Survivor’s Tale

October 11
00:00 2012

Daughter’s death pushes woman to push for end to domestic violence 


Vernetta Cockerham is one of the countless faces of domestic violence.

These purple flowers represent local residents lost to domestic violence.

A few days before Thanksgiving in 2002, her estranged husband, Richard Ellerbee, murdered her 17 year-old daughter, Candice, and battered Cockerham, a Winston-Salem native and mother of three, within inches of her life. The tragedy took place in Jonesville, a small town in Yadkin County.

Cockerham says the man she once loved brutalized her beloved first born child before lying in wait for her at her home. In a desperate attempt to get to save her daughter, Cockerham sustained knife wounds to her hands, head and neck. The scar that snakes down her neck is a stark reminder of how close she came to death.

Her estranged husband then choked her and left her for dead. She still remembers the desperate break she made for the Jonesville Police Department, which was within sight of her home at the time.

She collapsed once she reached the Police Department. It all happened less than 24 hours after officers had vowed to protect her by arresting Ellerbee, who had violated a restraining order that prohibited him from going near Cockerham many times over a four-month period.

Despite the devastation, anger and grief she felt, Cockerham was determined that her daughter would not die in vain. In 2009, after years of court battles, Cockerham was awarded a $430,000 settlement in the lawsuit she waged against the Jonesville Police Department. She used the money to found a domestic violence shelter in Yadkin County – a resource she said was not previously available in the area – and named it Candice’s Heart.

“I made it my life purpose to help each and every individual (I could),” Cockerham declared. “Sometimes, I have to do what other people won’t do, which is go into your environment and come get you. It’s a liability, but that’s okay.”

Today, Cockerham’s harrowing story is well known across the nation. She has been featured on Dateline, “Survivors” on the Bio Channel, and in Oprah Winfrey’s O Magazine, and regularly travels around the country to share her story of survival. Last week, she returned to her hometown to share her tale at the Broad Street headquarters of Family Services, Inc., which is hosting a series of domestic violence awareness programs this month.

“Her experiences read like a Lifetime movie, but do trust, it’s real,” DeWanna Hamlin, prevention and education coordinator for Family Services’ Safe Relationships Division,  said. “She loved, she lost …and now she lives to use her voice.” 

Dozens attended Family Services’ “Day of Unity.” They donned hues of purple in support of Domestic Violence Awareness Month (October) and gathered to celebrate the triumphs of those who have survived heinous acts at the hands of intimate partners or family members. Family Services offers a number of programs for domestic violence survivors, including a shelter for women and their children.

“I always think it’s important to take the time away from work to celebrate,” said  Hamlin. “Often between the crisis calls and grant reports … we do forget we have a lot to celebrate.”

Day of Unity is also a time to remember those who lost their lives as a result of domestic abuse. Domestic violence remains a top cause of death for young women, especially.

“We look back not to remain in the past, but to learn from it,” Hamlin said. “We remember the loss, we grieve for the tragedy, and we heal as best we can.”

Though her emotions got the best of her at times during her brief remarks, Cockerham’s unconquerable spirit and zest for life were evident as she made an impassioned plea to  others to become advocates for victims and survivors.

“I’m looking to end domestic violence in my lifetime,” she declared. “In my lifetime, I’ve seen enough.”

Cockerham’s remarks were followed by a commemoration ceremony in remembrance of the 60 Forsyth County residents who lost their lives to domestic violence between 1995-2012.

Yesterday, Family Services was slated to continue its Domestic Violence Awareness Month activities with its Annual Meeting of the Domestic Violence Community Council. The meeting was to include a panel discussion with Forsyth County Disrtict Attorney Jim O’Neill, Sheriff Bill Schatzman, District Court Judge William Reingold and two representatives from the Winston-Salem Police Department.

“A lot of times, I hear, ‘Why don’t we hear their voices at the table – the decision makers?” Hamlin told the audience on Friday. “This is an awesome opportunity to hear from and dialogue with them.”

The agency will host the Home Free Luncheon to End Domestic Violence at Bridger Field House on Oct. 11, and the Fouth Annual Walk a Mile in Her Shoes event on Oct. 13 at BB&T Ballpark. Family Services is collecting baskets of cleaning supplies for Survivors in Transition throughout the month.


For a full slate of Domestic Violence Awareness month activities, visit  HYPERLINK “”

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Layla Garms

Layla Garms

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