YORK — So cold he had wrapped towels around his arms to keep warm and having eaten just four slices of bread and a single cookie in three days York Countys oldest inmate walked out of jail Sunday night and returned to freedom.
Johnny Ramsey, 79, had just spent 72 hours in jail, where a judge sent him after he didnt clean up the junk in the yard of his Clover mobile home.
If the disabled Korean War veteran gaunt and unshaven, knees so stiff he had to rub them to move around doesnt clean up his property to the satisfaction of the town judge by Friday, he will have to walk right back through those same jailhouse doors.
Im all right, but I dont like being cooped up; I usually get out every day and do something, Ramsey said after he was released at about 8 p.m. I gotta come back here, last of the week.
They say I gotta get rid of all my stuff or I come back to jail.
Ramsey lives with his disabled wife on $898 a month in Social Security and veterans benefits. For years, he collected junk and building materials, appliances and more, to re-sell to make money to pay the utility bills and for his wifes medications.
But Clover officials said he violated a town law against unsightly junk. Ramsey fought the law in court, but a jury found him guilty in a January trial. Town Judge Melvin Howell gave him six months to clean it up or face a month in jail.
Howell granted Ramsey an extension in August to either clean up the property or pay a $500 fine to avoid jail. On Thursday, Howell sentenced Ramsey to 30 days for contempt of court.
Howell said repeatedly in court that he had done all he could to keep Ramsey out of jail.
But Ramsey did not yield, and the judge had the last word.
Ramsey has admitted everything, that he keeps junk in his yard and why. A privacy fence built by volunteers from Rock Hill who wanted to keep Ramsey out of jail was not enough.
So on Thursday night, Ramsey by far the oldest inmate in the county lock-up walked into the same jail that houses murder suspects awaiting trial, accused rapists and all kinds of other violent offenders.
The jailing of Ramsey after his fight with the town, chronicled in The Herald for months, has captured national attention. The dispute comes down to Ramseys claimed principle to do what he wants on his property versus a town and its rules.
Ramsey and his supporters say the towns enforcement targeted him unfairly, and the law was used to throttle the ability of an old man to support his family.
The town its code enforcement officer, its elected officials, its judge said Ramsey had more than a year to clean up his property. Sunday night, Ramsey said he will try this week to clean up his property and stay out of jail but he still wants to keep his lumber and bricks.
Im gonna try to get it all up, but that lumber, and those thousands of bricks, I want to use those to build rooms, Ramsey said. I thought I had gotten rid of so much of it. It seems like they want me to get rid of everything.
Judge Howell said at Thursdays hearing that he would meet with Ramseys lawyer and town officials later this week to see if enough work has been done to keep Ramsey out of jail next weekend. The town has even offered to cart off anything Ramsey brought to the street.
It is unclear how much progress it will take to satisfy the judge.
I hope I dont have to come back, Ramsey said Sunday.
After three days without food I gave my food to a buddy in there; hes serving 30 days and got 27 left, Ramsey said and conditions far colder than he would like, Ramsey walked out under his own power carrying his migraine medications.
He thanked one of the jailers who walked him out, saying, Appreciate it now, and thank you a lot, then walked out to be driven home by his wife. Patty Ramsey had sat in her car for two hours, with two tiny chihuahuas, waiting for her husband.
I just hope hes all right, she said during the wait. Hes 79 years old. They shouldnt have put him in jail for just trying to be a good man. He tried to clean up that yard, and he did a lot already.
They just want him to get rid of everything. They had it out for him.
Johnny Ramsey said as he walked out of jail that he planned to use some of the money people have offered to get rid of some of the junk he has. Hundreds of dollars in donations have poured in from as far away as California to pay the $500 fine that Ramsey had expected would keep him out of jail.
Howell said Thursday that Ramsey had made no effort to pay the fine until the contempt hearing Thursday, so he refused to accept the money.
There was a fella right there in the courtroom the other night, had the money to pay the fine, but the judge just wouldnt take it, Ramsey said Sunday night.
The case of Johnny Ramsey versus the Town of Clover has moved beyond being about money and donations and even whether the town is being far too strict.
Ramsey has become a national symbol of fighting City Hall.
Ramsey is a former Ku Klux Klan member who has denounced his racist past. He spent a few years in prison more than 30 years ago after he was convicted of burning a cross in the yard of the York police chief. That conviction was later overturned, and Ramsey has always claimed he took the fall for others.
Today, despite support from so many who believe Ramsey has been treated poorly by the town and courts, the tarps and tin, bricks and wood, that cover his side and back yards remain.
The threat of going back to jail at 6 p.m. Friday remains.
The only person who can keep Johnny Ramsey out of jail again is the same guy whose knees creaked when he got into the car Sunday night with his wife. The wife who put her arm around his neck as he ran a hand over his tired, lined face.
The next move, to clean up or to go back to jail, belongs to Johnny Ramsey.
Andrew Dys firstname.lastname@example.org