Cary News

Federal government drops bid to take Holly Springs woman’s home

A woman whose grandson was convicted of selling crack cocaine will not have to forfeit her homes and land to the federal government after all.

A federal prosecutor withdrew all forfeiture claims to Ernestine Ward Cofield’s three homes and land last week. The government had been attempting to take the property since last spring, when her grandson, Gaybbrell S. Cofield, agreed to let the government take the property after he pleaded guilty to selling crack cocaine.

Gaybbrell Cofield was sentenced in November 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. The homes and land near the town center have been in the Cofield family for more than 60 years.

Ernestine Cofield, 73, hired an attorney and fought the forfeiture claim in court. She said her grandson was in no position to cede her property to the government. Gaybbrell Cofield agreed to the forfeiture in March 2011, but his grandmother said she was not aware of it until August, when three federal marshals showed up on her front porch.

Ernestine Cofield said she learned of the government’s decision to drop its claims to her property from her lawyer on April 18.

“I was so happy I just got to thanking God. Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Jesus,” she said Thursday.

Ernestine Cofield’s attorney, Spurgeon Fields III of Raleigh, said that from the outset “the federal forfeiture process was not proper in this situation.”

“This is the result of Ms. Cofield standing her ground through the entire process, from the taking of her properties through all the filings and negotiations,” Fields said Thursday. “When the law is used right, it’s right, but when the law is used wrong, it’s just wrong.”

Stephen West, an assistant district attorney who handles asset forfeitures with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Raleigh, was unavailable for comment Thursday.

West filed a notice in federal court on April 18 announcing that the government was abandoning the criminal forfeiture proceedings against Ernestine Cofield. He wrote that by withdrawing its forfeiture claims the government was not acknowledging “the legitimacy of [Cofield’s] claim.”

West also wrote that the federal government retained the option of seizing Ernestine Cofield’s property in the future if investigators found new evidence to support its claims that the homes were purchased or were maintained by her grandson’s selling of crack cocaine.

“My lawyer sent me a letter today, telling me I had to be extra careful,” Ernestine Cofield said. “The wrong person could be on my property at the wrong time doing something wrong. The police may still be targeting me.”