Sheriff Cannon defends $14,000 taxpayer tab for trips to Oklahoma in Veronica case

Inspector Rita Zelinsky of the Charleston County Sheriff's Office (left) reaches into a sport utility vehicle next to Melanie Capobianco and Capobianco's adopted daughter, 4-year-old Veronica, in Tahlequah, Okla. Zelinsky joined sheriff's Sgt. John Nice and State Law Enforcement Division Agent Marion Baker in the three-day trip west to help in the transfer.

Taxpayers in Charleston County have spent $14,000 for authorities to twice fly to Oklahoma and help the adoptive parents of 4-year-old Veronica get custody of the girl.

To Sheriff Al Cannon, the measures have been reasonable, considering what's at stake.

The Charleston County Sheriff's Office revealed Friday that it spent $4,639 for its latest three-day mission out west to assist in the child's transfer to Matt and Melanie Capobianco of James Island. That came after a nine-day trip earlier this month that cost $9,356 and prompted no action.

But critics questioned whether Cannon would do the same in a custody dispute that hasn't attracted the headlines that Veronica has.

Probably not, he said in an interview with The Post and Courier. But such attention, he explained, has stoked intense passions on both sides of the issue. Cannon said that the authorities were alongside the Capobiancos to ensure their safety and a quick resolution, but he wouldn't say whether the couple has been the targets of specific threats.

“It is a high-profile case, and as a consequence, you have challenges that you have to face that you wouldn't have to face in another case,” he said. “Both sides have support groups who have invested a great deal of emotion in it. Situations like that have a potential to attract people who aren't necessarily stable.”

Two deputies and an agent from the State Law Enforcement Division flew Monday to the Sooner State in what the Sheriff's Office called a “custodial investigation.”

Their last trip began Aug. 29, the day before an Oklahoma judge confirmed the Capobiancos' adoption of Veronica. But nothing came of it because the Oklahoma Supreme Court stayed the judge's decision, preventing an immediate custody change.

The court lifted its stay Monday, allowing the couple to demand that the birth father, Dusten Brown, return Veronica after more than 20 months apart.

To Shannon Jones, Brown's attorney in Charleston, the officials' actions seemed politically motivated.

“Every citizen of our state deserves the same red-carpet treatment we've seen rolled out for the Capobiancos,” Jones said. “Don't they?”

Sgt. John Nice and Inspector Rita Zelinsky of the Sheriff's Office, as well as SLED Agent Marion Baker, were on hand Monday night in Tahlequah, the Cherokee Nation capital where Brown and Veronica were staying. The transfer went smoothly.

The authorities drove the reunited family out of Oklahoma. Officials declined to discuss their exact whereabouts Friday.

Of the $4,639.28 that they spent during that time, $2,098.80 was for plane tickets, and $859.14 was for a rental car and fuel. They collected $296.28 in overtime pay.

Brown first gained custody in late 2011 under the Indian Child Welfare Act. But the U.S. Supreme Court later said the federal law should not have applied to him.

Brown's attorneys temporarily blocked the Capobiancos' adoption decree from being enforced in Oklahoma. But last weekend, Cannon figured that something significant would happen Monday. That's why, the sheriff said, he ordered the same law officers to go to Oklahoma for a second time.

Hours after the officers arrived, Oklahoma's top court lifted its roadblock, and the authorities were on their way with the Capobiancos to pick up Veronica.

Cannon praised the cooperation the crew got from Oklahoma authorities, including Cherokee Nation marshals who were at the transfer site. But his critics said the group had no authority to be there.

“They had no jurisdiction in Oklahoma,” Jones said. “Those officers were private bodyguards to the Capobiancos for no reason and at our expense.”

But in his career, Cannon said, presence — even when it's outside his jurisdiction — usually helps law officers accomplish a mission. He noted that many voters in South Carolina support Brown, while many in Oklahoma support the Capobiancos.

“The point here is, I don't make a decision based on politics,” Cannon said. “I am not a part of this case. I've just done what I felt my responsibilities are.”

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