The bruising, cross-country custody battle for 4-year-old Veronica came to an emotional close Thursday with her biological father conceding defeat in tears while her adoptive parents on James Island huddled out of view and pleaded for privacy from the national spotlight.
With only long-shot hopes of winning her back, Dusten Brown announced during a press conference in Oklahoma that he was abandoning his legal fight to win back the little girl he called “his princess.”
Brown wiped his eyes and choked back tears as he described the void in his home since Veronica's departure and the pain of seeing her empty room full of toys she left behind. But Brown said he could no longer stomach the prospect of her caught at the center of a contentious legal fight and in the glare of national media.
“It was no longer fair for Veronica to be in the middle of the battle,” he said. “I love her too much to continue to have her in the spotlight.”
More than 1,000 miles away, on James Island, adoptive parents Matt and Melanie Capobianco adopted a similar stance after slipping into town with Veronica once the frenzied attention over their Sept. 23 reunion had died down. She had lived with the couple for the first 27 months of her life before Brown gained custody in December 2011.
On Thursday, the Capobiancos stayed out sight and avoided answering the door of their home in the Ocean Neighbors subdivision. Veronica was nowhere to be seen. A day earlier, Melanie Capobianco made it clear they had no intention of discussing the case or giving interviews about Veronica.
“We're just trying to get back to normal — or at least a new normal,” she told The Post and Courier.
The battle over Veronica stretched halfway across the country, lasted nearly four years and took the two sides all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
But on Thursday, Brown and Cherokee Nation officials said it was time to end the fight and move on. They appealed to the Capobiancos to drop efforts to pursue contempt charges against Brown and convince South Carolina officials to dismiss a pending criminal charge against him for custodial interference. Both Brown and Veronica are members of the tribe.
“We're asking you to listen to your heart and do the right thing,” Chrissi Nimmo, an assistant attorney general for the tribe, said.
Last week, Gov. Nikki Haley dropped efforts to have Brown extradited to South Carolina to face the felony charge for failing to turn Veronica over to the Capobiancos in a timely fashion. The warrant for his arrest, however, remains active and Brown could be taken into custody if he sets foot in Charleston County.
Charleston County Family Court Judge Daniel Martin is also mulling whether Brown and the tribe should be held responsible for attorneys fees and the Capobiancos' expenses in Oklahoma during the seven weeks it took Brown to acknowledge the judge's adoption order and relinquish custody of Veronica. The bill could end up being thousands of dollars, though the exact amount is not yet known.
Members of the Capobiancos' legal team and the couple's spokeswoman, Jessica Munday, offered no comment on Nimmo's plea.
Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson, whose office would prosecute the criminal charge, was in the midst of a high-profile murder trial Thursday and she declined comment on the pending warrant against Brown.
Nimmo said the Brown family and the tribe stand ready to help Veronica learn about her native culture and she urged the Capobiancos to allow Brown to remain a part of the little girl's life. Brown has no court-approved visitation rights, so it will be up to the couple to decide if and when he sees her.
Nimmo revealed that Brown has spoken with Veronica since the transfer, but she declined to say what was discussed.
Shannon Jones, Brown's attorney in Charleston, said the two have spoken by phone twice and he was allowed to send her some photos.
Jones said she couldn't stop crying Thursday as she watched Brown's press conference, in which he described his decision to hand Veronica to the Capobiancos as the most difficult of his life.
“You will always be my little girl and my princess, and I hope to see you soon,” Brown said, speaking through the cameras to his daughter. “My home will always be your home, and you're always welcome in it. I miss you more than words can express.”
Veronica had been living with Brown since New Year's Eve 2011, after he used the Indian Child Welfare Act to gain custody of her. But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that the ICWA didn't apply to him because he hadn't been in his ex-fiancee's life when she was pregnant.
A South Carolina judge finalized the adoption in July and brushed aside all challenges, such as a request for an inquiry into Veronica's best interests.
But Brown initially refused to relinquish his daughter, resulting in South Carolina authorities pushing to have him arrested and extradited. He was jailed twice in Oklahoma but each time was granted bail while he challenged attempts to haul him to the Palmetto State.
Brown ultimately relinquished Veronica last month, just hours after the Oklahoma Supreme Court allowed the South Carolina adoption decree to be enforced there.
The Capobiancos quickly left Oklahoma in the company of two Charleston County sheriff's deputies and a State Law Enforcement Division agent. Then, they went off the grid until resurfacing this week on James Island. It remains unclear where they were during the interim.
Until Thursday, much speculation had centered on whether Brown would continue to fight in Oklahoma, tribal and federal courts to regain custody of Veronica.
Nimmo said Brown's loss of Veronica caused “a wave of grief across Indian country,” but it was time to acknowledge “we lost that legal battle.”
Nimmo said Veronica will likely have questions one day about all that happened, but “I hope you never question how much your father loves you.”
Brown said he knows the Capobiancos love Veronica as well and will provide her with a good home. “My hope is that I can continue being part of her life and see and speak to her on a regular basis,” he said. “Veronica, one day you will read about this and never doubt how much I love you.”
Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or Twitter.com/glennsmith5.