BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Special Prosecuting Attorney Sonia J. Leerkamp has dismissed all charges filed against Vauhxx Booker, Jerry Cox II and Sean M. Purdy: three men found at the center of the high profile 2020 Lake Monroe incident.
The charges were dropped after all three men agreed and completed the Restorative Justice Process.
Restorative justice is a process that aims for healing, accountability and personal responsibility rather than punishment. As part of the Restorative Justice Process, defendants must name the harm caused and collaboratively determine steps to put things as right as possible, often taking the form of one-on-one meetings facilitated by trained practitioners.
The Lake Monroe Incident
The original charges stem from an incident that occurred on July 4, 2020, near Lake Monroe. It began when a video, in which Booker can be seen being pinned against a tree by a white man while people shout for him to be let go, went viral and garnered national attention.
Booker had said he’d been surrounded by a crowd, threatened and called racial slurs as well as being punched while held against a tree. He’d gone on to describe the attack as a hate crime and claimed someone had mentioned a noose.
According to court documents, Booker had been in the area of Lake Monroe with friends who had gathered to watch the lunar eclipse. Purdy and Cox were on private property near where Booker’s party had gathered. There was an initial interaction between Purdy and Booker when Booker was trying to find his way to his friends and Purdy advised Booker he was on private property. Purdy then drove Booker on an ATV to the property line.
Booker is said to have returned to where Purdy, Cox and the others were gathered on the private property after a friend of Booker’s claimed to have heard someone yell “white power.” Booker reportedly returned to talk with the individuals. The conversation, however, become confrontational, both verbally and physically, the prosecutor said.
Both Purdy and Cox have denied mentioning a noose during any of the confrontations that arose.
Days after the event went viral and attracted national media attention a warrant was issued for two men: Sean Purdy and Jerry Cox II. Both Cox and Purdy were arrested on charges ranging from criminal confinement to battery and intimidation.
Booker ended up being charged as well once Leerkamp was assigned to investigate the case. Leerkamp charged Booker more than a year after the incident with battery and trespassing.
The prosecutor said it was Purdy’s lawyer who suggested the restorative justice path instead of taking the traditional route of letting it all play out in court.
Leerkamp said restorative justice was not a process that had been previously used in Indiana to resolve criminal cases, but she agreed if all parties voluntarily engaged in the process. At one point during the process, after charges were filed against Booker, he dropped out from the Restorative Justice Process and the case nearly returned to court.
Leerkamp said during this time the special prosecutor’s office received phone calls, hate mail and even had complaints filed against her from people upset she’d charged Booker in the case.
Booker eventually agreed to reengage in restorative justice, however, and in March and April each of the defendants’ cases were completed in satisfaction and good faith with the program.
For Leerkamp, the decision to take a new route despite her long years as a prosecutor proved to be a new idea worth exploring in an era of deep divides. In her philosophy, prosecutors need to do what is right within the bounds of the law including “being open to new ideas for doing justice.”
“While trying not to be too melodramatic, this case embodies so much of what is happening in our country today. Going into a courtroom and ‘duking it out’ in front of a jury does not seem to me to be an ideal forum for having people examine their words and actions with a view to reconciling anger and hate,” Leerkamp wrote.
“The vehicle of having willing participants in a process that might reconcile each of them to the role they may have played in escalating a situation that could have resulted in irreparable consequences seems more constructive and as if it might have more long-lasting effects. This is the possibility of a restorative justice process.
Their own words
As part of the process and approval for dismissing the charges through the Restorative Justice Process, each of the defendants prepared statements reflecting on the incident and their new perspective gained from the program.
“I wish I could go back and change my actions and the actions of others,” Cox said in his statement, reflecting how he’d only planned to have fun with his family and friends on that July day. “Unfortunately, we have all had family and friends who have suffered consequences based on our actions because we could not control ourselves.”
Cox said that he had not interacted with Booker at all that day until he ran up to the campsite and saw Booker on the ground.
“I saw him on the ground and helped him up,” he recalled. “After helping him up, he struck me and I hit him back. I felt a lot of anger and rage after that. I could not understand why he would hit me.”
Cox admitted to being verbally abusive to Booker after, calling him “nappy headed.”
“I am ashamed of what I did,” he wrote. “That is not something I have ever said to someone. I never had given thought about how hurtful my words could be. The only way I can explain it is that I was angry and wanted to lash out verbally.”
Cox said he’d found the Restorative Justice Program eye-opening and educational.
“I have never really given any thought about Mr. Booker’s view at the beginning of the case. From my standpoint, he had sucker punched me after I tried to help him off the ground. I had not known about any previous interactions and what happened prior to me going to the site. The process gave me an understanding of where he was coming from and helped me understand his thoughts and actions. I don’t think I would have understood without this process.”
In Purdy’s statement, he reflected on how if he could take back one day in his entire life, he would choose July 4, 2020. He said while he doesn’t believe he did anything legally wrong, he does have a new perspective on the whole situation and takes responsibility for his actions.
“At the time, I viewed the Confederate Flag as an American symbol of the South like on the Dukes of Hazards, which I watched as a kid,” he wrote. “I had no intention of offending anyone. I just liked the hat and I was on private property.”
Purdy said through the Restorative Justice Program he learned how the Confederate Flag was a racially charged symbol.
“I will not participate in racially charged actions,” he wrote.
Purdy said he had no ill intentions toward Booker and had previously returned him to his campsite. When Booker returned, Purdy said he noticed his body language toward a woman and felt she needed his help.
“I was not trying to start a fight. I was trying to prevent Booker from getting physical with (the woman) which seemed like a real possibility from where I was standing,” Purdy wrote.
Purdy said the Restorative Justice Program has made him try the view the world through different perspectives and helped him become kinder and more patient.
Booker stated he wholeheartedly believed in the power of restorative justice to radically alter how society encounters crime.
“Restorative practices have been proven effective at increasing racial equity in a system that disproportionately criminalizes Black and brown bodies, reducing recidivism and increasing overall community safety,” he wrote.
“Most importantly,” he said, “such practices respect the dignity and sanctity of life.”
For the general public, Booker said his attack on the Fourth of July, 2020, was two years ago. But for him and his family, he said, their victimization and trauma continue daily.
“I refuse to be defined by the darkest things done to me,” he wrote. “Instead, I choose to believe and labor towards a more just humanity and a brighter tomorrow.”