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LONG ROAD HOME

by Robert Lopez

GENEVA WILLIAMSON FIGHTS TO GO BACK HOME AGAIN

Geneva Williamson asks about the home at 831 Hamlet Road in Rockingham County.

When is it going to be fixed? When can she go back?

“I’m telling you mom, the house is falling in,” her daughter Millie Miller says.

Williamson recalls a home “full of furniture, wedding clothes, the bed I slept in.”

Most of that is gone from the house, Miller says, and Williamson today resides in a nursing home in Caswell County.

The 20-acre property where she once lived has been the subject of a two-year-long legal dispute, which has roots going back more than 25 years.

In April a Rockingham County jury found in her favor, cancelling a 2012 deed transferring a life estate to a neighbor. Williamson’s signature had been allegedly forged on that document.

She is currently trying to secure the rights to harvest timber on the property in order to get money to fix up the home.

However, the neighbor does retain an interest in the property, and is disputing the method in which Williamson wants to harvest the timber.

“There’s been tremendous opposition,” Williamson’s attorney Barry Snyder said. “She’d get $7,500 for a timber deed, which should be enough to refurbish the house. She just wants to go back there, and we’re trying to accommodate her.”

“The Lord saved this old soul”

Williamson is 105, but still has a firm handshake – grabbing on to a visitor, and not letting go for a full minute.

By her side she keeps a cane and a Bible.

“The Lord saved this old soul,” she says.

Williamson, who was born in Rockingham County, spent most of her life raising tobacco.

Miller said the 20-acre property on Hamlet Road was originally part of a parcel that Williamson’s husband Daniel and his brothers had purchased and divided up amongst themselves about 60 years ago.

Some time after her husband died in 1972, Williamson hired a contractor to put a modular home on the property, according to court documents. She obtained a mortgage to pay for it.

In 1988 a nephew gave her $8,000 to pay off the balance on the mortgage.

The nephew intended the payment as a gift, according to court documents, but Williamson, then 79, insisted on paying him back. She asked for help from neighbors Rhodie and Nathan Johnson.

In a lawsuit filed in 2013, attorney Snyder contended the Johnsons talked Williamson into deeding them the property in exchange for the $8,000. She maintained a life estate, allowing her to continue living on the property.

“You get the impression that she was thinking that the Johnsons would sort of take care of her, out of sort of a natural feeling of duty or obligation,” Snyder said.

In the suit, Snyder stated Williamson had “limited education about property rights and business affairs.”

“If you ask her why she did that (deed the property to the Johnsons), she’ll say ‘I’ve got a lifetime right,'” Snyder said. “Well she had a lifetime right before she conveyed the property away and retained the life estate.”

In 1988, the lawsuit alleged, the property had a “fair market value of no less than $50,000.”

Johnson could not be reached for comment, and her attorney declined to speak about the case.

But in a 2014 deposition, Rhodie Johnson said Williamson had been “begging” her husband to buy the land.

“He (Nathan Johnson, who died in 2006) would be out there doing his work, you know, in the garden and stuff,” Rhodie Johnson was quoted as saying in the deposition. “And here she (Williamson) comes asking him to buy it every day.”

Johnson said her husband also did plenty of work on the home over the years without charging Williamson for it.

“He underpinned it, put the top on,” she said in the deposition. “Fixed the outside, fixed the windows … She had a lifetime home, but he still picked it up and built the back porch.”

“She wanted to take care of me”

In 2012, a niece, Ilene Alverson approached Williamson about moving to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania with her.

“She come down here and told … that I didn’t have no way to live and she wanted to take care of me,” Williamson was quoted as saying in a 2014 deposition.

By then the home had fallen into disrepair, Snyder said.

“It’s got a leaky roof. It’s got a door that won’t shut or lock, and it’s got faulty plumbing, and she doesn’t have the money to do anything with it,” he said.

With Williamson now past the century mark, Snyder also alleged that Johnson was “sort of getting anxious about the situation and wanting to get the property into absolute interest” – by doing away with Williamson’s life estate right to remain on the property.

In the 2013 lawsuit, Snyder accused Johnson and Alverson of conspiring in “the removal of (Williamson) from the homeplace.”

Johnson and Alverson in court documents both deny that allegation. In her deposition Johnson insists she learned from neighbors that Williamson was moving.

Johnson acknowledged that Alverson was also a niece of her’s, but said she didn’t discuss the move with her.

“She (Alverson) just said she was coming on in and I said, ‘Okay,'” Johnson said in the deposition.

Alverson could not be reached for comment.

But in her deposition, Alverson said while visiting Williamson in 2011, Williamson said she wanted to move in with her.

“I said, ‘Aunt Eva, I am not sure about this,'” Alverson was quoted as saying in the deposition.

Alverson said she came down for another visit the following February.

“She (Williamson) said, ‘I’m ready to go. I got most of my stuff packed. I don’t have any hot water. I haven’t had hot water for a month,'” Alverson recounted in the deposition.

In July 2012, Alverson said in the deposition, she packed up Williamson’s belongings into a U-Haul and set off for Pennsylvania.

Alverson also said any conversation she had with Johnson about Williamson “didn’t deal with what’s going on … except for is she okay, how is she doing.”

The deed

A few months after they arrived in Pennsylvania, Alverson allegedly placed Williamson into a nursing home. The 2013 lawsuit also accused her of using power of attorney to access Williamson’s bank accounts and misappropriating funds.

