visual storyteller, photojournalist, stills, video, drone

Promise of Protection

Vernetta Cockerham’s husband made good on threats to kill her family when he stabbed to death her teenage daughter Candice in 2002. Cockerham had begged police to lock him up. In a lawsuit she’s asking them to pay for failing to protect her.

Footage and editing: Travis Long
Interviews: Mandy Locke
Stills: Travis Long, provided
Music: “The Persistence of Loss” Nine Inch Nails, ASCAP

Chasing ghosts is one of the hardest thing we do as a visual storytellers.

Problem: Tell the story of a crime that happened five and a half years ago.

Solution: Find every scrap of visual you can including family photos, documents, medical sketches, a 72 dpi booking mug, deposition video and lots of photo and video details. Put it all together with a compelling interview and edit the hell out of it.

On July 4, 2002, Vernetta Cockerham-Ellerbee filed for a restraining order against her husband Richard Ellerbee after he beat her with a baseball bat and attempted to smother her with a pillow. Vernetta’s home became a war zone that year. Her husband beat her and for months promised to kill her and her three children. Ellerbee dug graves for their bodies in a rutted field that stretched between her home and the Jonesville, NC police station. She begged officers to lock him up.

On November 18, she notified Jonesville police several times throughout the day that she was being stalked by Richard. Vernetta says that while talking to officers, Richard drove by. The officers went after Richard and she was certain he had been arrested.

The following day while she ran errands, Richard broke into their home and brutally murdered her 17-year-old daughter Candice. Then he laid in wait and attacked Vernetta and left her for dead.

Because law enforcement is granted such broad immunity from civil liability, Vernetta had to fight for the right to sue Jonesville police. The state Court of Appeals granted her permission in 2006, saying officers made a specific promise to her and her children, failed to deliver and didn’t warn her they had not arrested the threat. Her civil case is pending.

I accompanied writer Mandy Locke to Vernetta’s apartment in Winston-Salem where she lives with her two young sons. Mandy had already conducted her print interview days earlier and spent a little more than an hour interviewing her while I shot video.

Mandy did the interview for the Dwayne Dail piece that was published last month. She has superb interview skills and knows exactly when to let the subject talk and when to redirect. This makes my job so much easier.

As I listened to Vernetta recount the day she was attacked and how she learned of her daughter’s death, it was all I could do to keep from crying.

She took us to nearby Jonesville (population 2000) where she showed us the home where the murder took place and the field where Richard dug the graves. It was a foggy evening and the light was fading. I had about 20 minutes on the ground before the light disappeared.

A year ago I might have spent a few days or more shooting photos for a Sunday page one story. I probably spent a combined 30 minutes shooting stills for this story. Many of those stills were details or “noun” photos to support my video. I find myself using my still camera for static details because they offer more control and depth of field than my HD video camera.

Once I captured the interview, I made notes of all the things I wanted for B-roll. Then I waited for another overcast day to return to Jonesville to finish shooting. A few days later the weather cooperated and I drove the 300 mile round trip from Raleigh to Jonesville.

Vernetta claims to have been harrassed by town officials after she filed suit against the police. Everything I needed to shoot was within sight of the police department and I worried that they may give me hard time. So I put on a bright orange traffic vest and went about my business. From a distance I looked like a surveyor with my tripod. No one paid any attention.

I’ve always admired the documentary “The Thin Blue Line“ by Errol Morris. It’s one of my favorite “ghost stories.” Many have compared “The Thin Blue Line” with Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” and Norman Mailer’s “The Executioner’s Song.” The movie proves that documentary film can tell the tale of a crime long after it has been committed. I’m certainly no Errol Morris, but I do want to pay my respect to the inspiration.

Update – Tuesday, June 30, 2009: A settlement was reached between Vaernetta Cockerham and the Jonesville Police.

Update – August 2009: O, The Oprah Magazine covers Vernetta Cockerham’s story with photographs by Mary Ellen Mark.

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