Finally, after spending three days in jail because of all the junk in his yard, 79-year-old Korean War veteran Johnny Ramsey started cleaning up his Clover property Monday afternoon in an effort to avoid another weekend stretch locked up.
Ramsey has just a few days to get enough done to impress a judge enough to not go back to the York County jail.
Several family, friends and supporters of Ramsey’s losing battle against the town of Clover arrived at his mobile home Monday.
They urged him to clean up the rear and side yards – filled with bricks and wood and tires, old lawn mowers and appliances and assorted junk – so a 30-day jail sentence might be halted.
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“I guess I have to clean this up, to get rid of all this, even though I use this junk to pay for what little we got,” Ramsey said Monday as he dragged hoses and cables, fiberglass and wood, to the curb for the town to pick up for disposal.
“I got no other choice if I don’t want to go back to jail.”
Ramsey has fought Clover since early 2011 over the junk on his property on a cul-de-sac in a mobile home park. Ramsey, who lives on a fixed income of $898 a month, resells the junk to pay bills and to buy his ailing wife’s medications.
His losing battle and subsequent jailing has attracted support from all over America as people rail against what is perceived as overzealous enforcement, government intrusion into private lives and property, and plain old outrage over the jailing of an elderly man over junk.
Ramsey had more than eight months to clean up, but he did not. He was found guilty in January in a trial after the town claimed his junk violates a town law against unsightly debris, and he was given six months to clean it up.
Ramsey did clean up some but not nearly to the satisfaction of the town. He never paid a court-ordered $500 fine, and only tried to pay at the last minute in court Thursday. But that effort was too late for the judge.
The fact that no neighbors complained and that Ramsey’s front yard is well kept, made no difference.
Clover Town Judge Melvin Howell jailed Ramsey on Thursday for contempt of court. He got out of jail late Sunday after a long weekend of sleeping in a cold cell as the oldest inmate in York County.
“Johnny, none of us out here is going to jail for this junk – not your daughter or me, but just you going back to jail,” said supporter David Bowles of Clover, who helped with the cleanup Monday. “It’s up to you now.”
Longtime friends Johnny Ridley and Mickey Crowe – two Clover business owners who said Ramsey can be “hard-headed and stubborn” but is “generous to a fault to not just friends but strangers” – even offered employees and trucks to cart off the junk.
They offered storage space for items Ramsey refuses to part with. Crowe and Ridley repeatedly told Ramsey – a reformed former member of the Ku Klux Klan who says his racist past is long gone and discarded as wrong – that the clock is ticking.
“Ramsey, you don’t clean up, you are going right back in the jailhouse,” Crowe told him. “The time is here now to figure this out. You can’t wait anymore. You wait, you go back to jail.”
Ridley put it even more bluntly to Ramsey after seeing how he looked after 72 hours in a cell.
“John, you could get sick and die in there, so you have to do whatever it takes to not go back to jail,” Ridley said. “You are 79 years old. Jail is no place for an old man.”
Judge Howell said in court he wanted to see this week if any progress was made before considering shortening the sentence. It is unclear when Joe Funderburk, the Clover code enforcement officer, and Ramsey’s lawyer will meet with Howell to review his efforts.
“If Mr. Ramsey is showing good faith and cleaning up, this is what the judge asked to see,” said Toni Johnson, Ramsey’s public defender. “The judge said he was more than willing to look at it again if there was progress.”
Funderburk said Monday that Ramsey has not asked him to come back and look over the site.
Ridley and Crowe met with Funderburk on Monday to see what progress would be enough to keep Ramsey out of jail. Funderburk reiterated that the interpretation of “progress” is up to the judge.
However, Funderburk said he would visit Ramsey’s property Tuesday to look at the progress before reporting back to the judge.
“I don’t think he would expect that it would all be cleaned up this week,” Funderburk said, “but surely he would want to see that Mr. Ramsey is doing what the court has ordered him to do.”
Ramsey did not want to start the cleanup Monday even after spending the weekend locked up. He talked about what items he might save and how volunteers had built a privacy fence to hide the junk from view.
But finally, he was persuaded that the only way to avoid more jail time is to start junking his junk.
Ramsey’s teenage step-grandchildren, Skyler and Noah Moore, and their mother, Joy Moore, started hauling out broken wood and other items. Ramsey pulled out all kinds of stuff himself.
Admittedly, after a weekend in jail, he was “weak, but better than when I got out of the jailhouse, when I was as cold as a catfish in the freezer.”
“They want to take everything I got,” Ramsey lamented. “I can sell this stuff.”
Still, Ramsey pulled and carried junk. He lugged and tossed junk. A small pile became a bigger pile near the road.
Johnny Ramsey took the first step Monday afternoon toward avoiding more jail time. Whether he does enough, or does it quickly enough, will be up to the judge.