As governor issues ultimatum, Capobiancos see early results of Oklahoma trip to retrieve Veronica
TULSA, OKLA. — When they flew to Oklahoma this week, Matt and Melanie Capobianco hoped their presence would revive their mission to bring home the 3-year-old they adopted.
At first, they didn’t seem encouraged.
Requests from the James Island couple to see Veronica were denied. A sheriff in the county where the toddler’s birth father, Dusten Brown, lives vowed to arrest them if they tried to take the girl.
Picketers held signs and jeered Wednesday morning outside the downtown Tulsa hotel where they stood in front of a dozen video cameras and pleaded with Brown to agree to a meeting. As the couple walked outside into a waiting sport-utility vehicle, they were accused of breaking state laws and of buying a child.
“She belongs in Oklahoma,” where she can stay connected to her Cherokee Indian roots, protesters yelled.
But shortly after the Capobiancos’ news conference, Oklahoma’s governor issued an unexpected ultimatum to Brown: Allow the couple to see the girl or face arrest and extradition to South Carolina, where he’s wanted on a felony charge.
It was a positive sign for the couple who cared for the girl for the first 27 months of her life. It bolstered their hopes.
“Our original plans were to be able to come here and pick her up,” Melanie Capobianco said during an interview with The Post and Courier. “We thought we would get some assistance, but it became clear that we wouldn’t. We’re still hoping.”
By the day’s end, the attorneys for Brown said they would attempt a compromise with the Capobiancos’ lawyers in Oklahoma.
“We will reach out ... to see if a resolution in Veronica’s best interest can be reached,” the attorneys, Clark Brewster and Robert Nigh, said in a statement. “In that way, we hope the present impasse can be quickly resolved.”
The Capobiancos tried to adopt Veronica shortly after she was born. Brown successfully challenged their attempts through the Indian Child Welfare Act and got custody of the girl in late 2011.
But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that the ICWA didn’t apply to Brown, a member of the Cherokee Nation, because he hadn’t helped Veronica’s mother during pregnancy.
South Carolina courts finalized the adoption last month. A judge later ordered that he immediately hand over the child.
‘Really a mess’
The chilly welcome for the Capobiancos was apparent when James Hallett, who leads the Nowata County Sheriff’s Office, spoke out against the couple and the actions of courts in South Carolina.
‘Really a mess’
The community where Brown and Veronica live is about an hour north of Tulsa.
In an interview, Hallett said he didn’t agree with the South Carolina courts’ actions against Brown or their demand that he immediately hand over Veronica.
He couldn’t help in the Capobiancos’ efforts to get their adoptive daughter until he sees something in writing from Oklahoma courts, he said.
Attorneys for Brown have said that he has until Aug. 23 to challenge the order here. It has been registered in the courts, but it cannot be confirmed until that period has passed, they said.
If he challenges the order, attorneys said he’s entitled to a hearing to plead with a judge.
Hallett said he has fielded phone calls from Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon and from Melanie Capobianco, who he said ordered him to find Brown and Veronica.
She disputed that account, saying she simply begged the sheriff for help in reaching a resolution.
Hallett added that the FBI had consulted with him on the matter, but that they determined it wasn’t a federal issue. His comments at least confirmed that the federal authorities are considering action in the case.
“I don’t know what South Carolina is doing,” said Hallett, adding that Brown worked as a correctional officer in 2007 and 2008 at his county’s jail. “I’m afraid this is against the welfare of that little girl. It’s really a mess.”
Matt Capobianco promised early this week to fly to Oklahoma to get Veronica himself if authorities didn’t act, but he could find himself behind bars if he takes matters into his own hands, the sheriff said.
Matt Capobianco said he hadn’t planned to break any laws. He had asked local deputies to accompany him in his efforts.
“I wouldn’t do anything stupid to jeopardize the situation,” he said. “Me getting arrested is not in my daughter’s best interest.”
