Wednesday, July 1, 2009
Published: July 1, 2009
A lawsuit that was being watched closely by advocates for victims of domestic violence was settled yesterday just as jury selection was set to begin.
Vernetta Cockerham settled for $430,000 in her lawsuit against the Jonesville Police Department and two of its officers.
Her lawsuit, which was filed in 2004, accused the police department of failing to enforce a restraining order that she had taken out against her estranged husband, Richard Ellerbee, who eventually killed her 17-year-old daughter, Candice, and stabbed Cockerham. Ellerbee killed himself several days later.
She said she is satisfied with the settlement and is ready to put the case behind her. "Every time I go to court, I relive it again," she said as she stood in a parking lot near the Yadkin County Courthouse.
"I'm going to take time out with my family and go through my grieving process," she said.
She said she also plans to continue to advocate for domestic-violence victims, especially those in Yadkin County.
Rita Anita Linger, the executive director of the N.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence, stood alongside Cockerham after the settlement was announced.
Linger said she hopes the case puts a magnifying glass on a system that is supposed to make sure that domestic-violence protective orders are enforced and that victims of domestic violence are protected against their abusers.
"This case speaks, and Vernetta speaks, for women who can't speak for themselves," she said.
Under the terms of the settlement, the town admits no liability in the death of Cockerham's daughter, said William Hill, an attorney for the two officers, Scott Vestal and Tim Gwyn. Roger Reece, the current police chief, declined to comment. He sent out a news release later in the day, saying that the officers did nothing wrong.
"We do hope Vernetta Cockerham finds peace with this resolution," the news release said.
Vestal, who still works for the police department, declined to comment. Gwyn resigned in 2006 as police chief. He was not available for comment.
On Nov. 13, 2002, Cockerham filed a domestic-violence protective order against Ellerbee. That order required that he not threaten her and her children and that he stay 250 feet away.
Ellerbee ignored that order. The next day, he broke into her house and left a note, Cockerham said in an affidavit filed with her lawsuit.
"I will kill you," the handwritten note said. "You will die."
Over the next several days, Ellerbee repeatedly violated the protective order, according to the lawsuit. He came to her youngest son's day care and threatened her daughter, Candice. He dug graves across the street and later told her that the graves were for her and her children. And on the day before he killed Candice, he stalked Cockerham in his car.
Each time, Cockerham said, she told police that Ellerbee was violating the protective order and at one point had an arrest warrant issued for him. She said in the lawsuit that then-police chief Robbie Coe said he would put the department on high alert and that Vestal and Gwyn promised her that they would arrest Ellerbee.
Ellerbee was never arrested, and on Nov. 19, he fatally stabbed Candice and then stabbed Cockerham in the foyer of her home after she came back from running an errand. Cockerham still has a scar along the left side of her neck where Ellerbee cut it with a broken piece of glass.
Hill said that Cockerham never told police that Ellerbee threatened her, and that Vestal and Gwyn never made any specific promises to her. He cited written statements by Cockerham and her daughter about the incident when Ellerbee went to the day care. Candice said in the statement, dated Nov. 18, 2002, that Ellerbee came to her and told her that he wanted Cockerham to contact him.
"I know in my heart of hearts that Scott Vestal and Tim Gwyn did nothing wrong," he said.
Hill placed much of the blame on Coe, who resigned abruptly in 2004. He said that Coe never told Vestal and Gwyn that he had met with Cockerham and he never investigated Cockerham's complaints. He also suggested that Cockerham's recollection of events may have been mistaken because of the trauma she suffered in the attack.
Cockerham said she was never mistaken about what she did. Coe said in depositions that he had talked with Cockerham several times and advised her to get an arrest warrant for Ellerbee.
Coe could not be reached for comment.
Harvey Kennedy, one of Cockerham's attorneys, said that Ellerbee violated the protective order numerous times.
"We hope the impact of this case will be to ensure in the future that law-enforcement officers will take domestic-violence protective orders seriously and enforce those orders," he said.
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■ Michael Hewlett can be reached at 727-7326 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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