This story originally appeared in our November 2012 issue.
Just before 10 a.m. on September 7, 2009, residents of Mill Creek heard gunshots. Some heard one shot; others as many as three. At the time it did not seem important. The sound was not uncommon along Mill Creek Road, an unmarked ribbon of blacktop winding through the hills four miles southeast of Dahlonega. Even when deer and turkey were out of season, hunters fired in their backyards and farmers scared foxes and coyotes from their fields. For thirty-one years, seventy-two-year-old retired plumber and former licensed gun dealer Lewis Dempsey had taken to his hundred acres, where he and his customers rehearsed a symphony of percussion: the crack of a 12-gauge shotgun, the rat-a-tat of an AK-47.
The report coming through the cornrows and timber on that clear Labor Day morning was the pop of Dempsey’s Glock 9 mm. But it came from the south, from the neighboring Crane land. The Cranes were Mill Creek’s longest-tenured residents. For almost a century they owned most of its land. Although they had sold the bulk of that land to newcomers like the Dempseys, the Cranes still held sway in those hills. Their patriarch was seventy-six-year-old Jewell Crane, storyteller, moonshiner, unofficial mayor of Mill Creek.
That morning Crane drove his blue pickup toward his garden to tend his collard greens. But after the shot, or shots, he lay on his back on the ground by his truck, camouflage hat knocked from his balding head, blue denim overalls darkening with blood. And Dempsey drove north on Mill Creek Road in his Ford Escape, across the boundary that separated Crane’s property from his own.
There are no straight lines in nature. Rivers, mountain ranges, and timberlines wind and bend and gradually shift across the landscape with time. They make imperfect borders. The Cherokee who first inhabited these hills believed a man could no more set aside land for himself than he could bottle the wind. They were barred from the 1832 Gold Lottery that raffled off pieces of Cherokee territory to white residents of what became Lumpkin County, driving the tribe westward on the Trail of Tears.
On paper these parcels were perfect squares of forty acres—a quarter the size of standard Georgia farm lots. At the height of Georgia’s Gold Rush, these gold lots were in high demand. But by the 1840s, the gold was mined out and the prospectors had gone to California. Over the next 150 years, the property grid was divided among new generations and sold to outsiders, piece by irregular piece. During these transfers, surveyors would enter dubious landmarks such as “rock piles” and “big trees” into the deed descriptions. “I once came across a property line described as ‘Two smokes on a mule’s back from the chestnut stump,’” says Richard Webb, who in thirty-six years as a surveyor in North Georgia has dug through volumes of yellowed maps and deeds. “Well, how big was the mule? And what were you smoking?”
Worse than the colorful specificity in some deeds was the vagueness of others. Into the 1950s, owners would sell a land lot of forty acres, “more or less,” even if the actual lines had long been blurred, moved, or skewed, or if parts of the original square lot had been broken off and weren’t technically theirs to unload. The land was worth only a few hundred dollars an acre, and there was plenty of it. Meanwhile fences went up, gradually becoming accepted boundaries—whether they ran along actual property lines or not.
That isn’t to say no one in North Georgia cares about land ownership. Property disputes are part of the culture. The owners talk things over, walk the land, review each other’s deeds, and, if necessary, hire surveyors. And if the matter still isn’t settled after that, the case goes before a judge or a civil jury that reviews the surveys, historical documents, and testimony. Possession is a factor. Then the court usually issues a binding decision. But not always. Sometimes the line still can’t be legally ascertained, and the parties are left to figure things out for themselves.
The community of Mill Creek has no discernible borders. It does not appear on any map. It is mostly hills and trees and barns and chicken houses and trailers
and homes that line an eponymous country road leading past a meandering, mill-less creek. And since arriving from South Carolina in 1857, the Cranes have possessed a good portion of the land. They donated the soil where Mill Creek Baptist Church was built in 1871, where generations of kin and neighbors are buried. At the intersection of Mill Creek Road and Highway 9, there is a large white plywood sign with chipped black letters: C.L. Crane Grocery. The squat cement-block convenience store to which the sign refers is the neighborhood gathering place. Residents can stock up on flour or toilet paper, grab a cup of night crawlers or a bag of ice, and get the latest news hot off the rocking chair of owner David Crane. He says first cousin Jewell Crane used to check in almost every day, lumbering up and down the aisles with his arthritic bones, buying candy bars and Cokes on credit as many local farmers do. He had only recently learned to sign his name to the tab, replacing his traditional X. Newcomers dubbed him “the Mayor” because he talked in his slow, deep timbre to anyone about anything, especially the history (sometimes on the shy side of truth) of the place where he had lived almost all his life.