In her deposition, Alverson said Williamson signed herself into the nursing home and that funds from Williamson were used to pay for living expenses, a caregiver and a hefty phone bill Williamson had allegedly racked up calling back to North Carolina.

In October 2012, the lawsuit alleged, someone forged Williamson’s signature on a deed transferring her life estate to Johnson.

W. Edward Deaton, the Reidsville attorney who drafted the document, said in a deposition that Alverson had contacted him about seeking a deed.

However, in her deposition, Alverson said she had nothing to do with drawing up that deed. She said she received the deed in the mail from Deaton, and had a former co-worker who worked in a retirement community read it to Williamson.

Alverson said she believed her aunt fully understood the implications of signing the deed.

“She said she was never going back there to live, number one,” Alverson said in the deposition. “Number two, she was happy where she was at that time. And to her – my aunt, listening to her, she was satisfied. She had safety. She had whatever she needed.”

Alverson also said she kept the signed deed for a few months before sending it back.

“She signed it, but I held on to it because … maybe she will change her mind,” she said.

The deed had a notarization date of Oct. 18, 2012 and was filed at the Rockingham County Register of Deeds on Jan. 4, 2013.

In her deposition, Johnson said it was Alverson’s idea to draw up the deed, but then proceeded to say “I don’t know whose idea it was.”

“I didn’t tell them to send no paper, no extra deed,” she said in her deposition. “And they said they was going to send one. And I said, ‘Okay, that would be the best thing to do.'” Johnson also said she had contacted no one about drawing up a deed and hadn’t laid eyes on it until it was sent back from Pennsylvania.

During the depositions, Snyder also noted that Deaton had sent the deed Oct. 19, a day after it was supposedly notarized. In the depositions, no one could give a clear explanation for that discrepancy.

For her part, Williamson denies signing the deed, and claims she didn’t plan on staying in Pennsylvania long.

“I just went to see,” she said in her deposition. “I didn’t move or nothing. I didn’t go to stay there… That (831 Hamlet Road) was still my home.”

“Brought me back to North Carolina”

Miller said Williamson “couldn’t believe it” when she found out what happened.

“They took away her lifestyle,” Miller said.

In December 2012, Miller went to Pennsylvania to get her mother.

“I prayed so hard. Lord heard my prayers,” Williamson said in her deposition. “And they picked me up on a Monday and brought me back to North Carolina. And I’m glad to be back here … It’s too cold up there.”

By that point, according to Snyder, Johnson had removed Williamson’s belongings.

In her deposition, Johnson said she just wanted to clean up and had contacted Miller about retrieving some items. When Miller never came to get them, she said, she gave them to someone.

About a year later, Williamson filed suit in Rockingham County Superior Court, in order to get the life estate back.

The suit went to trial this past spring. A jury found, among other things, that Johnson had trespassed on Williamson’s property and that she and Alverson had converted the household furnishings. The jury also invalidated the 2012 deed, finding it had been either “procured by undue influence” or had a forged signature on it.

Williamson was awarded $2,600 from Alverson and $1,501 from Johnson.

Though Johnson retained ownership of the property, Williamson got back the life estate.

But another legal battle loomed.

Timber rights

Williamson had long sought to sell timber from her land. However, the lawsuit alleges, the Johnsons prohibited the cutting of trees on the property, even for firewood.

In her deposition from last year, Johnson said essentially that Williamson couldn’t sell the timber, because the timber wasn’t hers to sell.

Snyder filed another lawsuit in Rockingham County Superior Court in July of this year concerning the timber rights.

According to that suit, Williamson had someone come look at the trees on the Hamlet Road property for possible harvesting.

“Joey Peele, employed in the forestry industry, first investigated the property,” the suit reads. “And thereafter was able to pinpoint the location on the property where harvesting could profitably take place without creating environmental concerns in violation of proper forestry and husbandry practices.”

She had hoped to use the proceeds to fix up the house.

When another man who worked for Peele came to look at the trees, though, he reported that “several people came out of ‘a house across the street’ … and acted in a hostile manner toward him.”

“He feared for his safety, as well as harm that might be brought to his expensive equipment,” the suit reads.

Another contractor, Tim Thurman, was hired to harvest the trees. He recommended clear cutting. In the suit, Snyder argues the practice would be “consistent with “Williamson’s life tenancy” as detailed in the 1988 deed.

However in a letter to Snyder, Johnson’s attorney Matthew Smith wrote that he assumed the timber would be cut “in a responsible manner,” and contended that clear cutting would be wasteful.

Because Johnson was still owner of the property, Smith wrote, her signature would be needed to cut the trees.

Smith also warned that if any timber is cut, “I have been instructed to file a restraining order and injunction.”

The case remains pending.

“I just try to do what’s right”

At her nursing home, Williamson sits in the living room watching soap operas.

“Hugging and kissing, I got no problem with that,” she says seeing an amorous couple on the television screen.

She doesn’t seem to be quite aware of what is happening with the property, only that her attorney is trying to secure the timber rights. Miller has to explain repeatedly that they don’t have the money to fix up the home, and that’s why they need to harvest the trees.

Miller said she has thought about taking her back to see the house, but that it would be too heartbreaking.

“She has what was a house,” Miller said. “Not anything is in that house. No running water. They need to have another well there.”

Williamson says she “ain’t worried about it.”

“I live for the Lord,” she said. “I just try to do what’s right. That’s how I’ve lived so long.”

Robert Lopez is a freelance writer based in High Point, who has written for newspapers in North Carolina, Texas and Indiana. !

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