Grandmother fights to keep her property

tmcdonald@newsobserver.comDecember 16, 2011 

  • Seizure of property is allowed under a section of the federal Controlled Substances Act. The section allows the government to take property from anyone convicted of violating the act in an offense punishable by more than one year in prison.

    Seized property can include any property obtained directly or indirectly as the result of engaging in the drug trade, or property used or intended to be used in any way to commit or facilitate the commission of a drug crime covered under the act.

    Federal authorities in North Carolina's Eastern District seize about 100 pieces of real estate each year, according to Steve West, a prosecutor and assets forfeiture attorney with the U.S. Attorney's Office in Raleigh.

    The federal government typically sells the forfeited property and the money is directed to a federal assets forfeiture fund. The money received by the fund is used in a number of ways; to cover expenses for different federal programs or to build new prisons.

    The federal government also shares part of the money with local agencies that may use the money for new equipment, squad cars or to fund undercover drug purchases, or establish police substations in criminally distressed neighborhoods.

    Source: U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Attorney's Office in Raleigh

— When Gaybbrell Shereise Cofield pleaded guilty last year to selling crack cocaine, he agreed to let the government take his grandmother's home as well as property that has been in the family for generations.

But Ernestine Ward Cofield says her grandson was in no position to forfeit her property to the government and is fighting the move in court. Cofield says that until three federal marshals turned up on her front porch in August, she had no idea that she was the target of a federal law that allows the government to seize the property and assets of drug dealers.

"I just don't understand why they want to take my property. I'm 72 years old. I never sold drugs," she said. "I really don't want them to have my home. I need my home."

Gaybbrell Cofield, 34, was sentenced last month to 22 years in federal prison for what prosecutors say was his role in distributing more than 528 pounds of crack and powder cocaine over a 12-year period.

As part of his plea deal, he agreed to let the government take three houses in Holly Springs: Ernestine Cofield's home on Sand Dune Way and two other houses on a lot she owns near the center of town that has been in the Cofield family for more than 60 years.

"He consented to give up any rights or interest he had in the property, but the property wasn't his and it never has been his," Gaybbrell Cofield's attorney, Robert Nunley of Raleigh, said. "The property has been in the family for three generations, if not four."

Steve West, an assistant district attorney with the U.S. Attorney's Office who handles asset forfeitures, said he could not comment on the Cofield case.

But generally, West said, the federal government seizes property under two instances: if the defendant used the property to help facilitate the commission of a crime, or if it was purchased with proceeds from an illegal enterprise.

West noted that the law allows property owners to appeal if they did not know their property was being used for illegal activities.

"They can come in and file their claims to the property," West said. "They get their day in court."

Grandson charged

Gaybbrell Cofield and his girlfriend lived with his grandmother at her house on Sand Dune Way for nearly five years, according to his sister, Stephanie Cofield. But Ernestine Cofield is adamant that her grandson never had an interest in the property and never gave her any money for upkeep or bills.

Ernestine Cofield's homes on Blalock Street are modest; the most prominent, on a red-dirt and gravel yard, has four rooms - three used as bedrooms and the fourth as a kitchen. The old outhouse out back has been turned into a storage shed. Her other grandchildren live in the homes.

Cofield says that if her grandson did sell drugs out of her homes, she didn't know about it.

"I tell you what," she said before nodding toward the four-room home on Blalock Street. "If drug money bought that house, it wouldn't be looking like it look."

Federal authorities filed charges against Gaybbrell Cofield in January 2010, but Holly Springs' narcotics detectives were watching him long before.

They charged him in 2004 with four felony counts of trafficking cocaine and one felony count of conspiracy to traffic cocaine. The arrest warrants listed his address as 276 Blalock Street, two doors down from Ernestine Cofield's lot. There is no home at that address, only an empty lot that gives way to a dirt and gravel path.

All but one of the trafficking charges were dropped, and he was sentenced to probation.

Holly Springs police were still focused on that address this year, even after Gaybbrell Cofield's arrest on federal charges.

Letter from police

In March, Holly Springs police Det. Dan Gledhill delivered a letter to Ernestine Cofield's home on Sand Dune Way saying that a police informant had made two undercover drug purchases on Jan. 7 and Feb. 3 "from the property that you own on the dirt path that runs between Blalock Street and Third Street," the location of the address listed on Gaybbrell Cofield's earlier arrest warrants.

In the letter, Gledhill told Ernestine Cofield that repeated drug activity on her property could result in forfeiture under federal law. She said she did not respond to the letter because the dirt path is two doors down from her homes on Blalock Street.

"I didn't respond because I don't own that property," she said.

Holly Springs police declined an interview and turned down requests for records indicating if they had ever suspected drug sales at any of Ernestine Cofield's homes.

Ernestine Cofield's parents, Sophia and Ernest Ward, bought the land that became Blalock Street in 1946 and built the first house. The couple sharecropped for nearby farmers, and Ernest Ward worked for the town. They raised chickens, cows and pigs, as well as peach and apple trees and a garden that yielded potatoes, corn and peanuts. They grew cotton on one side of the road and tobacco on the other.

"I used to tell my momma we was rich," said Ernestine Cofield's sister, Louise McCullers, who lives on the street. "We didn't have money, but we had everything else."

Long before Ernest Ward died in 1971, he let his children know that Blalock Street was part of their legacy. "Daddy always told us, we got enough land to give all his kids a lot," Cofield said.

Ernest Cofield gave the daughter named after him a lot near the intersection of Third Street in the early 1960s. Ernestine and her husband, Charlie, could not afford a new home, so in 1964 they paid $100 for an old house on the other side of town, tore it down and hauled the materials to Blalock Street.

"And that's how we built a new home, with materials from the old house," Cofield said.

Ernestine Cofield dropped out of school after the eighth grade and worked for 31 years as a machine operator and housekeeper at Cooper Tools in Apex. When she retired, she made a down payment on the land on Sand Dune Way in the High Pocket neighborhood and put a triple-wide mobile home on the property.

Wake County property records indicate that Cofield's homes and lot on Blalock Street that the government wants to take have a tax value of $107,604. But Arthur L. "Pete" Utley Jr., a member of Holly Spring's planning board, described the corner lot between the town's new post office and a business park as "prime real estate."

"The property value will probably skyrocket if they rezone it," Utley said.

Attorney's petition

In his federal court petition, her attorney, Spurgeon Fields III, claimed federal marshals told Cofield she could not challenge the government's claim. Nor would they allow one of her daughters in her home at the time to listen to what they were telling her, Fields said in the petition.

Fields also claimed that the marshals told Ernestine Cofield that if she did not sign the forfeiture papers, she could be "taken downtown" and that it could cost her grandson 65 years in prison instead of 22. Cofield signed.

"They told me they would talk with their boss and see if I could keep [my house] in High Pocket," Ernestine Cofield said.

Now she has moved out of her home at Sand Dune Way and back to Blalock Street, though not to the home she and her husband built. To her, it's as if the police and federal government have declared her properties crime scenes. She stays in the house built by her parents, where she lived as a child.

News researcher Peggy Neal contributed to this report.

McDonald: 919-829-4533

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