When Jewell Crane was thirteen, his father, Dillard, was badly burned when a car he was working on misfired and set a gasoline can ablaze. Dillard barely survived. As the only son, Crane had to leave school to run the farm with the help of his uncles. The child learned to keep cattle and chickens, cut and haul hay and silage, and grow corn from the same soil his great-grandfather had tilled. When farming didn’t quite support the family, Crane was willing to do just about anything to make up the difference. His uncle offered the boy $2 a week to help him at his still, and that’s where the young Crane learned the family trade of moonshining. As Crane got older, he took on other jobs to supplement farming, like driving a cement mixer and a sawdust truck to work sites across the state. But throughout his life he took to the woods, where he built stills and cooked liquor.
Crane whiskey was not corn mash, like most white ’shine—his family grew corn solely for livestock feed. Instead he used other grains, like wheat and rye, to distill a clear and powerful spirit. He was also known to use apples and peaches for brandy. And while he would gladly siphon off a jar or two for a friend, Crane preferred selling large quantities to vendors throughout the region. This volume earned Crane a wide reputation and a handful of arrests for violation of liquor and tax laws. On one occasion he allegedly assaulted a federal officer. Twice he served time in federal prison—five months back in the 1950s and three months in the mid-1970s for bootlegging. But Crane was proud of his moonshining roots, and his contempt for the laws against it did not abate with age. His most recent run-in was in July 2000 with the Lumpkin County Sheriff’s Office. The charges of manufacture and possession of non-tax-paid distilled spirits were dismissed on insufficient evidence. Crane was sixty-seven years old.
But as the Crane family got smaller and others bought, farmed, and built in Mill Creek, Jewell Crane was among the first to welcome them. Whether driving between pastures or perched in the black metal lawn chair beneath the spreading magnolia tree in his front yard, he always had a smile and a wave and time to stop for a story. He took local kids out for tractor rides and delivered handpicked produce to their parents. And in 1978, when Lewis Dempsey cleared a spot atop his newly bought Mill Creek hill to build a brick house for his family, Crane was there to welcome him with a basket of corn.
Lewis Dempsey had spent his life distancing himself from people. He was a sickly baby, kept at the hospital for six months as an infant and, his parents later discovered, born deaf in his left ear. At the time, it didn’t much matter. He grew up in the quiet of rural Bolton, a few miles west of Downtown Atlanta. Dempsey’s father grew corn on 100 acres up and down Peachtree Creek near its junction with the Chattahoochee, not far from the railroad. There Dempsey worked the fields before and after school.
But soon the city came crashing in. Dempsey’s father, Lewis John, eventually sold his land, which was carved into subdivisions. Dempsey started his own family; he and his wife, Opal, raised four kids in a house in a quiet Norcross subdivision, where he ran his own plumbing business. He and Opal kept a large subsistence garden and canned vegetables and preserves that packed the cellar shelves. When his father’s second wife passed away, the widower moved into Dempsey’s Norcross house. But by the 1970s, as Dempsey’s children became teenagers, the city sprawl caught up with him again. The cornfields were now crowded with cul-de-sacs, the two-lane roads now six lanes, and the lone gas station surrounded by shopping centers. Dempsey and his father fled to the hills of Lumpkin County.
There Dempsey purchased nearly 100 acres straddling Mill Creek Road—then nothing more than a gravel lane—from a man who had bought it from a cousin of Jewell Crane. The deed included Land Lot 784. About half a mile north of Mill Creek Baptist Church, the lot’s forty-something acres comprised the west half of a rocky, wooded hilltop through which Mill Creek ran south from Dempsey’s land into a valley partially owned by the Cranes.
