Ellerbee kept in touch with her, and in 1993, when Cockerham was 24, he called. He was desperate to leave Paterson. Could he visit? Soon enough he was job-hunting in Jonesville and making plans to settle there. She found that she liked having him around.
It's hard to say when their love, if that's what it was, tipped into something dark and frightening. At first she felt needed, and that appealed to her. But soon she started noticing he didn't like being told what to do. She also noticed how controlling he was. "Having to ask him, not tell him, what I was doing," she says, "became an issue for me."
Cockerham never wanted children with Ellerbee. After a difficult birth with Candice, she believed she couldn't conceive again, but in 1995 she found herself pregnant with Rashieq, who was born in May of the following year. Around that time, she says, she tried to pull back from a sexual relationship with Ellerbee. But he was a large, heavy man, more than six feet tall, and at 57 and only 140 pounds, she was unable to stop him from doing as he pleased. "I didn't know what to do," she says. "It was as if the more I drew myself away, the more aggressive he would become."
Feeling miserable and trapped, she threw herself into her church. "It'll work out," her grandmother assured her. "And you got to do right by the kids." In August 1999, however, during a routine argument, Ellerbee grabbed her purse, hit her in the face with an open hand, choked her, and threw her to the ground. Cockerham got a protective order, but after he threatened her, she dropped it.
By the summer of 2001 she was pregnant with her third child, and Ellerbee insisted that they marry. Her pastor, who had counseled the couple, was wary of Ellerbee's interest in her assets and refused to conduct the ceremony. Cockerham hoped Ellerbee would drop the idea. But one day he offered to drive her to the grocery store, and headed toward the county courthouse instead. They were married there December 1, 2001. "I knew something wasn't right, but I did not know how to get out of it," Cockerham recalls. "I just wanted the family life to work. I wanted the father figure. I wanted the normalcy." During the ceremony, she says, "I cried the entire time. I never said a word. He spoke for me."
Dominiq was born February 26, 2002, and by summer Cockerham found herself always on edge, waiting for her husband to explode. On the Fourth of July, he did. Cockerham had packed a picnic for the family and piled the baby's stroller and other belongings by the front door.
"I'm not going," Ellerbee said.
"What do you mean?"
Instead of arguing in front of the kids, they went outside and sat in his silver Chevy Blazer. As they continued fighting, she saw him glance at Rashieq's baseball bat in the backseat.
"I know you're not going to hit me with that baseball bat," she said.
He reached behind him, grabbed the bat, and swung, hitting her on the back of her head. As much as it hurt, at least the children hadn't seen their father strike her. Ellerbee walked back into the house. Worried he might do something to the kids, Cockerham followed him through the door and up the stairs, motioning to Candice to get the boys outside. When Cockerham reached the second floor, her husband threw her onto the bed and held a pillow over her face.
"I'm your God," he said, his voice so smooth it terrified her, "and I can take your breath away when I get ready."
It was her breaking point.