For two Carteret County men, waterfront land is worth nearly three years in jail

jprice@newsobserver.comDecember 14, 2013 

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    A dwindling hold on the land

    There’s a long history of land once held by African-American families shifting to white owners after it’s passed down as “heirs property” without a will. In some cases, particularly in the early 20th century, it was done with threats of violence. Fraud also has been used, but in many cases the cause has been economic pressures, said John Pollock, coordinator of the advocacy group Heirs Property Retention Coalition, which works with families throughout the Southeast.

    Each descendant has an undivided interest in the land. That means the likelihood of problems grows with each generation, because the connection to the land and family varies among the increasingly large number of owners. More family members mean more likelihood of disagreements over what to do with the land. Any one of them can make the others sell, forcing those living on the property – which may have been owned by their family for a century or more – to leave it.

    Poor and middle-income landowners, Pollock said, are particularly vulnerable because they might not trust or be able to afford lawyers, and they often don’t create wills. Also, those living on the land might not have the money to buy the property themselves if a relative forces a sale.

    The law is against them, but Kim Duhon, niece of Melvin Davis and Licurtis Reels, said members of her family are fighting because they can’t just walk away from the land that had belonged to them for generations.

    “Really if we stop where we are now, and they get the waterfront and actually do something with the waterfront, it won’t just stop at the waterfront, it will be the entire community because its going to increase the value of everybody’s property,” she said. “And everybody down there is pretty much on a fixed income, so they won’t be able to afford their own property taxes, and the big man can buy the little man out.”

— They can go free any time they want. But last week, Melvin Davis, 66, and Licurtis Reels, 56, spent their 1,000th consecutive day in the Carteret County jail.

Meanwhile, the brothers’ longtime opponent in court, a Garner construction and development company owner named Billy Dean Brown, 78, was locked in his own voluntary form of prison: 11 years and counting of frustrating, sometimes personal litigation that is eating away at what were supposed to be his golden years.

The legal fees now total twice what his small partnership paid for the isolated, weed-grown 13.25-acre waterfront tract at the heart of the dispute.

The feud has been up and down the legal system, from county Superior Court to the state Court of Appeals to the state Supreme Court to federal District Court and the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. Some courts have heard parts of the case multiple times. And they have all sided with Brown.

But Davis and Reels still refuse to accept the conditions that would spring them from jail: removing Davis’ modest tin-roofed nightclub and their deteriorating homes, all now unoccupied, from the land and promising not to go back onto it. That’s easy in theory, since Davis owns a demolition company. Yet their family is talking about starting another court action.

They say the land was carved out and stolen from a larger tract on remote Silver Dollar Road in northern Carteret that the family has owned for more than a century and considers the underpinnings of its heritage. The theft, they say, was done via a murky conspiracy – among developers, local lawyers and judges, and members of their own family – that stretches back years before a small partnership headed by Brown bought it in 1986.

Usually people who are jailed for civil contempt of court give in within days and agree to whatever the court is demanding of them. Davis and Reels are now among the longest-serving civil contempt prisoners in U.S. history, and their stand looks increasingly futile after the N.C. Supreme Court refused in October to hear their appeal.

But it’s unclear what, if anything, will persuade them to give up.

“I don’t think I have ever seen anyone as hard-headed as these two gentlemen,” said Claud Wheatley III, a lawyer involved in the case for years, echoing a common sentiment in Carteret.

Brown isn’t exactly a quitter, either. He has spent $150,000 in legal fees trying to gain full control of land that his small partnership bought for $75,000. Many of those involved now believe it is essentially worthless because of its extraordinary legal baggage, threats of violence and a tradition in rural Carteret of sometimes settling grudges by burning down unoccupied homes and boats.

It’s a straightforward matter of right and wrong, he said.

“Would you walk away from your property if I went over there tonight and parked in your driveway and said ‘I’m taking over?’ ” Brown said.

Brown said that as the legal fight went on, he was stung by charges of racism – he’s white and Davis and Reels are black – and by accusations that he got the land via some sort of fraud.

“People have told me, you’d have been a hell of a lot better off if you’d just walked away,” Brown said. “I’d have been a whole lot better off financially if I’d walked away, but I wouldn’t have been better off with my psyche if I walked away.”

Carteret County Sheriff Asa Buck refused to allow a reporter to talk with Melvin Davis and Licurtis Reels, saying it was his policy that no journalists were allowed to visit prisoners.

