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Tabitha Belmonte holds her daughter, Emma, in this undated family photo. Special to The Forum

Grandparents of child orphaned in murder-suicide fight for custody

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FERGUS FALLS, Minn. - Born from tragedy, a bitter custody dispute is unfolding in a courtroom here this week between the families of a teenage boy and his girlfriend who died in a murder-suicide, orphaning their infant daughter.

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Parents of 17-year-old Dylan Cox and 16-year-old Tabitha Belmonte are both seeking custody of their granddaughter, Emma, who turned 2 last week.

The teenagers and their baby were living with Dylan's parents, Darrin and Catherine Cox, in Amor in March 2011 when Dylan shot Tabitha multiple times before turning the gun on himself.

Sitting stiffly in the witness chair Wednesday, Darrin Cox looked at Tabitha's mother, Bobbi Teeple, and said he wanted her to know that he and his wife were not horrible people.

"I want her to know that what I really care about is Emma, and I am so sorry," he said.

But Teeple's attorney, Charles Krekelberg, accused the Coxes of trying to paint a nasty picture of Teeple and her side of the family. He said Emma will never be able to escape the tragedy, and she has a right to learn about her mother from Tabitha's side of the family.

Judge Wally Senyk is hearing the case, which began Tuesday in Otter Tail County District Court. He ultimately will award custody of Emma.

Focus on parenting

The Coxes were granted temporary custody of the girl eight days after the March 21, 2011, shooting.

The court also granted Teeple visitation, initially supervised and later unsupervised. Darrin Cox and a family friend testified that the exchanges are upsetting to the girl and that she's often returned smelling like smoke.

They also said Teeple failed to show up for some visits; Krekelberg said she was being treated for breast cancer.

Witnesses called by the Coxes' attorney, Joshua Heggem, characterized the Coxes on Wednesday as loving caregivers to Emma, saying she calls them "Nana" and "Papa."

In contrast, Heggem elicited testimony from Tabitha's kindergarten teacher that portrayed Teeple as a neglectful mother who didn't attend school functions and let her daughter go to school "bedraggled-looking" in soiled clothes.

"Time and time again, there were opportunities for Bobbi to be an involved parent, and she simply was not," Kathy Cavanagh testified.

Heggem also repeatedly brought up Teeple's past methamphetamine use.

But Krekelberg noted that Dylan Cox also had substance abuse issues with alcohol and marijuana, yet the Coxes didn't separate him from Tabitha and the baby.

Krekelberg also was critical of the Coxes for not bringing the bickering teenage couple to joint counseling before the incident that ended their lives.

The teens did receive individual counseling, Darrin Cox said.

Psychologist 'surprised'

A custody evaluator who conducted interviews and psychological tests with all three grandparents deemed the Coxes "adequate" - the highest rank available - in 16 of 16 parenting factors. She also described their ability to parent Emma as "excellent," according to testimony Wednesday.

The same evaluation ranked Teeple "adequate" on four of 16 factors and "marginally adequate" or "impaired" on the others, including ability to provide structure and discipline.

The report recommended the Coxes be granted sole physical custody and that Teeple have joint legal custody.

Susan Revelle Phipps-Yonas, a psychologist who critiqued the report, testified she found the custody evaluator did a "very good, thorough and balanced job." But she was "surprised" that the evaluator recommended Teeple receive joint legal custody, with parenting time every other weekend if she remains drug-free for six months.

Phipps-Yonas said child development literature advises that, except in rare circumstances, it's best for children under ages 3 or 4 not to have overnight stays away from their primary caregivers.

Psychologically speaking, it seems likely that Emma considers the Coxes her parents, she said.

"And that's all that counts for her," she said.

Phipps-Yonas also said she normally wouldn't recommend joint custody be granted to someone with a personality disorder with anti-social and narcissistic features, as Teeple was diagnosed.

Krekelberg asked no questions of Phipps-Yonas.

Negligence alleged

Krekelberg did take issue with a designated caregiver agreement that Tabitha signed indicating she wanted the Coxes to care for Emma if she couldn't.

He said Darrin Cox's attorney drew up the paperwork and that Tabitha didn't have a separate attorney representing her interests, despite her minor status. Darrin Cox said the agreement was drawn up so that Tabitha could be added to the family's health insurance plan.

Senyk is expected to issue his decision in the case within 90 days of the trial, which is expected to last at least into Friday.

Meanwhile, Bobbi Teeple and several family members have filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Dylan's estate, his parents and his grandfather, Dennis Follman, who gave him the two handguns he carried during the shooting, according to investigative reports.

The lawsuit, filed Aug. 13, claims the Coxes were negligent for keeping unsecured weapons and ammunition at their home. They deny any negligence and are asking that the lawsuit be dismissed.

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