At first Dempsey and Crane were pleasant and social. So were their wives and children. When the Dempseys roasted a hog in the summer and Opal made Brunswick stew, all the Cranes were welcomed to partake. When there was a wedding, the other family was invited. When someone fell ill, members of the other family came to visit. Dempsey installed the pipe in Crane’s daughter’s house, and Crane’s daughter drove the younger Dempsey children to high school in Dahlonega. The families traded squash and corn.
The main bridge between the families was the fast friendship of Jewell Crane’s father and Lewis Dempsey’s father. The old men agreed that neighbors should talk and cooperate. Thus, when it came time in the early 1980s to fence off the southern part of Lot 784 to contain Dempsey’s cattle, all four men walked over the area as the posts were planted and the hog wire run.
The first real friction between the two families had nothing to do with land. One day Dempsey spotted his father drinking a jar of whiskey. And since it was white mash in Lumpkin County, Dempsey didn’t have to ask where it had come from. Never much of a drinker himself, and worried that the alcohol would react with medication his father was taking for lung cancer, Dempsey threatened to turn Crane in if it ever happened again. Dempsey recalls that about two weeks later, he heard that Crane had gotten hassled by police for moonshining. Dempsey sought out his neighbor to assure Crane that he had not reported him (a denial Dempsey maintains to this day). But for weeks thereafter, when Dempsey met Crane on the road or drove past his house, the bootlegger refused to wave.
Then Dillard and Lewis John died, both in the same month, both from cancer. And so, in March 1987, the strongest link between the Cranes and the Dempseys was broken.
“The grandparents set the tone for everyone else,” says Dempsey’s daughter Vanessa Satterfield. “If something needed to be settled, both Dillard and Grandpa said, ‘Come out and let’s do things together.’ Jewell and Dad were both more headstrong—the way they saw it was the way it was.”
Dempsey grieved for his father. And the loss reminded him of his own mortality. He’d already survived a heart attack and a serious truck accident. Around this time, even though he was only just over fifty years old, Dempsey began to talk about getting his affairs in order. “He really wanted to sit us down and talk about it,” says Satterfield. “‘What if something happens to me or Momma?’ He didn’t want his family to have to worry about things.” That included worrying about the precise boundaries of the land he would leave them.
Before his death in 1987, Dillard Crane had also thought about land. At the time, he owned the property south of Dempsey’s Lot 784, and he wanted to give it to Jewell Crane’s family before he died. To make sure he knew what he was getting, Jewell asked Lumpkin County surveyor Marshall Mahone to make a plat, or map, of the land. Mahone was a real estate broker—at the time, county statute did not require the officeholder to be a licensed surveyor. Not only did Mahone not have a license, he had never professionally surveyed before taking office the previous year. Nevertheless, he researched the deeds and set out to draw the boundaries.
When the lots were created back in 1832, they were marked by straight lines, east and west, north and south. So the northern line of Crane’s Lot 849 had to align with the recorded border of adjoining lots. And according to Mahone’s calculations, that line ran parallel—and within two feet—of Dempsey’s hog-wire fence.
Dempsey disagreed. He was adamant that the fence was not the end of his property, a fact he swore Crane and his father had acknowledged when they oversaw installation of the fence. Dempsey claimed that he owned the land clear down to the north side of the valley, some 200 feet from the fence, down the steep, tree-crowded rock into the verdant farmland where, he says, he allowed the Cranes to plant corn. He hired Mahone to come back and survey Lot 784. When Mahone upheld his earlier ruling on the fence, Dempsey was incensed.
Gradually Dempsey’s concern over what belonged to him and what he would have to pass on to his family became an obsession. Over the next two decades, he enlisted four or five other surveyors. All of them came up with different lines. None of those lines satisfied Dempsey. The result was a plat of varying acreage enclosed by lines scattered like spilled stirring straws. Several lines were not even parallel, disagreeing on which direction was due north. And to reach that state of confusion, Dempsey spent tens of thousands of dollars, likely more than the land was even worth.