The two men declined to answer questions sent via mail. Instead, a sister, Mamie Ellison, responded, saying that they had authorized her to speak on their behalf. But neither she nor Kim Duhon, a niece of the men who has acted as a spokeswoman for the family, could say under what conditions the pair might give up their fight.

“I have no idea what it would take at this point,” Duhon said. “Because if you mention that to them right now, it’s like ‘Are you working for the other side? Why would you even ask me that?’ type thing.

“The choice is totally up to them,” she said. “We have to abide by whatever they want to do, because they’re the ones sitting behind those bars.”

A family feud first

The legal mess that led the men to jail started long before Brown’s group, Adams Creek Associates, bought the property from two other developers in 1986. It’s almost impossible to fully describe, but those on both sides can recite the history and details for hours.

Some basics: A man named Elijah Reels bought a larger tract that included the waterfront land in 1911. He was Melvin Davis’ and Licurtis Reels’ great-grandfather.

In February 1944, the county seized it because he hadn’t paid his taxes. One of his sons, Mitchell Reels, bought the land back from the county the next month. After Mitchell Reels died in 1971 without leaving a will, a seemingly endless tangle of trouble began, with competing claims, contradicting deeds and bad blood within the family.

One of Elijah Reels’ sons, Shedrick, asserted in court that he had occupied the property and then rented it out to others for nearly three decades, giving him claim to it. He also presented a 1950 deed that he said his father had given him, but that was years after his father had lost the land.

Shedrick Reels, who Duhon said lived in New Jersey and sold real estate for a living, was able to prove his case to a court via an arcane process called Torrens law.

Torrens deeds are rare in North Carolina, in part because they require court action, and are used almost solely for large tracts such as timber land, said Charles Szypszak, an expert on real estate law with the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Government. Torrens proceedings are no more prone to fraud than a standard land transaction, but because of the nature of the process, it would be extremely difficult to contest a Torrens deed even if fraud was later discovered, he said.

Brown said that when he was considering whether to buy the land and saw the word “Torrens,” he saw no need to look further into the history of the tract because Torrens deeds have such legal strength.

Wheatly represented some family members in negotiations with Shedrick and also represented Brown in the early part of his case against the family. He said that regardless of whether Shedrick Reels, now dead, did anything wrong, Brown clearly had nothing to do with it.

“They’re trying to make it racial, but if anyone did them wrong, it was their own relative, Shedrick,” Wheatly said.

Refusing to leave

Melvin Davis’ current jail stay isn’t his first for refusing to leave the land. In 1984, after Shedrick Reels filed a suit against him, Davis was jailed, then signed a document promising not to trespass on it again, and was released. He has since testified that he didn’t sign that agreement, and said that his signature must have been forged.

He said that the judge had simply released him the next day. And he then went back to Silver Dollar Road.

In 1985, Shedrick Reels sold the land to two developers, one of them his son-in-law, Duhon said. The next year, the developers sold it to Brown’s partnership.

Brown said he had no idea then of the simmering problems. He was working on much larger projects in the Triangle and signed off on the deal after looking at photos and other documents, leaving many of the details to another partner. He didn’t even drive down for a look.

The partners’ initial plan, Brown said in an interview, was to turn the land into several residential lots, including perhaps one for him and his wife, Mary, to build a vacation home.

But in 1989, one of Brown’s partners told him there was a problem. Davis was living on the land. Reels wasn’t, yet. By 2002, though, he was. And it became clear that Davis and Reels were a serious issue. If the partners were going to develop or sell the property, they had to go.

The two brothers refused, and Adams Creek Associates filed suit. The legal community in Carteret is small, and early in the case Wheatly was the partnership’s attorney. The family now points to that – and Wheatly’s involvement with the Torrens case – as proof that he somehow conspired to steal their land.

Wheatly said he now regrets getting involved at all.

The partners’ first deal to sell the land, for about $300,000, Brown said, fell through because it was contingent on getting Davis off the property. Then, in 2006, the partners found another potential buyer, a developer from Middlesex named Danny Peele.

He was willing to pay $500,000. In a telephone interview this month, Peele said that was a bargain at the time, when the coastal land market was overheated. It had good waterfront and a rare and valuable feature: a deepwater dock that could accommodate several boats.

“At the time, I could easily have made $1 million on it,” he said.

