Photo: Mary Ellen Mark
Vernetta Cockerham is living that painful truth. When she took out a protective order against her husband in October 2002, she believed fully in the power of the law to keep her safe. And repeatedly she reported Ellerbee's violations to the police. But even when they arrested him, he was released on bond. "I go over it every day," she says, "and every day I say to myself, 'You did everything you were supposed to do by law.'"
Now she's trying to change the system. On November 18, 2004, almost exactly two years after Candice's murder and her own near death, Cockerham sued the town of Jonesville and its police department for failing to enforce the restraining order that was in place to protect them. It's been an exhausting five-year legal battle, and the case has not yet gone to trial*, leaving some of the facts in dispute—including the promise she says the police made to arrest her husband the night before the bloodshed. Cockerham's resolve is steely, but when she describes the crowd of teenagers who lined the street for Candice's funeral, she still breaks down and weeps.
Cockerham is a slender woman with high cheekbones, a wide smile, and today, a thick scar that runs down the left side of her neck, from jaw to collarbone. Despite what she's been through, she laughs easily and walks with a skip in her step. At 40, she could easily pass for 25.
She was born in 1969 in Paterson, New Jersey, the youngest of three girls. Her paternal grandmother, Marie Edmonds, stepped in early to raise the sisters because their parents were unable to provide a stable home. When it was time for Cockerham to go to school, her grandmother moved the children to her home in Jonesville, a town of about 1,500 in the northwest corner of North Carolina. The family could trace its roots there at least five generations back. Just about every other house on their winding street belonged to an aunt, uncle, or distant cousin.
Edmonds worked the third shift at a nursing home and raised her grandchildren the old-fashioned way. She canned vegetables, washed clothes by hand, made sure everyone went to church on Sundays. And she taught Cockerham how to fend for herself.
When Cockerham turned 14, she moved to Newark, New Jersey, hoping to get to know her mother; then she went to live in Paterson with her father and enrolled in high school. The summer before her sophomore year, she became a math tutor, and one of her students was a linebacker named Kevin Baker. He was three years older, almost 18, but he and Cockerham fell for each other. By the middle of that school year, she was pregnant.
After having the baby—Candice—in Jonesville, Cockerham joined Baker in Paterson and married him. His sister was dating a family friend, a hardworking carpenter named Richard Ellerbee. It was Ellerbee who told Cockerham that her husband was cheating on her. Grateful to Ellerbee, 13 years her senior, for letting her know, she soon found herself confiding in him.
Cockerham and Baker divorced. She finished school and got a job in the records room of the Paterson Police Department. But when Candice was 6, Cockerham decided she'd rather raise her daughter in Jonesville. Back home, she found her own place, and juggled two jobs. She had the early-morning shift at a Shoney's restaurant, bringing Candice with her when she opened the place at 4:30 A.M., then taking her to school during her break. When that shift was over, she'd go work at a state prison near Yadkinville, about a half hour away.
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