TV cameras and satellite trucks started choking the street before most guests were awake early Wednesday morning at a downtown Tulsa hotel, where the Capobiancos addressed reporters.
Their voices quivered as they answered questions.
Troy Dunn, an adoption transition facilitator who joined the Capobiancos during their news conference, extended a request to Brown to meet with him.
“Just you and I, Dusten. No strings attached,” Dunn said. “It’s your call.”
Their visit provoked strong reactions on both sides of the dispute, and demonstrators verbally sparred outside the hotel where the news conference took place.
The couple held hands as they walked outside, through a crowd of picketers and cameras.
“The laws of Oklahoma are being trampled,” one woman yelled.
“She belongs in South Carolina,” a man responded.
“Take your protest over there,” said one of the four police officers watching the crowd.
More than a dozen of the protesters represented American Indian tribes in the Tulsa area. Two girls, ages 6 and 7, from the Muscogee Creek Nation held signs that said “Not for sale: Cherokee children” and “Don’t give up the fight for Veronica!”
Their aunt, Karen McHenry, said she enjoys taking her nieces to powwows and stomp dances and that Veronica should continue getting opportunities to participate in her Cherokee traditions.
“They threw coins in the wishing well, hoping Veronica stays here,” McHenry said. “I hope their wishes come true. That little girl needs to be raised in this culture.”
During their stay here, the Capobiancos and Veronica’s birth mother, Christy Maldonado, planned to speak with Oklahoma’s governor and a senator. The couple said legal actions were also in the works: They met with their Oklahoma attorneys on Tuesday.
After the news conference, Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker said Brown has a right to be heard in Oklahoma state courts and tribal courts. As the Capobiancos called on Brown to follow the South Carolina adoption orders, Baker asked the couple to respect the court process in Oklahoma.
“The Cherokee people throughout time have stood our ground and for the rights of our people, and this is no different,” Baker said in a statement. “We will continue to stand by Dusten and his biological daughter, Veronica, and for what is right.”
After the Capobiancos aired their pleas to the media, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin departed from her earlier statements about the case and moved to use Brown’s arrest warrant in the Lowcountry as leverage in reaching an accord.
Brown is wanted for arrest in the Lowcountry for not giving up his daughter under a Charleston County Family Court order. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley sent an extradition warrant to Fallin for approval earlier this week, but Fallin refused.
Fallin had said at the time that she would allow Brown to have the opportunity to argue his case and that she would not act on the rendition order before his Sept. 12 court date in Oklahoma.
Fallin called for a compromise that could allow Brown to avoid criminal repercussions.
“(The Capobiancos) also deserve the chance to meet with Mr. Brown and put an end to this conflict,” Fallin said. “If Mr. Brown is unwilling to cooperate with these reasonable expectations, then I will be forced to expedite his extradition request and let the issue be settled in court.”
Brown’s defense attorney, Clark Brewster, told the Tulsa World that the Oklahoma governor shouldn’t mix the criminal case with the civil dispute over custody.
“They’re two completely separate legal issues,” Brewster said. “One involves a criminal allegation, and one involves what is in the best interests of Veronica.”
For now, Brown and Veronica are staying out of sight. He has not agreed to any meetings or interviews since he turned himself in Monday and was quickly bailed out in Sequoyah County.
Brown’s attorneys in South Carolina were called Wednesday into a courtroom in Charleston, where Family Court Judge Daniel Martin wanted to know more about where Brown and Veronica are. But the attorneys challenged the request.
The hearing’s outcome wasn’t known, though, because the proceeding was closed to the public and the attorneys would not discuss it. They said attempts to challenge the adoption had failed.
The family’s whereabouts, Assistant Attorney General Chrissi Nimmo for the Cherokee Nation said, are being kept secret for privacy and safety reasons.
Nimmo said the tribe also supports a compromise between Brown and the Capobiancos.
“People are saying that they’re going to come get her themselves,” Nimmo said. “But Veronica is safe. They are not running.”
Glenn Smith and Natalie Caula contributed to this report. Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.