Dempsey would keep Crane apprised of his efforts, pulling his vehicle off the road near the field or pasture where he spotted his neighbor working. He usually brought a gun. Likewise, Crane kept an old shotgun in his truck. But the arguments seldom became heated. Either Crane would wave Dempsey off, urging him to “take me to court or get off my property,” or he’d bluster about kicking Dempsey’s ass in a tone that Dempsey never took seriously. Dempsey sometimes told Crane not to interfere with the surveys, and he even offered the surveyors “protection” provided by Lumpkin County sheriff’s deputies. But the Dempseys, the Cranes, the neighbors, and the deputies all saw the situation the same way: a quarrel between two old men.
The discourse between Dempsey and Crane became more complicated as Dempsey’s hearing worsened. After two surgeries failed to repair the left ear damaged since infancy, age diminished the hearing in his right ear. “He said we sounded like ducks when we talked,” says Satterfield. Dempsey relied on lip-reading with his family and on his wife to translate around neighbors. But Opal was away at work during the day. As a result, Dempsey’s relationship with most of his neighbors started to deteriorate. He became reclusive. There were no more hog roasts. He didn’t pull his truck into the drive just to chat while they worked in their gardens, like he used to. They heard him shooting in his pasture, practicing or running off their trespassing dogs. But they only saw him when he had something to complain about.
On September 4, 2009, the Friday before Labor Day weekend, Dempsey was driving along Crane land when he spotted Crane’s tractor bush-hogging in the field. He pulled off to find that the driver was not Crane, but one of his sons-in-law. Regardless, Dempsey told the man that the line had at last been surveyed correctly and that the results would be finalized in the next two weeks. He said the Cranes needed to vacate his land and clear the crops. Over that weekend, the Cranes cut the corn growing in the valley. It was harvest time anyway.
The details of the incident are disputed, just like the land. Dempsey is the only surviving witness, and in each telling he seems to add certain details while excluding others—the result of a stressed and weary memory, he says. But the main elements of his narrative remain consistent.
Even though the Cranes had been told of Dempsey’s new findings, even though they had cleared the corn as requested, Dempsey threw the rolled-up copy of his latest survey on the back floorboard of his brown Escape and took off southward to personally notify Crane that the surveyor was coming next week to put in the stakes. The first pass by Crane’s property produced no sign of him, so Dempsey went farther down the road and turned around. At the end of Crane’s driveway, Dempsey stopped and cut the engine. From behind the wheel of his blue pickup, Crane was making his way from his house in the distance toward the road. Dempsey motioned for him to come and talk. Crane parked his truck almost perpendicular to and slightly behind Dempsey’s SUV and the two talked from their driver’s side windows, a few yards apart.
According to the police report and his own written statement that day, Dempsey told Crane that the final line would be laid out in the next two weeks. If you don’t like it, you can take me to court.
But now Dempsey says he never had a chance to say a word. Crane just got out of his truck and started cussing. He walked toward Dempsey’s SUV. “I’m going to whoop your damn ass,” he said, as he had growled to Dempsey many times. This time he meant it. He punched Dempsey through the open window, landing a blow on the mouth. Then another, square on the nose. Awakening from the shock, Dempsey barely avoided the third hit, which grazed the side of his face. Crane then put his left hand on the door’s ledge while trying to pull the handle with his right, rocking the cab. But the door was locked.
Meanwhile Dempsey leaned down and reached into the center console of his SUV, pulled out his Glock, and pointed it at Crane’s face, practically inside the vehicle, inches away. He claims Crane tried to grab the gun. Dempsey pulled the trigger.
No bullet in the chamber.
At this, Crane said something. And while Dempsey maintains he could not hear Crane, he claims he read the bootlegger’s lips to say something akin to: I’m going to get my gun and shoot you. Crane ran back to his own truck, toward the passenger door.
Flustered, Dempsey tried to turn the ignition to leave, but the vehicle wouldn’t start. He had forgotten to take it out of gear before cutting off the engine, and the SUV would not start unless it was in park. But this logic was too much for the battered and confused Dempsey to compute under pressure. Instead, he says, he racked the Glock, pivoted in his seat, and directed the barrel out the window, behind and to the left, and fired one shot.
Crane started coming around from the far side of his truck, put both hands on the hood, and gave Dempsey a look of surprise. Then Crane dropped slowly to the ground. Dempsey thought he might be trying to crawl to the door. But the door never opened.
