A year later, once-jailed Clover ‘junk man’ still cleaning up

Herald columnistSeptember 28, 2013 

— A year’s time isn’t enough to make Johnny Ramsey – now 80, a disabled Korean War veteran, a reformed former member of the Ku Klux Klan – forget that longest of long weekends.

It was a Thursday night through a Sunday night, when the town of Clover became a national symbol for zealous civic punishment.

Not for violence or meanness, not for wife-beating or public drunkenness or drugs, but for junk used to buy a disabled woman medicine.

That’s when Clover sent an old man to jail.

For the terrible crime of having too much junk on his property.

“Man, I was never so cold in all my life as it was in that county jail,” Ramsey said last week. “Don’t even remember being so cold in Korea, and it was 40 below.

“Couldn’t get warm the whole time I was there. Didn’t eat nothin’ but a weenie and one sandwich that was just bread.”

Patty Ramsey, Johnny’s wife, remembers that awful weekend, too.

“They put an old man in jail,” she said. “For nothing.”

After Ramsey’s story went viral online, money and the support of outraged people started pouring in from as far away as Venezuela. One of Ramsey’s sons was serving his fourth deployment in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan during the furor over the junk.

A Rock Hill salesman was so upset by the heavy-handedness of jail for an old man that he built Ramsey a privacy fence, using donated lumber.

Veterans groups helped him get extra benefits. People who despise politicians and governments in general had a real life senior citizen to hold up and show off what happens when government loses all sense.

“People was right good to me, wondering why I was put in jail for junk,” Ramsey said. “I hope I don’t have to go back to jail, neither. I cleaned up so much junk from here, and I got this fence, and all, I don’t know what more anybody could want from me.”

Just last week, Ramsey took more junk to the side of the road next to his house. A Town of Clover truck, driven by public works employee Mike Carpenter, picked up the old wood and other stuff. Ramsey said he has taken countless loads to the curb in the past year.

“He did everything he was told to do,” Patty Ramsey said. “He did it before he went to jail, too. They never should have put him in jail.”

Ramsey collected and sold the junk to help pay for medicines and more for his wife, who also is disabled. The money augmented the $900 a month in benefits the couple scrapes by on.

When he was ticketed in 2011, then went to trial in 2012 on the charge of violating the town’s code, Ramsey never tried to hide his junk.

This is a guy who freely admits he was once a member of the Ku Klux Klan, serving a short stretch in prison decades ago for a cross burning on the York police chief’s lawn. His conviction was later overturned.

But Ramsey is long-reformed. He is so much changed, that to honor his immigrant neighbors, Ramsey flies a Mexican flag on a flagpole near his American flag.

“We been here more than 20 years, and we always are good neighbors,” Ramsey said. “Look’it the front of this yard. I keep it pretty.”

The front of the mobile home is filled with flags, flowers, roses and antiques from a carousel to playhorses to sawmill blades. The white fence is perfect, and the grass is manicured. Ramsey’s front property remains by far the nicest in his neighborhood of mobile homes.

But it was always the side and back yards that the town of Clover had a beef about. There were lawnmowers and appliances and lumber, bricks and machinery, and well, in Ramsey’s own word, “junk.”

Ramsey took his ticket for too much junk and vowed to fight. He demanded and received a jury trial last year.

He stood outside the town court and smoked a cigarette and said hello to the people who work for the town. He talked about his junk and making enough money to try to survive. He hid nothing.

In court Ramsey thrilled everybody, including his court-appointed public defender, Judah Van Syckel, who was arguing that Ramsey should be lauded for his devotion to the American way and trying to feed his family, by becoming the most honest defendant in the history of America’s courtrooms.

Johnny Ramsey admitted everything.

He admitted he had junk and called it junk and wondered why anybody would care so much about a town rule about junk when nobody ever complained except the town’s code enforcement officer.

Ramsey lives on a cul-de-sac at the end of two dead-end streets, at the very rural fringe of town.

But the jury found him guilty of keeping too much junk.

Municipal Judge Melvin Howell gave Ramsey several extensions over almost eight months, time to clean up. Finally Howell told Ramsey he had no choice but to hold him in contempt of court. He sentenced Ramsey to 30 days in jail to be served on weekends. That first weekend started a year ago.

Howell relented the next week after Ramsey got out of jail on a Sunday and spent the next few days cleaning up. Howell suspended the rest of the sentence as long as Ramsey continued to clean up.

During that period of intense scrutiny of Clover’s handling of junk rules and putting an old man in jail, officials heard from people on both sides of the issue, Town Councilman Jay Dover said.

“There were some who said we should just leave that man alone,” Dover said, “and there were others who said the town was right to stand our ground and that it never should have gone that far because he had been given chances to clean up.”

Judge Howell said when sending Ramsey to jail that he admired Ramsey’s devotion to his wife, his service to country, his ingenuity. But town rules are rules for all, and court decisions must be followed by everybody.

Clover politicians, Dover included, stood behind Howell’s decision to jail Ramsey after Ramsey had repeated chances to comply with the court order.

Dover said he still stands by the difficult decision Howell made to send Ramsey to jail.

And many in Clover tried to keep Ramsey out of jail afterward.

After the weekend in jail, several town officials – the mayor, the town manager, even the code enforcement officer who started the ruckus by issuing the initial ticket – visited Ramsey’s home to assess the progress of the cleanup.

Town Councilman Todd Blanton even offered to help Ramsey clean up in hopes Ramsey wouldn’t have to go back to jail – and the town could avoid further scrutiny and attention.

After Ramsey’s weekend in jail, even the code enforcement officer urged the judge to relent after seeing the progress Ramsey had made.

Neither the town, nor the court, has cited Ramsey since the incident, Dover said.

Clover now has a new code enforcement officer, C.J. Dover (no relation to Jay Dover). Officials ride through Ramsey’s neighborhood and street a couple times a week and have reported no problems about too much junk, C.J. Dover said.

“I haven’t heard anything about it,” he said.

But putting an old man in jail just for having too much junk in his yard is a lasting legacy for Clover, and Johnny Ramsey is still the living, breathing, once-jailed junk man.

“I’m still here,” Ramsey said. “I don’t bother nobody. I treat people nice. People know I went to jail for junk and I was 79 years old when I went. I’m 80 now.

“And I don’t want to go back to jail, no how.”

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

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