By Trevor Bach
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James and Emma Somerset say they were just trying to help their son and his girlfriend escape the dangers of Liberty City and begin a new life in Columbus, Ohio. Their August excursion to Miami to pick up the girlfriend and her children began as an errand of mercy, but it ended as a hellish ordeal. The Somersets were arrested, jailed for more than two months, and extradited from Ohio to Florida to stand trial on charges of kidnapping. But the alleged victim, Kristal Hollerman, has insisted from the outset that she asked the Somersets to take her to Ohio.
The Dade State Attorney's Office dropped the kidnapping charges against the Somersets and Emma's son Kenya Patterson (Hollerman's boyfriend) on November 10, three months after Hollerman and two of her three children embarked for Columbus from the Lincoln Field housing project on 65th Street in Liberty City. But being freed by prosecutors has not ended the Somersets' troubles. They have no idea how they're going to pay their way back to Columbus, and the life that awaits them there appears to be in shambles.
"It cost me my apartment, my van. The van, in April it would have been paid off," says 49-year-old James Somerset. "Not only that, we lost custody of our three grandkids [in Ohio]."
"This situation has torn up our family," laments 51-year-old Emma Somerset. "We're just in limbo."
Kenya Patterson and Kristal Hollerman both say they asked the Somersets to come to Miami and drive them back to Columbus. "We got what little bit of money we had together and told them we were coming down, because they said eight of their friends had been shot within a week," James Somerset recounts, referring to the well-publicized slew of drive-by shootings this past August in Liberty City. "We'd get them out of that area and give them a chance to turn their lives around."
James points to himself as an example of that turnaround. He had run-ins with the criminal justice system in Dade County between 1969 and 1985, including charges of grand theft, robbery, arson, petty larceny, and auto theft. Twice he was convicted: once for petty larceny in 1974, for which he received probation; and once for grand theft in 1984, for which he served fourteen months in state prison. The same month he was released -- March 1985 -- he relocated to Ohio and says he's been in no serious trouble since. (Franklin County jail records show he did serve nine days in 1993 for procuring prostitution, a misdemeanor.)
Though Hollerman and the Somersets insist that her move to Ohio was voluntary, Metro-Dade police heard a different version of the events of August 11 at Lincoln Field -- a version told by Kristal's mother Tangela Hollerman and another woman, who say they saw Kenya Patterson force the young woman into the Somersets' car at gunpoint.
Hollerman maintains that her mother made these allegations simply because she didn't want her to leave town. Still, her mother's account was substantive enough for Metro police to begin a search for James Somerset that quickly led them to the Opa-locka home of his mother. When Somerset telephoned her the morning of August 12 from a rest stop on Interstate 75 in north Florida to check in, police were there awaiting the call. They told him he'd been accused of kidnapping Hollerman.
"I explained to them, 'Look, this young lady wanted to move to Ohio, so we came down and picked her up. There was no kidnapping,'" Somerset recalls. Understandably, the officers wanted to speak to Hollerman herself.
"He asked me how was I doing, I told him all right," Hollerman says. "He asked me how old was I. I told him 21. Then he asked me, 'Does any one of them have a gun?' I said no. He said, 'Are you sure they're not forcing you to say this here?' and I said, 'No, they're not.'"
Somerset remembers that he got back on the phone with an officer who told him he needed to bring Hollerman and her children back to Miami. "I said, 'Look, I don't have enough money to come all the way back to Miami. I just have enough money to get back to Ohio,'" he recounts, adding that the care of his three small grandchildren in Columbus, one of whom, he says, was born HIV-positive, made their return imperative.
Somerset knew he couldn't ignore a possible felony charge, so he told police he would take Hollerman straight to police headquarters in Columbus upon their arrival; she could assure authorities in person that she had not been kidnapped.
Ivonne Sanchez-Ledo, the assistant state attorney assigned to the case, views Somerset's refusal to return to Miami immediately as a crucial mistake. "If they had stopped when police contacted them, I think this could have been resolved," she says. "It wouldn't have been such an emergency-type situation."
But he didn't turn around, nor did he stay put and wait for state troopers to meet them, as Metro-Dade police also asked them to do. An officer close to the investigation who did not want to be identified says state police agencies along I-75 were advised to look for the Somersets, but none stopped the car.
Having arrived in Columbus, Somerset says, they went to the police station early in the morning of August 13 and met with Sgt. David Clark, a detective with the department's sexual assault unit. Clark remembers the meeting; Hollerman told him she had not been kidnapped. Clark says he checked for outstanding warrants and found none, so he let them go on their way.
Later that day, however, arrest warrants for Kenya Patterson and James and Emma Somerset were signed by a Dade judge. The warrants were based on an affidavit from Det. Barbara Kinsey of Metro's domestic crimes bureau that summarized the kidnapping-at-gunpoint story Hollerman's mother had told police. (Detective Kinsey declined to comment on the case for this story.)
Ever since the warrants were issued, Hollerman has been telling police, judges, and lawyers in Dade County and Columbus, Ohio, that she was not kidnapped, that she in fact wanted to go to Ohio, and that the Somersets picked her up at her request. But her protestations were not enough to keep the Somersets or Kenya Patterson out of jail.