Dempsey collected himself, put the SUV back in park to start the vehicle, and then kicked it into reverse to better see Crane, who was lying on his back two feet from the passenger’s side door of his truck, his chest still rising and falling. Dempsey saw no gun.
Then Dempsey hurried home. He walked into his house. Opal was on the phone. “Hang up and call 911,” he said. “I shot Jewell Crane.”
Given the hardheaded natures of Dempsey and Crane and the rightful skepticism with which the results of any “final” survey conducted by one would be seen by the other, it’s plain to see that the odds of both parties being satisfied were remote. And once Dempsey pulled the trigger, the chances of either side finding a happy ending were destroyed. Still, it would have been almost impossible to imagine an ending as calamitous to both families, the local legal system, and justice in general as the tragic comedy of errors that ensued.
When the Lumpkin County Sheriff’s Office first responded to Opal Dempsey’s 911 call, pulling into the gravel drive of Dempsey’s home just after 10 a.m., Dempsey immediately began to tell Deputy Charles Greene about the shooting, a direct result, he said, of Crane punching him in the face. Greene saw no blood, only some “redness” on Dempsey, and he asked Dempsey to write out a statement. But Dempsey was not charged. He was not even informed that Crane was dead, despite his repeated sorrowful inquiries as to how “he” was doing. In fact, the deputy told Dempsey that he was free to go and do as he pleased. It wasn’t until 11:24 a.m., almost ninety minutes after first response, that Dempsey was taken to the sheriff’s office. Still not charged, not advised of his Miranda rights, he rode in the front seat of the squad car, no handcuffs, while his daughter Satterfield sat in the caged back. Dempsey talked incessantly, relating what had happened. He kept saying he hoped Crane wasn’t dead, that he was sorry he shot him, but that he did it in self-defense—even though authorities observed no outward signs of injury.
Satterfield says that even while at the sheriff’s office, Dempsey was told that he was there for his own protection from Crane clan retaliation. She says that due to his hearing problem, he probably didn’t know what was going on. He kept asking if Crane was okay. He prayed with an officer who was also a member of his church. He kept saying he was sorry. Finally an officer told him that Crane was dead. Dempsey wept. Not long after that, around 1:35 p.m., Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent Lauren Fritsch arrived at the office and advised Dempsey of his Miranda rights, including his right to remain silent—almost four hours after police responded to his home. Two hours later, a search warrant for Dempsey’s house was issued. “This was a huge problem,” says Thomas Wight, then an assistant district attorney who prepared the state’s indictment against Dempsey. “Even though the search warrant was executed well, they are relying on his statements, and if those statements were taken without his rights having been read, those things—evidence and information—might not be admissible in court.”
Regardless, Dempsey was arrested that afternoon, placed in a cell in the Lumpkin County Jail, and charged with aggravated assault and murder. No bond was issued, as the court found that the seventy-two-year-old was a “significant danger” and posed a “significant risk of intimidating witnesses.”
Two months later, on November 10, 2009, a Lumpkin County grand jury convened to formally indict him. As Superior Court Judge Lynn Alderman went over the routine qualification questions—Are you a resident of Lumpkin County? Have you sat on a grand jury in the last two years?—she asked the jurors, “Do you now or have you recently held political office?”
Ralph Prescott, the grand jury foreman, stood up. “Well, Judge,” he said, “that’s me.”
Alderman had worked in the sparsely populated rural district for years, and from the bench, she never placed much emphasis on formality. “I knew Ralph Prescott,” she says. “I knew he had been on the Dahlonega City Council years ago, so I said, ‘Oh Ralph, we all know who you are. Sit down!’” The session went on, evidence was heard, and the grand jury indicted Lewis Dempsey for murder. But what Alderman didn’t know—what she admits she should have known—was that Prescott had recently been reelected and was currently sitting on the council. That made him an ineligible juror. Hearing this, Dempsey’s attorney, Jeff Wolff, moved that the indictment be quashed, but Wolff’s motion was denied by Judge Murphy Miller.