Instead, Peele said, one day when he went onto the property, Davis threatened him and poked a gun barrel out of the upper floor of his nightclub, Fantasy Island. Davis was charged with communicating threats, but a judge dismissed the case.

Peele walked away from the deal, leaving Brown with the land and the problem.

Concerns about violence

The legal fight continued, as did other forms of trouble. In 2007, there was an explosion aboard Davis’ shrimp boat, which was berthed at a pier built on the property, and it sank. The next year, he filed a report that someone had set a small fire against the side of a home he was building on the land.

Duhon said the family believes the explosion and fire were connected to the fight for the land but had probably been done by a member of the extended family.

At one point, both sides discussed the idea of Brown’s company selling the land back to the family, but they couldn’t come to an agreement.

Then, on March 17, 2011, Davis and Reels were brought before Judge Jack Jenkins in Carteret Superior Court for a hearing on charges that they had failed to comply with a 2004 court order not to trespass on the property and to tear down their buildings.

Davis refused to answer questions. Reels, asked if he had told another judge in 2006 that no matter what the courts said, he was going to keep going back to the property, replied: “I been on that land all my life.”

Lamar Armstrong, Brown’s attorney, asked if Reels was going to remove his house.

“Would y’all let me move the house?” he said, according to a transcript. “Would y’all do that, and I been there all my life. You going to go there take my dreams from me like that? How about (if) it was you? Tell me that.”

Brown said that he has sought justice now before more than 20 judges, counting multi-judge panels in higher courts, and has won every decision.

During all those hearings, Duhon and Ellison said, the family’s biggest problem has been that none of those judges ever let them explain the whole story.

“We feel like we have never had our case heard in its entirety because we’ve never been before the court and started from A and went all the way to Z,” Duhon said. “We want a trial by jury, and real people – not just Carteret County that the other side has picked – and if we’re wrong, we’ll walk away.”

Armstrong called the assertion that the family hasn’t had a full, fair airing of their grievances ludicrous.

“Every time they had their day in court, they said ‘It’s our land and we don’t care what the law or the judge says,’ ” he said. “What they really mean is, they haven’t had a judge who will allow them to flout the law. That’s what they really want.”

Duhon said the family is trying to decide whether to continue the legal fight for the land. Meanwhile, they’re all still in court; Brown is seeking damages from the family, including compensation for not being able to sell the property.

Brown said the property’s isolation, and the fact that the Reels family controls the only road in and out, means that there is little doubt if he or someone else were to build a vacation house, it would meet with a fiery end.

Duhon said that could happen, but no one in her family would do it.

“I don’t know of anyone in our family that has threatened them with any kind of violence,” she said. “There are other people in the entire community, I don’t know. And when you tell people that the waterfront they’ve used all their lives, swam, walked on the beach and not ever asked anyone’s permission, and you’re telling them they can no longer utilize it, I don’t know what the repercussions could be.”

Land now worthless?

Carteret County lists the tax value of the land as $458,000. But Brown, Peele, Armstrong, Wheatley and even the sheriff agree that its market value may be negligible, given all that’s happened.

So, in a sense, Davis and Reels have made Brown lose. But that’s not the same thing as winning. They’re still locked up, and it seems highly unlikely, after more than a decade where every legal decision has gone against them, that their family will regain possession of the land.

Wheatly, who now also serves as the county attorney, thinks it will take some sort of symbolic victory for the two men before they comply with the court order so that they can go free.

“They’ve got to find a way that they can claim they won something,” he said. “They’ve certainly painted themselves into a box, and they’re not about to admit it anytime soon, and that’s unfortunate.”

In a hearing Oct. 28 in Carteret Superior Court regarding depositions for the part of the lawsuit concerning damages, Judge Jay Hockenberry told Davis and Reels that three years was a long time to be in jail for a principle. The law, he said, wasn’t perfect, but without it there would be chaos.

“I know you all don’t like it where we are in your case with this property, but I’m trying to see how you sitting in jail for another three years or 10 years or the rest of your life is going to change what the rule of law is in your case,” Hockenberry said. “Looks to me like all it’s doing is preventing you from having that loving relationship with your friends and your families.”

Hockenberry set a date for the depositions. Reels’ and Davis’ would be taken at the sheriff’s department, he said, assuming they were still in jail.

They assured him that they would be.

“I ain’t going off that land,” Davis said.

News researcher David Raynor contributed.

Price: 919-829-4526

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