In Lumpkin, when surveys failed, gunfire ends 20-year land dispute

DAHLONEGA — The muscadines were ready. Faye Buice waded into the vines, plucking the grapes. That’s when she heard the siren, whooping up Ga. 9.

“I thought someone had wrecked,” said Buice.

But then she saw the Lumpkin County deputy cars go by Monday, lights flashing, turning on Mill Creek Road. Maybe something worse had happened?

It had. A long-simmering land dispute between two old men ended with a gunshot. One is dead, the other in jail. Their families are struggling with loss.

For the family of Jewell Crane, the loss is permanent. He was shot and killed shortly before 10 a.m. Labor Day as he stood on the edge of his property. Relatives and friends buried Crane Thursday in the church cemetery where generations of Cranes are interred. He was 76.

For Lewis Melvin Dempsey’s kin, the loss is harder to measure. He is in Lumpkin County Detention Center, charged with aggravated assault and murder. No bond has been set. He is 72.

Deputies for years had periodically visited the site to settle squabbles between the two. Their dispute, say friends and officials, was like a low-grade fever that resists treatment: It was always there.

Crane’s supporters say Dempsey used force to settle an issue that wasn’t going his way. Dempsey’s lawyer says his client acted in self-defense. Lumpkin Sheriff Stacy Jarrard says it’s a case that shouldn’t have been settled on the side of the road with a gun. He’s asked the Georgia Bureau of Investigation for help, just to make sure the killing is investigated fairly.

“These were two well-known people,” said Jarrard. “One of them is dead. One of them is now incarcerated.”

Two ordinary men

The immediate families of both men declined comment for this article. Still, a picture of each emerges.

Jewell Crane was born in this community 60 miles north of Atlanta. His family worships at Mill Creek Baptist Church.

He had two homes. One, a weathered, family farmhouse, hugs the edge of Mill Creek Road. Opposite the road, gleaming white in a field, is a newer structure.

Folks around the community, say friends, called him “Pa” Jewell. He gave away corn and tractor rides. Lawmen also knew Crane. In 2000, police charged him with manufacturing liquor. Local records do not indicate the disposition of that case.

Follow Mill Creek Road for about a mile and a half and you come to an unnamed mailbox. It stands beside a driveway that curves about 50 yards, ending at a home that belongs to Lewis Dempsey.

Dempsey came from Gwinnett County in the mid-1970s. A plumber, he paid the bills, raised his family. He’d recently been baptized. Until Monday, he’d “never been in trouble a day in his life,” said Jeff Wolff, his lawyer.

Neither man ever filed suit to settle the decades-long dispute over their property line, nor were they involved in any other civil or criminal disputes with each other, according to records at the Lumpkin County Clerk of Court.

A questionable survey

Records show that Dempsey bought nearly 100 acres here in 1977. He paid $44,000 for a tract whose southern boundary ended at a field bisected by a creek. It bumped up against land belonging to Crane. Records show that he owned more than 100 acres, divided into tracts.

A surveyor’s map that Crane commissioned shows the northern border of a 63-acre plot. Drawn in 1986, the plat depicts a straight line running through a meadow. North of that line is 40 acres belonging to Dempsey

When they drew the map, surveyors hedged, noting that some earlier land records weren’t clear; the survey, they said, might be inaccurate.

Such irregularities aren’t unusual in Lumpkin County, said Jeff Lowe, Lumpkin’s chief magistrate judge.

“We have land disputes all the time,” said Lowe. “Back years ago, the surveying wasn’t so great.”

The land wasn’t so valuable, either. Twenty years ago, an acre of Lumpkin land was probably worth $1,000 to $1,500, estimated Don Head, the county’s chief land appraiser.

Today? “It’s worth 10 to 15 times as much,” he said.

It’s not clear, based on court records, just how much land the two men argued about. But this much is certain: The real gold in Dahlonega, site of the nation’s first gold rush in 1828, is the land itself.

Drawing new lines

If you need proof the Mill Creek community is Crane country, stop by C.L. Crane Grocery. It’s located where Mill Creek Road dead-ends at Ga. 9. Its namesake opened the business in 1946.

The store is adorned with family photos. Folks stop by and smoke cigarettes, swap small talk, get a Coke. David Crane, C.L.’s son and Jewell’s cousin, operates it now.

All the locals, he said, shop there — except one.

“Dempsey, he never came in here,” Crane said.

Family members were aware of Crane’s and Dempsey’s dispute, and hoped that it would be settled by Crane’s latest survey, said David Crane. That survey, done in spring, indicated that the disputed land was Crane property, David Crane said.

“He [Dempsey] didn’t like the line that was drawn,” the cousin said. “He wanted his own line.”

Dempsey recently hired a surveying company to conduct a study. William Thacker, Dempsey’s neighbor, recalled a recent conversation with his friend.

“He seemed, to me, happy with the way the survey was turning out,” Thacker said.

A squabble, a shot

Lumpkin and state investigators have said little about the case. Wolff, Dempsey’s lawyer, is more forthcoming.

When his client saw Crane Monday, Dempsey told him about the latest survey, said the lawyer. “Mr. Crane punched my client three times in the face,” said Wolff.

Things then took a lethal turn. Crane threatened to shoot Dempsey, Wolff said.

“It was pretty common knowledge that he always carried a gun,” said Wolff.

Dempsey had one, too.

“Once Jewell Crane made it clear he was going to kill him [Dempsey], it was clear that someone wasn’t going home to their family,” Wolff said. “He [Dempsey] did what he had to do.”

After the shooting, Dempsey drove home and dialed 911, said investigators. Deputies booked him that day. His bond hearing is scheduled for Sept. 25.

Tragic for everyone

Flowers adorn the gate near the spot where Crane fell. They recall a man who leaves a wife, two grown daughters and several grandchildren.

Dempsey also has a wife, as well as four adult children and grandchildren.

In Dahlonega, the reverberations from the killing continue, nearly a week later. People discuss the case with lowered voices and raised eyebrows.

“Everyone is talking about it,” said Bobbi Kemp, a waitress at a downtown cafe where Crane sometimes dined. “Why did this go on for 20 years?”