbor kids play on. The grass is cut and neat. There are plants and flowers, artwork, and the classic Southern painted plywood board staple of an old woman bending over with her bloomers showing. A sign that reads “Merry Christmas.”

To complete the picture of Southern-ness, there is one old dog of unknown lineage and another old pit bull held at bay by links as thick as a ship’s anchor chain.

“Johnny doesn’t bother nobody,” said Wendy Christopher, a neighbor of 12 years. “I don’t know what the big deal is for this town. You can’t see what he has on the other side.”

Inside the mobile home is Ramsey’s wife, Patty.

“They want to put my husband in jail for trying to help his family,” Patty Ramsey said.

Ramsey has one grown son in Afghanistan, on his fourth deployment to war. Ramsey’s own left leg, wounded in Korea 60 years before, requires a special orthopedic shoe paid for by veteran’s benefits.

“They tell me I gotta wear sandals in the jail, can’t wear my shoe,” said Ramsey.

So between now and October, John Ramsey will likely continue to build a fence. He will dig the post holes himself. He will wave to the neighbors and offer them a drink. He will take care of his wife.

And then, Ramsey will go back to court to see if he has committed such grave acts against his hometown of 20 years that he deserves a month in jail.

Andrew Dys 803-329-4065 adys@heraldonline.com

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