CLOVER, SOUTH CAROLINA — Johnny Ramsey, the 79-year-old Korean War veteran who collected and sold junk to pay for medications for his ailing wife, said just minutes before court Thursday evening: “If I have to go to jail, I guess I am ready.”
An hour later, Ramsey left a Clover courtroom in shackles – sentenced to 30 days in the York County jail for not cleaning up his yard eight months after a judge ordered him to get rid of the junk.
Clover Town Judge Melvin Howell ruled after a contempt of court hearing Thursday that Ramsey had refused to comply with court orders to both clean up his property and pay a fine for contempt.
The sentence will be served on weekends, but it started immediately after court was finished Thursday night.
Clover Police officers handcuffed Ramsey – whose nephew is a sheriff’s deputy, whose son is in Afghanistan on his fourth deployment to war – and walked him outside the court building and put him in a police car.
Then a burly officer thumped on the trunk, and the police took Clover’s junk man to jail.
Ramsey will get out of jail late Sunday night.
He will be out all next week with a chance to clean up the junk and not go back next weekend.
Ramsey said nothing as he walked out of the building. He just held up his handcuffed hands after surrendering his wallet and cigarettes.
After court, Ramsey’s wife, who walks with a cane and requires several medications for illnesses, said “it is just not true” that Ramsey did not try to clean up the property.
“He did try, four or five loads of stuff went out of here,” Patty Ramsey said. “That was a lie. I’m mad.”
On Wednesday, a church group from Rock Hill put up a privacy fence around some of the property after reading in The Herald about Ramsey’s fight with the town. Judge Howell saw pictures of that fence Thursday, but it was too little and too late.
The case against Ramsey – following coverage in The Herald since his trial in January – brought support for Ramsey from all over the country.
Enough donations came in to pay the $500 fine handed down by Howell after he was found in contempt in August for not cleaning up the property to the town’s satisfaction.
“There’s a man sittin’ right yonder with the $500,” Ramsey told Howell Thursday after he had been sentenced to 30 days in jail, but Howell was not swayed.
“If you had just worked with this court sir,” Howell said, then he was cut off by Ramsey.
“I did, sir…”
Howell, a York County magistrate, then cut Ramsey off.
“No; I have to do what I have to do.”
And Ramsey was taken to jail.
Ramsey, a former member of the Ku Klux Klan, once was convicted of burning a cross on the front lawn of the former police chief in York. He served time in prison before the conviction was overturned on appeal.
He has since maintained he took the fall for two other guys.
Ramsey and his wife live in a mobile home on Social Security and veterans benefits that total less than $900 a month. He had sold junk for most of the 20 years he has lived in Clover to keep the lights on, water running and pay for his wife’s medications.
He has claimed that the town was out to get him. Court testimony showed no neighbors ever complained – but a town code enforcement officer did. His trial lawyer in January called the town’s code enforcement “rogue.”
Before court Thursday, he told officers working security: “I got no problem with the ‘po-lice.’ It’s just the code enforcement man.”
“All we ever wanted was for him to clean up his property,” said Joe Funderburk, Clover’s code enforcement officer, after Ramsey was taken to jail. “It is sad that it had to come to this today.”
Ramsey’s court-appointed public defender, Toni Johnson, told the judge that many people had tried to help Ramsey, and that “a lot of work has been done to clean up the area.”
But Johnson said she “understood that Mr. Ramsey has not complied to the satisfaction of the court.”
Johnson asked Howell to accept the $500 fine rather than give jail time, or have Ramsey serve house arrest if he had to be detained.
“I ask for the mercy of the court,” Johnson said.
During the hearing, which lasted more than half an hour, Howell had police officers put up on a wall screen a timeline of events that led to Ramsey’s being in court Thursday.
The town advised Ramsey in February 2011 that the junk was a violation. Ramsey was cited four months later after not replying to a letter stating he was in violation of town law.
Ramsey asked for a jury trial and was found guilty in January. It was then that Howell gave Ramsey six months to clean up the property or face 30 days in jail.
“I gave you six long months, I waited patiently,” Howell said.
Howell ruled in August that Ramsey had not cleaned up his property, found him in contempt of court and gave him two weeks to pay the $500 fine or face jail time.
The town even offered to haul off the junk if it was carted to the curb, Howell said.
“I don’t want to send anybody to jail, but I do like people to follow orders,” Howell said. “All I wanted to see was that you were working diligently to clean up the mess. Again, I tried to keep you out of jail.”
Howell told Ramsey in court Thursday that he saw a recent television interview in which Ramsey said he would refuse to pay the fine – even if he had $500 or $20,000.
Ramsey, who has been the most honest defendant in the history of courtrooms, spoke right up in court Thursday and said, “Yes, I did say that.”
Up there on the wall screen at that point was the timeline that said, “10/4/12: Court appearance for Mr. Ramsey. To date no attempt has been made to comply with any orders.”
Howell made it clear in court that any other defendant who does not comply with a court order goes to jail.
The judge took the time to say that he realized that Ramsey takes care of his wife, that he knows how difficult it is to live on a fixed income, and that he respected Ramsey for his military service.
“I respect you right now, Mr. Ramsey,” Howell said.
Ramsey replied: “I got the five hunnert dollars.”
Howell responded in similar vernacular from the bench: “I gotta do what I gotta do.”
Ramsey, before court, had put his medications for chronic headaches in a plastic bag in his wife’s purse. His wife had the car keys in case she had to drive home. He had a pack of cigarettes and his wallet and his hope.
He asked for one last kiss from his wife, standing there with a cane.
Howell did what he believed he had to do after explaining for several minutes that Ramsey had refused to follow repeated court orders.
“Thirty days, served on weekends,” Howell said from the bench in a courtroom that was as silent as a church.
Then Johnny Ramsey was taken to jail, and Patty Ramsey went home to an empty mobile home.