In a custody case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, baby Veronica Capobianco was returned to her legal guardians from her biological father, a case that raised questions over tribal sovereignty and federal law. NBC's Gabe Gutierrez reports.
The biological father of Baby Veronica — the 4-year-old Cherokee girl at the center of a cross-country custody dispute — returned her to her adoptive South Carolina parents Monday night at tribal headquarters in Oklahoma, representatives of her father and the Cherokee Nation told NBC News.
Dusten Brown said goodbye to Veronica at Jack Brown House, the tribal headquarters where they have been living in Tahlequah, and returned her to Matt and Melanie Capobianco, who had custody of Veronica for the first two years of her life, the representatives said.
As Brown and his wife, Robin, watched from a window, a Cherokee County sheriff's deputy and a Cherokee Nation marshal led Veronica to the nearby marshal's building, where the handover occurred about 7:30 p.m. (8:30 p.m. ET).
Brown gave up custody Monday after the Oklahoma Supreme Court lifted a ruling keeping Veronica in the state while he tried to win permanent custody.
Both the Browns and the Capobiancos remain under a gag order, but friends and allies representing each family confirmed the exchange to NBC News.
Cherokee County Undersheriff Jason Chennault told NBC station KJRH of Tulsa, Okla., that the Capobiancos had already left the county and were expected to head home for Charleston, S.C.
"She's safely in her parents' arms," Jessica Munday, a friend who has served as a spokeswoman for the Capobiancos, said Monday night.
Amanda Clinton, a spokeswoman for the Cherokee Nation, told NBC News that the exchange was highly emotional. Brown's father — Veronica's grandfather — went into "medical distress" and was taken to a hospital to determine whether he had had a heart attack, Clinton said.
In 2009, Brown, a member of the Army National Guard, signed paperwork relinquishing his parental rights when he was scheduled to deploy to Iraq. He has said he believed his signature gave full custodial rights to Veronica's mother, Christy Maldonado, from whom he had separated.
Instead, Maldonado, who isn't Cherokee, put Veronica up for adoption, and the Capobiancos raised her for 27 months.
A South Carolina court eventually returned Veronica to Brown under the Indian Child Welfare Act, which was established in 1978 in response to high rates of adoption of American Indian children by non-native families.
The dispute was fought back and forth in the court system, eventually reaching the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in June that the act didn't apply in Brown's case.
Baby Veronica, 4, with her biological father, Dusten Brown, earlier this year. Brown turned over custody of his daughter Monday night in Tahlequah, Okla.
The state order keeping Veronica in Oklahoma was lifted after the latest round of custody negotiations broke down Monday.
Todd Hembree, attorney general of the Cherokee Nation, said Brown "willfully cooperated with today's order." He called the transfer "peaceful and dignified."
"Although this is not something any parent should ever have to do, we could not be more proud of the dignity and courage with which he carried himself," Hembree said in a statement.
That doesn't mean the fight is over, however, he told The Tulsa World.
The Cherokee Nation was prepared to litigate its contention that the dispute should be heard in tribal court, but Brown decided it was in Veronica's best interests to proceed with a "peaceful and respectful transfer," Hembree said.
"We will assess our legal options in the morning. Is this over? I would say not."
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This story was originally published on Tue Sep 24, 2013 11:36 AM EDT