While Wolff appealed, the D.A. quickly moved forward with a second indictment. On January 5, 2010, the state reconvened the same grand jury, minus Prescott. But although procedure demanded they hear testimony again, someone decided it was okay to proceed directly with the indictment, since the group had heard it already during the first grand jury. Alderman was there again, but since the judge does not actually conduct the hearing, she says it could have been Wight’s call. Wight denies even being there. And Stan Gunter, then the local district attorney, declined to comment. Since grand juries operate by law in secret, there is no public record of what was said. But court records clearly indicate that a second indictment was issued and promptly quashed by Judge David Barrett based on Wolff’s motion.
(Barrett has since retired from the bench, shortly after making headlines by pulling out a gun in court. Alderman stepped down under allegations that she abused her power to aid a meth trafficker. Gunter has been appointed to Alderman’s former post.)
The state challenged the second quash, and while the two disputed indictments coursed slowly through the appeals system, Wolff worked to get his client out of jail. The bond hearings became something of a spectacle. Suddenly—or so some Cranes thought—Dempsey’s health was declining. He was now confined to a wheelchair, and one hearing had to be preempted because he was having chest pains. Meanwhile some of the Dempseys rolled their eyes at the emotional displays, the tears and the sobbing coming from the witness stand and the gallery as the Cranes expressed their fear of the man who had shot their patriarch. In March 2010, after almost seven months in jail, Dempsey was released on $100,000 bond, with the stipulations that he reside outside of Georgia, only to reenter the state for court hearings and doctor’s appointments; wear an ankle monitor; and adhere to a 6 p.m. curfew. He was also forbidden to own firearms—though he says he never got around to selling any of them. (He still owns several guns, including the Glock, which authorities eventually returned.)
Then, toward the end of 2010, the investigation took a startling turn. The first autopsy, performed the day after the killing, found that Crane had died from a single gunshot that went through his right arm and entered his torso, piercing the heart and lungs. But further examination of bullet fragments removed from the body revealed pieces from two bullets. Five days before Christmas 2010, Crane’s daughter Brenda Cronan received a phone call summoning her to the D.A.’s office, where she was asked permission to exhume her father’s body for a second autopsy. The following February, the stillness of Mill Creek Cemetery was disturbed by the rumble of a backhoe as Jewell Crane’s gray metal casket was pulled from the family soil. The subsequent autopsy confirmed a second entry wound on the upper right side of the back. Contrary to Dempsey’s story, Crane had been shot twice while his back was turned.
“It strengthened our case,” says current District Attorney Jeff Langley, who took office at the beginning of 2011. Not long after the second autopsy, the court denied Wolff’s motion to dismiss the case on grounds of self-defense. “Nothing’s a certainty,” says Langley, “but we had a very strong case.”
The prosecution’s victory was temporary. In March 2012, the Supreme Court of Georgia ruled that Judge Miller had erred in denying Wolff’s motion to quash the first indictment, and upheld the quash of the second. And per Georgia law, once two indictments have been set aside, the defendant cannot be brought up on the same charges a third time. Dempsey could not be prosecuted. There would be no trial.
The Bible’s black leather cover has been worn smooth. The chipped gold lettering on the bottom right faintly reads LEWIS DEMPSEY SR. The book’s aged appearance and Dempsey’s familiarity with it belie the fact that it was given to him when he was born again and baptized in July of 2009—little more than a month before the incident. Seated at the table, Dempsey shudders and shakes from nerves. But his right hand is firm on the sacred book. “I swear, on this Bible, that I will tell you the truth as I know it,” he says. “I will not lie to make it any better or worse than what it really is. I’m sorry that it happened. But I swear to Almighty God on Judgment Day that if Jewell had not attacked me, he would still be here.”
Dempsey is in the kitchen of a relative’s house where he and Opal now live, miles from their Mill Creek home, which is now for sale. After the high court’s ruling, Dempsey’s ankle monitor was removed and he was free to go where he pleased. But this Atlanta exurb is about as close to Lumpkin County as his family and his lawyer think is safe. He has never been convicted of a crime, but he is still a prisoner of public opinion. And while he is glad to be free from prosecution, he says he was cheated out of a chance to answer his accusers.
