BEAUFORT — After nearly eight years spent in the Carteret County Jail for contempt of civil court in a property dispute case, brothers Melvin Davis and Licurtis Reels were released Wednesday afternoon.
About 20 family members and friends waited outside the county jail for their release, made possible by a ruling from Judge Joshua Willey at a motion hearing that morning.
The brothers, last seen wearing orange jumpsuits during the Wednesday morning hearing, came out of the jail in civilian clothes, and were greeted by cheers from those waiting for them. Mr. Davis said it was like a family reunion for him Wednesday afternoon.
“It’s so good to be out,” he said. “This is the first time the sun’s hit me since 2011. I’m so glad to see so many family members here supporting me.”
Mr. Reels was similarly relieved to be released from jail, as he leaned against a low brick wall in relief just outside the jail.
“I don’t want to come back in here, and I pray to God I don’t,” he said. “I wouldn’t wish this on anyone.”
Among the family members who greeted the brothers on their release was their mother, Gertrude Reels.
“I’m just so glad (they’ve been released), I don’t know what to do,” Ms. Reels said. “Eight years is a long time.”
The brothers’ nephew, Nic Ellison, said he thought it was “about time” they were let out of jail.
The Wednesday motion hearing that resulted in their release was for an appeal of a March 31, 2011, civil contempt order issued against the brothers, who have been disputing the ownership of a 13.25-acre lot off Silver Dollar Road in the Merrimon community near Beaufort.
Previous courts have ruled the property belongs to Adams Creek Associates LLC. The brothers have disputed this ruling, and after refusing to abide by two court orders, were incarcerated March 31, 2011.
The case has a long history, with hearings before multiple judges as far back as 2002. The case has gone from Carteret County Superior Civil Court to the N.C. Court of Appeals and all the way to the N.C. Supreme Court, the highest court to which a civil matter may be appealed.
After the state Supreme Court issued an opinion in late September, the case was remanded back to Superior Civil Court.
During the case’s history, Mr. Davis and Mr. Reels were given two separate court orders – one in 2004 and another in 2011 – to remove structures and other property from the 13.25-acre lot. They were also ordered to stay off the property, which was part of a larger 65-acre tract belonging to the Reels family since 1911.
The brothers were incarcerated with two conditions required for their release. They had to remove their structures as ordered by the court and they had to sign an agreement to stay off the 13.25-acre lot. The brothers have alleged they couldn’t, and still can’t, meet the first requirement. They’ve also refused to sign the document, and so they remained in jail until Judge Willey’s order to release them.
After hearing arguments from attorney James Hairston Jr., who represents Mr. Davis and Mr. Reels, and attorney Lamar Armstrong, who represents Adams Creek Associates, Judge Willey determined Wednesday that the purpose of the previous court orders was to have the brothers leave the property, take down the structures and stay off the property in the future.
He further determined that while Mr. Davis and Mr. Reels’ refusal to comply with the order was willful, they don’t have the money or any other means to remove the structures from the property, and signing a written agreement wouldn’t do anything substantial to keep them from going back on the 13.25-acre lot.
Judge Willey stressed to the brothers, however, that his ruling “isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card,” and they’re still expected to abide by the court orders’ requirement they stay off the 13.25-acre lot.
“Every day you go on this property, you’re subject for criminal trespass (charges) and for criminal contempt,” the judge said.
The brothers’ niece, Kim Duhon, said she was pleased with Judge Willey’s decision.
“I think it’s important to respect the law, as my uncles do,” she said. “It’s just unfortunate they had to make this sacrifice. I hope they abide by the judge’s decision and stay off the (disputed) property until this is further resolved.”
After the hearing, Mr. Hairston said he thinks the judge “did the right thing.”
“He followed the law,” Mr. Hairston said. “I couldn’t have written the order better myself.”
Mr. Armstrong declined to comment Wednesday, saying he wanted to confer with his clients before making a statement.
During Wednesday morning’s hearing, both Mr. Reels and Mr. Davis took the stand.
Mr. Davis testified that he hasn’t received any income since his incarceration began in 2011, and according to his Feb. 15 bank account statement, he has a total of $3,839.31, which is well below the estimated $47,000 cost of removing the brothers’ structures.
While Mr. Davis is the owner of a demolition business, he testified he hasn’t seen his equipment, which he keeps on the 13.25-acre lot, since his incarceration and doesn’t know if it’s in working order and could be used to remove the structures.
Mr. Reels, meanwhile, testified he has no money at all.
Both brothers, however, maintained their refusal to sign an agreement to stay off the property, and re-affirmed their intent to return to it.
“I’ve been on that land all my days,” Mr. Davis said. “It’s our property…I’ll never sign a piece of paper saying I’ll never go on that land again.”
Mr. Reels echoed his brother’s statements during his testimony.
“It is mine,” he said. “I have the deed to it.”
Mr. Reels said he knows a prior judge in the case struck his title to the property, but he said he doesn’t agree with that judge’s decision.
During his argument, Mr. Armstrong said the brothers “could be released at anytime” from jail by complying with the court orders.
“They have the right to think what they like, but my clients have rights, too,” Mr. Armstrong said of the LLC courts have said own the property. “There’s been no adjustment of attitude…it’s in their hands to comply with these purge requests. I’m not going to argue how they’d do it (remove the structures), but they can sign that paper.”
Mr. Hairston, meanwhile, said in his argument that whether or not anyone agrees with Mr. Davis and Mr. Reels’ position on their ownership of the 13.25-acre lot, when it comes to the written agreement, they have the right to free speech.
“They can’t be forced to say something they wouldn’t do,” he said. “We’ve held (that) the freedom of speech includes the right to speak freely and the right to refrain from speaking. This isn’t difficult. You can’t force them to sign.”
The history of the Reels family property, and of the 13.25-acre lot in particular, is full of legal activity. The original 65-acre lot was first purchased by Elijah Reels, Mr. Davis’ and Mr. Reels’ great-grandfather. The family briefly lost ownership of the property due to unpaid taxes, until it was repurchased by the brothers’ grandfather, Mitchell Reels.
Mitchell Reels died without a will, so Gertrude, his daughter, filed a civil action, resulting in the property being awarded to her and her children.
The 13.25-acre lot’s ownership became contested when in 1978, Shedrick Reels, the brothers’ uncle, claimed the lot on which Mr. Davis and Licurtis Reels had built their houses and other structures. Shedrick Reels’ claim was upheld in court, and he sold the property to a developer, who later sold it to Adams Creek Associates in 1985.
Further litigation ensued. In 2004, Judge Ben Alford issued the first court order for the brothers to remove their structures and stay off the 13.25-acre lot. They didn’t comply, and in March 2011, Judge Jack Jenkins issued another, similar order, which they also refused to follow.
Mr. Davis and Mr. Reels were found in contempt of civil court and were incarcerated, with the condition they’d be released when they complied with the court orders and signed an agreement to remain away from the lot.
For nearly eight years, the brothers remained in jail. Motion hearings were held and appeals to higher and higher courts were made until, in August 2018, arguments were made before the N.C. Supreme Court on an appeal of the 2011 contempt of court order.
The court issued its opinion remanding the appeal back to County Superior Civil Court, where it was heard Wednesday morning by Judge Willey.
While Mr. Davis and Mr. Reels are now out of jail, the 13.25-acre lot remains the property of Adams Creek Associates, according to the courts.
Contact Mike Shutak at 252-726-7081 ext. 206, email email@example.com; or follow on Twitter at @mikesccnt.