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Judge awards custody to Cox family

Tabitha Belmonte holds her daughter Emma in this undated family photo. Special to The Forum1 / 2
In a 50-page court document, Judge Senyk ruled that the family of Dylan Cox will continue to have legal and physical custody of Emma, who is two.2 / 2

FERGUS FALLS, Minn. - A bitter custody battle between the families of a teenage boy and the girlfriend he killed in a murder-suicide, orphaning their infant daughter, ended this week when a judge awarded custody of the child to the boy's parents.

Judge Wally Senyk issued the order Monday in Otter Tail County District Court, giving Darrin and Catherine Cox sole legal and physical custody of their granddaughter, Emma.

"This case is about Emma, and it always was about Emma, and it always will be about Emma," said the Coxes' attorney, Joshua Heggem. "And this has been a long, emotional and difficult process for everybody involved, and we're pleased that it's over."

The couple sought custody of Emma after their son, 17-year-old Dylan Cox, shot and killed his 16-year-old girlfriend, Tabitha Belmonte, before turning the gun on himself.

The teenagers and their baby were living with the Coxes in Amor when the shooting happened March 21, 2011. The Coxes were granted temporary custody of the girl eight days later.

Tabitha's mother, Bobbi Teeple, also sought custody of the child. Senyk denied her petition but granted her visitation rights.

In his order, Senyk concluded that Teeple lacked standing to seek custody of Emma "because she lacked a substantial relationship" with the child at the time she filed her petition.

The Coxes have been Emma's primary caretakers since she returned from the hospital after her birth, the judge noted.

"They have met all her needs and have assisted with her physical, emotional and psychological development," he wrote. "Bobbi Teeple chose not to be present in (Emma's) life until after Tabitha died in March of 2011."

Under Senyk's order, Teeple may have daytime visitation for one weekend each month until Emma turns 3 years old. After that, Teeple may have overnight visitation for one weekend a month, but only if she completes a chemical use assessment and follows the recommendations for education or treatment and aftercare, Senyk ordered.

Teeple also must submit to hair follicle tests four times a year with consistent negative results for methamphetamine, Senyk ordered. During the custody trial last summer, Heggem repeatedly referred to Teeple's history of methamphetamine use.

Senyk also ordered Teeple to abstain from alcohol and drug use for eight hours before and during visitation and not expose the child to secondhand smoke, which was a complaint of the Coxes' during previous visitations.

Meanwhile, the judge ordered the Coxes to assure that all firearms in their home "are safely and securely stored as required by law," and to seek coordinated counseling with Teeple to address how they should consistently provide information to Emma - at the appropriate age - about the deaths of her parents.

"No party shall say, or allow others to say, unkind things, even if true, about another grandparent in (Emma's) presence," Senyk ordered.

The parties have the right to appeal the judge's order. Teeple's attorney, Charles Krekelberg, did not return a message left at his office.

A wrongful death lawsuit filed by Teeple and several family members against Dylan's estate, his parents and his grandfather who gave him the two handguns he carried during the shooting, is scheduled for a jury trial Oct. 1.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528