There is much to answer for. If Crane really hit him, why was there no sign of injury? Was this arthritic, 230-pound seventy-six-year-old really moving so menacingly fast toward his weapon, anyway? Most importantly, why did Dempsey say he fired only once, when two bullets were found in Jewell Crane?
With Opal seated at his side to translate, Dempsey holds his Bible as he responds confidently to each discrepancy: He didn’t have his false teeth in to cut his mouth, so there wasn’t much blood. And what little there was, he spat out in the sink. Police found a .410-bore shotgun behind the driver’s seat in Crane’s truck, shells on the dashboard. Everything was happening fast, and that’s why he must have accidentally squeezed off two rounds from the semiautomatic Glock instead of one.
But Dempsey wants more than a clear name. He believes his rights were violated by wrongful arrest and a seven-month incarceration during which his health declined and another inmate threatened him. He carries on about suing the state for restitution. Murder and excusable homicide, probable cause and persecution: A man who spent twenty years fighting over one borderline has now moved on to two others.
Opal winces and shakes her head. She wishes he would just let the family move on. The Dempseys have already cut much of their timber to pay property taxes while they wait for the house and land to sell. They hope it will cover Dempsey’s legal fees, which total more than $100,000.
The rest of the Dempsey clan is treading softly in Lumpkin County. The two daughters who still live with their families in Mill Creek declined comment and didn’t even want their names in this article for fear of rousing more trouble. Satterfield lives in Dahlonega, and she says a bank teller who knew the Cranes refused to serve her. Last December, she says, she was at Walmart when a shopping cart ran over the back of her ankles. She turned to discover the driver was Jewell’s wife, Janie, who apologized. Satterfield wrote the incident off as an embarrassing coincidence—but then the exact same thing happened at J&J Foods a couple of weeks later. Janie Crane did not comment for the story.
The Cranes are less than sympathetic. They believe Dempsey is guilty of murder. In their minds, the line is clear. But the justice system has left the case just as indeterminate as the plat that could not decide which way was north. Jewell Crane’s daughters see only one explanation: legal incompetence.
This was not a family feud at first, not the Hatfields and the McCoys. It was just two old men bickering. But the lack of resolution has created a blood feud between two lines that may run for generations. “We are a damaged family as a result of his actions,” says Crane’s daughter Brenda Cronan. “This will be with us forever.”
On a quiet and breezy weekday morning, Crane’s fifty-year-old daughter Trisha Howard walks across the crumbling blacktop in front of Mill Creek Baptist Church to the fine gravel of her family plot. The front of the stone features a painting of Jewell Crane in his blue tractor with his little dog. On the back, man and dog walk toward a whiskey still in the woods. Vibrant new bouquets of pink and yellow and red silk flowers have been placed around the marker for Father’s Day. “They get to see their daddy every day,” says Howard. “This is all we can do for ours.”
This has been Crane land for more than 150 years. Now the man who fought for a small piece of that land lies six feet beneath it.
In September of 2009, surveyor Richard Webb mapped out Lot 784 for Lewis Dempsey. This was the so-called “final” survey on the disputed land, the one that led to Dempsey’s confrontation with Crane. Checking the deeds and the previous surveys and then walking the land himself, Webb calculated that the line was not along the hog-wire fence as Crane believed. Nor was it 200 feet south, as Dempsey maintained. Webb’s line, which was not parallel to the fence, added a long sliver of land to Dempsey’s holding that totaled approximately 1.8 acres—about a third of Dempsey’s original claim, barely running into the Cranes’ corn.
Crane’s widow filed a wrongful-death suit against Dempsey. The parties settled in March 2012. The settlement has been sealed, and neither family is at liberty to discuss how much money or property changed hands. But in late 2011, Webb was called to do new surveys for the Cranes and Dempseys on and around Lot 784. The results are now splayed out on his conference table, giant unfurled pages, bright white, with black lines defining and overlaying a patchwork of plots. An L-shaped portion, barely more than fifteen acres, of Dempsey’s Lot 784 is now outlined in black, and in the middle is printed the name of its new owner: Janie Crane.
“Fifteen acres, plus the land in dispute,” Webb says in a calm, deep drawl. He taps a finger on the last border he drew for Dempsey, and he says, “The line doesn’t matter anymore.”