UPDATE: Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon confirmed this morning that Matt and Melanie Capobianco have left Oklahoma with 4-year-old Veronica under the watch of his deputies and a State Law Enforcement Division agent.
Cannon would not say where the James Island couple is or when they plan to return to South Carolina with their adoptive daughter, though he said he doesn’t expect them to come home today. Two deputies and a SLED agent will remain with them “for some period of time” to ensure they have a safe and smooth journey, he said.
Cannon said he doesn’t want to get into details about their travel plans because there is a great deal of emotion and frustration still surrounding the case.
“They are at an agreed-upon location where they are safe and comfortable,” he said.
Cannon said he dispatched his law enforcement team to Oklahoma Monday because he had been monitoring the case and saw a possibility that a custody transfer might occur. He said he had been in contact with the Capobiancos’ attorneys as well.
Cannon said the decision by Veronica’s biological father, Dusten Brown, to hand her over to the Capobiancos does not mean that a pending criminal charge against him for custodial interference will just disappear. The custody battle and that charge “are two separate issues,” he said.
Brown is wanted on a Charleston County warrant for for failing to turn over the girl to her adoptive parents last month. Brown is fighting extradition to South Carolina, and a hearing on the matter is scheduled for Oct. 3 in Oklahoma.
Cannon said his compliance with Monday’s exchange and plans for “some continued interaction between the Caponbiancos and Dusten Brown” could well be factors the courts will weigh in the case, but the matter still must run its course through the legal system.
“There is a warrant, he has been arrested and that has to be resolved,” he said. “There is every intention that that process continue to its conclusion, whatever that conclusion may be.”
Cannon also praised the professionalism of the Oklahoma and Cherokee law enforcement agencies his office dealt with over the past several weeks. He said all involved put aside their personal feelings and emotions and worked to handle the proceedings and the custody transfer in an orderly, by-the-book manner. “They did their job well,” he said.
Dusten Brown held back tears Monday night as he packed bags for 4-year-old Veronica.
Oklahoma’s top court had cleared the way earlier in the day for the curly-haired girl to head back to South Carolina, where she spent the first 27 months of her life.
Veronica left the Tahlequah home where she had been staying recently. She said goodbye to Brown and her biological grandparents.
“He told her she was going to stay with Matt and Melanie (Capobianco) and they would be nice to her,” said Shannon Jones of Charleston, the birth father’s attorney. “He told her he loved her.”
After she walked away, Brown released the emotion he held in. He cried.
It was around 8 p.m. eastern time as she was driven a short distance to the Cherokee Nation’s police headquarters. She wore blue jeans, pink Velcro shoes and a pink vest, and she clutched a pink teddy bear.
After she saw the James Island couple who adopted her, Melanie Capobianco offered to put her into a car seat. She agreed.
“It was really a sweet thing to finally see after all this time,” said the couple’s attorney, James Fletcher Thompson of Spartanburg. “The transition seemed to go without incident. That in itself is very good news for all involved.”
The Capobiancos got custody of Veronica on Monday as the two-year legal war they have waged to get her back neared an end.
The reunion came after mediation talks dissolved earlier in the day.
A judge said the opponents had tried hard to reach an agreement. Several of the proposed pacts called for Brown to have time with Veronica during summers and sporadically throughout every year.
How Monday’s handover affects any involvement he might have in the girl’s life was not clear.
Hours after the mediation process ended, the Oklahoma Supreme Court lifted an order blocking a change of custody.
Cherokee Nation officials had vowed not to give up their fight easily.
When Veronica might return to South Carolina also wasn’t known. Supporters for the Capobiancos said the couple probably would take their time heading home.
Emotions have boiled on both sides of the legal battle since South Carolina courts gave custody to Brown in 2011. Veronica became a battle cry for American Indians intent on preserving their culture, while adoption advocates warned that an outcome not in the Capobiancos’ favor could discourage families from adoption.
Veronica started a new life in Nowata, Okla., as the Capobiancos tried to get her back through appeals.
But in June, the U.S. Supreme Court opined that Brown shouldn’t have been allowed to veto an adoption under the Indian Child Welfare Act because the Cherokee member had not been in the girl’s life. The federal law is aimed at thwarting adoption placements of Indian children outside Indian communities.
