I-Team: Brothers still jailed for contempt after seven years

BEAUFORT, NC (WTVD) -- It's a case unlike any other in North Carolina history, and maybe even the United States.

This month, two brothers - Melvin Davis and Licurtis Reels - mark seven years in the Carteret County Jail, sent there back in 2011 by a judge who found them in contempt of court. Despite several appeals, consecutive judgments maintained the contempt order.

"In those seven years, our lives have stopped," Kim Duhon, the brothers' niece and family spokeswoman, told ABC11. "We don't celebrate anything. We're not a family because the unity is gone because they're missing."

Davis, 70, and Reels, 62, received the order after a civil dispute about 13.25 acres of waterfront property shook their family to its core.

According to the family, the Reels family's ties to the property and the sprawling bluffs around it date to Reconstruction, when the land was gifted to their ancestors who were freed from slavery. For decades, the Reels family ran a fishing business supported their growing family, whose members continued to build houses along Silver Dollar Road - the only way in and out.

"I remember me running up and down this road with my sister," Gertrude Reels, 90, recollected to ABC11. "I'd swim whenever I had the chance. This land is in my blood."

It was under the name of Gertrude's father, Mitchell Reels, to which the deed applied specifically to the 13.25 acres of property. It was also on that property that Gertrude's sons, Melvin and Licurtis, built their own houses.

"They took care of me," Gertrude said. "And now they are still taking care of me by standing up for their rights."


Mitchell Reels died in 1971, but did not leave a will. That enabled a distant relative, Shedrick Reels, to assert his claims to the land in court, and in 1976 ultimately win in a legal process known as a Torrens.

"That land was never his to sell, absolutely," Duhon maintains. "We're angry at the courts. We feel like we own the land."

Despite fierce opposition from his family, Shedrick Reels sold the land, which was then subsequently sold again in 1986 to William Dean Brown and his company, Adams Creek Associates. Licurtis Reels and Melvin Davis, meanwhile, had never left their homes or dismantled their property.

According to Lamar Armstrong, Brown's attorney, the plan was to build some condos, but to this day there's never been a shovel in the ground.

"I don't think it'd be any different if Joe Blow came in and bought the land," Armstrong said. "We don't take it personally."


In the ensuing 20 years, Brown and Adams Creek Associates successfully took the brothers to court to assert the company's ownership of the land and coerce the brothers to leave the property. Upon judgment after judgment, the brothers were given two orders: remove their homes and promise to not trespass. Ultimately, a judge in 2011 set those demands in a Contempt of Court order, sending Licurtis and Melvin to jail unless they meet those two conditions.

"When those disputes are reflected in a final decision, we follow them - regardless of whether we like the result or agree with it," Armstrong said. "But not the extended Reels family, including defendants Melvin Davis and Licurtis Reels. They remain in jail because they will not even sign an acknowledgement that Adams Creek owns the land and promise not to go back on it. They are martyrs by choice."

"They're trying to preserve their heritage," the brothers' niece, Kim Duhon countered. "They made a vow never to leave this property or to lose the property and they're standing by that vow. If they build those condos, the property tax rates will get so high nobody here can afford them, and we'll all have to leave."

Armstrong, however, refutes the notion of a takeover. He also noted that Brown is now 84, and he and his wife have no children. While they won't give away the land, they're eager to sell and are open to finding a resolution with either the Reels or any other supporters who wish to help them preserve the land.

"The fairness of it all is that we have victims on all sides of this," Armstrong added. "We feel for these folks. I am amazed like anyone else who looks at this and they would stay in jail for that long - and for what? But it is a choice, and every chance they get to testify, they reaffirm that choice."

Order of civil contempt against Davis and Reels
Adams Creek Associates vs. Davis (heard June 4, 2013)
Adams Creek Associates vs. Davis (heard June 4, 2013)
Adams Creek Associates vs. Davis (heard Nov. 6, 2007)
Petition for writ of Habeas Corpus
Order denying petition for writ of Habeas Corpus
Order on motions and sanctions
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