Vernetta Cockerham and sons
Photo: Mary Ellen Mark
PAGE 11
The last memory Cockerham has of Ellerbee is of his hands around her neck.

According to police reports, a neighbor saw him running down the street carrying a paper bag. He went to a convenience store in town and then drove north, headed for New Jersey. On November 22, three days after the murder, he bought a gas can at a Kmart store, filled it at a gas station, walked to a gazebo in Eastside Park in a historic section of Paterson, and set himself on fire.

Two young men saw the smoke and flames. Police found the smoldering body of an unidentified black male.

That was the same day Cockerham left the hospital, where she'd been since the attack, to attend her daughter's funeral, her hands and head still bandaged. Her injuries were so severe that at first the doctors hadn't told her about Candice's death. When the surgeon finally gave her the bad news, he warned her not to scream or cry or do anything that might rupture the sutures in her neck. "There's no words for that," she says. "To lose a child and not be able to cry. You can't scream. You can't holler. You can't yell."

In the hospital, Cockerham was put under police guard, which lasted until Ellerbee's remains were identified through dental records. But even then, Cockerham had a hard time believing her ordeal was over. Any relief she felt turned into anxiety about her boys. She was desperate to see them and hold them close again. But the Yadkin County department of social services had taken them into protective custody. "Their reasoning was if I got into that relationship with Richard, I was subject to getting into another," says Cockerham. "They told me I had my kids in a war zone. I was very offended."

Cockerham hired attorney Loretta Biggs to help get her children back. Biggs, who had just returned to private practice after a year on the North Carolina Court of Appeals, could not fathom why Cockerham's boys hadn't been returned to her. The more Biggs learned about the case, the more she came to believe that the system had seriously betrayed her client. "I think she was perceived as not being worthy of protection, and I just do not understand it," Biggs says.

Once Cockerham regained her footing, she began to get angry. Overwhelmingly angry. After reading up on the law, she filed her suit. While the Supreme Court had ruled in the Castle Rock case that police have discretion to enforce (or not enforce) an order, and that Jessica Lenahan hadn't been entitled to personal protection, Cockerham's case argues that she was entitled to protection, because police had promised it to her. Cockerham's lawyers, Harvey and Harold Kennedy, have won two appeals. In 2006 the North Carolina Court of Appeals ruled that Cockerham had the right to proceed with the case. Two years later the court ruled that she could also seek punitive damages. Lawyers for the police department have countered that Cockerham is partly responsible for her daughter's death because she did not move to a shelter or take other precautions to protect her. And Cockerham expects attacks against her credibility at the trial.

In preparation for a court date in February, the Kennedys showed her crime scene photos she had never seen, including a blown-up color photograph of her daughter's body bound in gray duct tape. The image left her shaken for days, but she says it has only strengthened her resolve to remain steadfast, and to help other battered women. Working with the North Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence, she recently helped lobby for legislation to bolster the state's arrest laws.

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