Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Serpentarium family says it was cut out of private sale process by attorney and Superior Court Clerk

The family of founder Larry Dean Ripa says it was cut out of the sale; the officials behind that sale have not commented

The Cape Fear Serpentarium has closed permanently after its reptiles were sold; according to the family that owns the Serpentarium, they were kept out of the sale process by the Clerk of New Hanover County Superior Court and its appointed attorney. (Port City Daily photo | Benjamin Schachtman)
The Cape Fear Serpentarium has closed permanently after its reptiles were sold; according to the family that owns the Serpentarium, they were kept out of the sale process by the Clerk of New Hanover County Superior Court and its appointed attorney. (Port City Daily photo/Benjamin Schachtman)

WILMINGTON—The sale of the Cape Fear Serpentarium reptiles–and ultimately the building itself–apparently took place without the knowledge of the family of former owner Larry Dean Ripa.

After Ripa was shot and killed last year, the Serpentarium was inherited by Larwence Arkin  (known as “Arkin”), his four-year-old son; Ripa’s estate, which included the Serpentarium, is managed by his sister, Arkin’s aunt, Terri L. Hunnicutt.

Related story: ‘The plan was already in motion’: Serpentarium will close permanently and be dismantled

According to Hunnicutt, the family was kept out of a deal to sell the Serpentarium’s snakes, crocodiles and other reptiles, as well as the sale of the building itself.

“We haven’t been told anything,” Hunnicutt said. “We wanted to keep things open, but they’ve sold the animals, they’re selling the building.”

Who authorized the sale?

The sale of estate property in inheritance cases like Arkin’s are authorized by the Superior Court of New Hanover County. However, previous sales involved the family and were conducted through a public auction –- the sale of the Serpentarium’s reptiles apparently involved no auction.

Because Arkin, the legal Serpentarium owner, is a minor, a Guardian Ad Litem attorney was appointed to represent him. According to court documents, Lawrence Craige of the Wilmington firm Craige and Fox, PLLC, is the most recently appointed Ad Litem appointed to manage the Arkin’s interests.

Craig’s appointment was approved in April by Assistant Clerk of Superior Court Lisa H. Bell.

Craige was appointed by Bell to look after the financial interest of Arkin; he is authorized by the Superior Court to negotiate the sale of property that would benefit the child. Craige did not respond to calls and emails about his role in the Serpentarium proceedings.

The sale of the warehouse building adjacent to the Serpentarium, also owned by Larry Dean Ripa's estate, was subjected to upset bids -- a public auction. (Port City Daily photo | Superior Court of New Hanover County)
The sale of the warehouse building adjacent to the Serpentarium, also owned by Larry Dean Ripa’s estate, was subjected to upset bids — a public auction. (Port City Daily photo/Superior Court of New Hanover County)

Last year, attorney Wesley S. Jones oversaw the sale of the warehouse building adjacent to the Serpentarium as Guardian At Litem. The sale helped Hunnicutt afford to care for Arkin, as well as to recoup business expenses from the Serpentarium.

According to court documents, state law required the sale to be subject to what is known as “upset bids,” a public auction where potential buyers have up to 10 days to counter rival bids.

Court records documented the upset bid process extensively, including deposits from bidders, deadlines for competing bids, and final approval of the sale.

However, there does not appear to be an upset bid process for the Serpentarium reptiles; the court docket did not include any documentation an auction or records of any bids, on a May 3 petition by Craige for a private sale; that petition does not mention any of the reptiles as “real property” to be sold.

It is not clear why Craige pursued a private sale and not an auction like previous Guardian Ad Litems, nor has the Court answered whether or not they will require one.

Hunnicutt said she had not been notified of an auction.

“You’d have to ask the Clerk of Court,” Hunnicutt said. “You’d need to ask Lawrence Craige. They worked this out without us.”

Why were the reptiles sold?

The Serpentarium reptiles are valued at about $7,600. However, because many of them cannot legally be sold, their practical value is likely much lower. (Port City Daily photo | Superior Court of New Hanover County)
The Serpentarium reptiles are valued at approximately $7,627. However, because many of them cannot legally be sold, their practical value is likely much lower. (Port City Daily photo | Superior Court of New Hanover County)

According to court documents, the reptiles in the Serpentarium are collectively valued at about $7,627, although some are “on loan” from other individuals. However, North Carolina state law appears to prohibit the sale of many of the native species in the collection, including Copperheads, Eastern Diamondback and Timber Rattlesnakes.

While these reptiles could be transferred or donated to another person or facility, their sale value is essentially nothing; taken strictly as “real property” that could be sold by Craige and the Clerk of Court, the reptiles have seemingly little value and would not much benefit Arkin.

Many of the Serpentarium's reptiles are illegal to sell or on loan from other owners. (Port City Daily photo | Superior Court of New Hanover County)
Many of the Serpentarium’s reptiles are illegal to sell or on loan from other owners. (Port City Daily photo | Superior Court of New Hanover County)

However, with the animals sold, the Serpentarium building–which includes the facility itself and an upstairs apartment– seemingly becomes a much more viable sale; the tax value of the Serpentarium property is $727,000 but, according to court documents, it was recently appraised at a higher value, $985,000.

William Beard, who studied with Ripa for years and took over the operation of the Serpentarium after Ripa’s death, had hoped to lease and ultimately purchase the building.

Beard’s attorney, Deb Butler, had argued that Beard was uniquely qualified to lease and own the building. In part, this was because the reptiles, most of which could not be sold, could not easily be moved, legally or logistically.

Additionally, Butler cited the Serpentarium’s extensive modifications designed to house the reptiles. As Butler put it, the building would require extensive “up-fit” to make it suitable for other uses.

However, with the reptiles sold, Beard’s claim on the Serpentarium has apparently been rendered null and void.

What happens to the Serpentarium building?

According to the New Hanover County Register of Deeds office, the Serpentarium building at the corner of Orange and South Front streets has not been sold, however, both Beard and Hunnicutt said it was only a matter of time before the nearly-$1 million dollar building would be sold.

It is unclear if the Clerk’s office intends to put the building up for auction or if it will, as in the case of the Serpentarium, sell it privately.

Bell initially forwarded questions to an assistant, who didn’t return messages. When contacted again, Bell abruptly put the reporter on hold, then said that only Superior Court Clerk Jan G. Kennedy could comment on the issue.

Bell said Kennedy had been notified of a request for comment; at press time, Kennedy had not responded.


Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at ben@localvoicemedia.com, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001

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