TULSA, Okla. — During more than two decades, Troy Dunn said he built a career by reuniting families — often adopted children with their birth parents.
He boasts of being a “reunion facilitator” for more than 40,000 meetings.
Dunn might be better known, though, as “The Locator,” the name of the WE reality series he hosted for five seasons that documented such reunions. The show ended two years ago.
But his knack for tracking down members of disjointed families attracted criticism Thursday as his attempt to resolve the dispute over 3-year-old Veronica was dubbed a dangerous publicity stunt by one Cherokee Nation official.
But on a day when attorneys agreed to the need for a visit between Matt and Melanie Capobianco and Veronica — but not to any specifics — Dunn said he wanted to speed things along.
Twenty-four hours earlier, the Florida resident stood next to the Capobiancos during a news conference and pleaded with Dusten Brown to meet with him. By acting as a middleman between the James Island couple and the birth father, he hoped to reconcile their differences.
But critics said Dunn is far from impartial.
The Capobiancos’ story caught his attention because of a personal connection. His adopted brother is an American Indian whose early childhood, like Veronica’s, was thrown into legal limbo because his adoption was challenged under the Indian Child Welfare Act.
After his request to meet with Brown went unanswered, Dunn drove to the home where Brown was staying. He wouldn’t discuss the location or how he knew of it.
But after Dunn and his camera crew entered the home’s driveway, Cherokee Nation marshals intercepted his vehicle on the tribal property. The law officers relayed a message Dunn scribbled on his business card, but Brown declined his offer to meet.
“Attorneys are telling these families what kind of relationship they’re supposed to have. That’s not the way it’s supposed to work,” Dunn told The Post and Courier. “The families should sit down and have a conversation. But that’s not how it’s happening, and nothing is getting done.”
But to Cherokee Nation Attorney General Todd Hembree, Dunn’s arrival at Brown’s location, which has been kept secret from the public because of privacy and safety concerns, amounted to a dangerous antic and distraction from reaching a compromise in the custody dispute.
Hembree said the home was on tribal school property, where Cherokee authorities enforce laws.
“Troy Dunn is injecting himself into a complex and emotional legal issue for which he sorely lacks any relevant skill set,” Hembree said. “His shenanigans and grandstanding is purely for the cameras and self-promotion.”
Last month a South Carolina judge finalized the Capobiancos’ adoption after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Brown shouldn’t have gotten custody of Veronica under the ICWA.
He has cared for the toddler for the past 19 months. Both are citizens of the Cherokee Nation, and tribal officials say she should stay close to her American Indian roots in Oklahoma.
Brown’s attorney here, Clark Brewster, said he continued to work Thursday with the Capobiancos to set up a meeting that includes Veronica.
Oklahoma’s governor has vowed to sign papers to extradite Brown to South Carolina, where he’s wanted on a felony charge for not giving up custody of Veronica, unless Brown agrees to a visit.
“Before we get to the point for things to blow up, I’m going to try my very best to get this resolved,” Brewster said. “We’re trying hard to get common understanding for Veronica’s best interest.”
Dunn’s role in the ordeal started 13 months ago, he said, when he read a story about the Capobiancos. He has spoken out against the ICWA’s effects and appeared with the couple on the “Dr. Phil” show.
The Capobiancos were frustrated with the slow pace of the legal process, Dunn said, so he offered to help. The couple still wants Brown to be in Veronica’s life, Dunn said, but they didn’t know how to negotiate that role with the birth father.
Dunn denied taking any money for his efforts. He said his camera crew had filmed public events involving the Capobiancos, including Wednesday’s news conference in downtown Tulsa, and some behind-the-scenes moments. He plans to create a documentary film “to educate others,” he said.
But he had promised the Capobiancos not to film any meetings with Brown or Veronica. When he asked the Cherokee marshals to deliver the note to Brown on Thursday, he said, no cameras were rolling.
But the officers came back with a message from Brown that said, “I’m not interested in talking,” according to Dunn.
“I’m not interested in being at the center of it or being a referee,” Dunn said. “The faster I get out and let those three sit in a room, the better off everybody will be.”
If Thursday’s overture had turned out differently, Dunn said, “you’d be looking at a press release with a photo of those three and Veronica all smiling.”
But just a visit might not be enough for the Capobiancos: They said they flew to Oklahoma to take Veronica home.
Flying back without her would be difficult, Matt Capobianco said.
But visiting her and returning without her, “I don’t know,” he said, shaking his head. “That would be tough.”
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.