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 refused to relinquish his daughter.
Charleston prosecutors and deputies, as well as the state’s governor, wanted him arrested and extradited. He was jailed twice in Oklahoma, but the Charleston authorities’ attempts to reel him in never were successful. His lawyers have asked for a hearing to question the legality of the arrest warrant.
On Monday, Jones urged authorities to stop pursuing criminal action against her client. Jail time, Jones said, would greatly damage the Capobiancos’ future relationship with Veronica.
Courts in Oklahoma eventually approved the adoption decree, and in mid-August, one judge there ordered mediation that would give the Capobiancos and Brown a chance to iron out future visitation.
Over the coming weeks, the Capobiancos visited Veronica.
In photographs released Monday, Matt Capobianco clutches Veronica as she sits in his lap. Wearing a sparkly tiara, Melanie Capobianco tosses Veronica in her arms in another picture.
“(The) visits show that Veronica remembers them and loves them,” Lori Alvino McGill, the couple’s Washington attorney, said Monday.
Veronica celebrated her fourth birthday Sept. 15 with a Disney princess-themed bounce house, balloons and a table loaded with gifts. The Cherokee Nation presented her with a traditional dress.
The next day, her father and her adoptive parents got together at the start of last week in downtown Tulsa. They met daily and tried to hash out a deal. At several points, one side or the other thought they had arrived at an accord.
But the week ended without a resolution.
The expressions on the faces of the Capobiancos and Brown were blank as they walked away from the mediation room Monday morning.
The settlement judge in the case told the Tulsa World newspaper that the summit’s dissolution was not due to a lack of trying.
“All the parties negotiated in good faith, in my opinion, and have been represented by lawyers of competence, skill and diligence,” the judge told the newspaper. “It is a procedurally and substantively complex case, which we simply were unable to resolve by a settlement agreement.”
Even before the mediation process reignited Monday morning, action at the Oklahoma Supreme Court indicated that the Capobiancos would fight for full custody.
Their attorneys filed three statements in support of an emergency move to lift the stay that had prevented any change of custody.
Later in the day, the move by Oklahoma’s top justices allowed authorities to enforce an Aug. 30 order from the Nowata County District Court demanding the Capobiancos get custody. The order is a version of one from a South Carolina judge.
The stay had been in place as the two sides talked about a settlement.
Five justices concurred with the opinion. Two dissented. One concurred in part and dissented in part. One did not vote.
The justices who disagreed with the move called for a hearing to determine whether a custody change is best for Veronica. Some said that finalizing an adoption without the proceeding was a violation of due process, making the South Carolina decree invalid.
Two deputies from the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office and an agent from the State Law Enforcement Division had arrived in Oklahoma earlier in the day, anticipating a significant development.
But even with the high court’s order, the Cherokee Nation expressed defiance against enforcement.
The tribe’s attorney general, Todd Hembree, said the state court’s order needed to be domesticated in tribal court to allow its enforcement on the land and the people it has jurisdiction over.
An order in tribal court, though, conflicted with Monday’s measure, Hembree said. A tribal judge already has given custody of Veronica to Brown’s family.
“We are a sovereign nation with a valid and historic court system,” Hembree said. “I took an oath ... to uphold the laws and constitution of the Cherokee Nation and the United States. Nowhere in that oath is it required that I defend the laws of South Carolina.”
But it was Chrissi Nimmo, an assistant attorney general for the tribe that Veronica has come to know, who helped with the transition Monday night.
Nimmo took Veronica to meet with the Capobiancos and authorities.
Jones, the Charleston attorney, said her client had been given an hour to bid farewell to Veronica.
After the ordeal, Brown’s father suffered a heart condition, Jones said, and was taken to a hospital.
The Capobiancos last said in August that they wanted Brown and the Cherokee culture to play a role in Veronica’s future. It’s unknown whether any recent developments changed their views.
“We vow to hold them to their promise,” Jones said, “to let her know her heritage and her people.”
As she rode in a car Monday night with the Capobiancos, Veronica was quiet at first, said Noel Tucker, the couple’s attorney in Oklahoma.
Before long, she was singing to songs on the radio.
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.