Sergeant Clark remembers that Metro police faxed him the arrest warrants on August 29; on September 3, when James Somerset took Hollerman in to provide a written statement that she had not been kidnapped, he was arrested. His wife was later picked up at home. Twenty-three-year-old Kenya Patterson and his twenty-year-old half-brother Kinta Somerset also ended up in jail -- Patterson on the kidnapping charge, Somerset on a Miami charge of attempted murder.
Prosecutor Sanchez-Ledo characterizes the Metro police investigation of the case as "very thorough" and says that Hollerman's assertions notwithstanding, police were initially unable to find any witnesses who contradicted the account of her being forced into the Somersets' car at gunpoint. Sanchez-Ledo, who works in the state attorney's domestic violence unit, points out that victims of abuse often deny that a crime occurred -- out of fear or love, or both. "In dealing with domestic violence cases day in and day out, there are a lot of cases where something happens in front of witnesses -- a woman is hit or slapped -- and then she'll come back and tell me it never happened," Sanchez-Ledo says. "It's extremely common."
While Hollerman stayed with the Somersets' relatives, James Somerset says his family initially contested their extradition to Florida but later acquiesced. Kenya Patterson and Kinta Somerset (who had arrived in Columbus a week after their parents and Hollerman) were transported south by U.S. marshals on October 7, first by van to Kentucky, then on a circuitous plane flight on the Justice Prisoner and Alien Transit System, the prisoners-only air service run by the U.S. Marshals Service known colloquially as "Con Air." James and Emma Somerset were picked up at the Franklin County jail on October 8 by Metro-Dade police and flown to Miami on Northwest Airlines. Also in early October, Hollerman and her two children flew to Miami -- a flight for which the Somersets paid. They have been staying alternately with her mother and James Somerset's mother.
James Somerset remembers the experience of being transported in handcuffs and shackles as mortifying. "You're walking through the airport and you've got all these people eyeing you," he explains. "Even when you're sitting down on the flight, they're gawking at you. It was very embarrassing."
His experiences in Dade's jail system went far beyond embarrassment. Soon after his arrival, he had to be taken to Jackson Memorial Hospital because of chest pains and elevated blood pressure. (Somerset says he suffers from a severe blockage of his coronary arteries and does not work. He collects social security disability payments.)
After spending the next three weeks in jail, he was fitted with an electronic anklet and released on October 31 to house arrest at his mother's. Emma, Kenya, and Kinta remained in jail on other charges. (Emma, who had moved to Ohio from Miami to marry James in 1994, was charged with the theft of some rent-to-own merchandise she says she thought she had paid for. While being held for kidnapping, Kenya was briefly charged with attempted murder, but those charges were dropped after a few weeks. Kinta remains in custody facing the attempted-murder charge.)
If law enforcement officials were not swayed by Kristal Hollerman's insistence that she had willingly gone to Ohio, the state's principal witness was. Hollerman's mother Tangela says she told police and prosecutors that, after hearing that her daughter claimed she wasn't kidnapped and wanted to be in Ohio, she was less enthusiastic about a case against the Somersets. "I told them if my daughter says that Kenya Patterson did not kidnap her, then he did not and I don't want anything more to do with it," she says. Tangela Hollerman stresses that she isn't backing down from her account of her daughter being forced into the car at gunpoint. "No one can tell me what I seen and what I didn't," she says firmly. "I seen what I seen; I have not changed anything. But if she says he did not kidnap her, then he didn't."
Prosecutor Sanchez-Ledo says Tangela Hollerman's reticence would not have been enough to derail her case. In early November, though, she met with Kristal Hollerman and another witness to the incident -- one whose account differed from Tangela's. "After speaking with Kristal and another witness, I felt I didn't have enough evidence at that time to go forward," Sanchez-Ledo explains. "The case was no-actioned because, technically, I couldn't prove it," says Sanchez-Ledo, "not because deep in my heart I didn't think it happened."
At the arraignment on November 10, the State Attorney's Office dropped charges against James and Emma Somerset and Kenya Patterson. James was already out of jail and needed only to have the house-arrest bracelet removed. Emma and Kenya were released two days later. (Emma was sentenced to time served for the theft and was ordered to pay restitution.)
Last week James Somerset's mother scraped together enough money to send Kenya, Kristal, and her two youngest children back to Columbus by bus. (James and Emma are staying behind to await the outcome of Kinta's attempted-murder charges; he was granted house arrest and is staying with James's mother.) Still, many questions remain for the Somersets. Having lost their apartment, where are they going to live once they get back to Ohio? Will they be able to salvage their reputations? (James notes that, among other community activities, he was a member of the family advisory board of Children's Hospital in Columbus.) What are they going to do for transportation? Will they be able to regain custody of their grandchildren?
Somerset also has some questions for the law-enforcement officials he believes are responsible for his family's travails. He says the family is contemplating legal action, though he's not sure yet what form it will take. "I'd like to know why," he says. "Why destroy a family's life when you know it never happened? I would really like for them to answer that question for me. I'm really appalled at how much taxpayers' money they spent to bring us this far, knowing that the crime never happened.