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Prosecutor: Charges in Lake Monroe Case not dropped, restorative justice process ongoing

vauhxx.jpg
Vauhxx Booker
Sean Purdy (red shirt) holds Vauhxx Booker (kneeling, khaki shorts) against a tree near Lake Monroe on July 4, 2020.

The prosecutor overseeing the cases stemming from the 2020 incident at Lake Monroe is refuting news reports that charges against the men involved have been dropped.

Indianapolis-based WISH-TV and the Associated Press reported earlier this week that the charges against Sean Purdy, Jerry Cox and Vauhxx Booker had been dropped after Booker completed an agreed-upon restorative justice process earlier this month.

Restorative justice hasn’t yet been used in Indiana to resolve a criminal case. It attempts to repair harm caused by a crime by bringing those involved in an incident together to discuss a resolution, usually through a mediator and not in a courtroom setting.

In a phone interview Thursday evening, special prosecutor Sonia Leerkamp said the reports weren’t accurate – Booker has completed the portion of the restorative justice process through the Center for Community Justice in Elkhart, but still has steps to complete before the charges against him are dropped.

Booker declined to comment when asked about the situation.

How did we get here?

On July 5, 2020, former Bloomington activist Vauhxx Booker took to Facebook describing what he says was an attempted lynching. The post, which has been viewed millions of times, garnered national and international media coverage.

It contained video clips of a group of white men yelling and holding Booker against a tree, at times using racial epithets. Booker says the videos were taken after the men jumped him and threatened to “get a noose” so they could lynch him off the shores of Lake Monroe.

Department of Natural Resources officers responded to the incident and determined there wasn't sufficient cause to arrest anyone. The DNR later released a report that suggested charges against Booker and two of the white men.

READ MORE: DNR releases details of Lake Monroe investigation, possible charges

Monroe County Prosecutor Erika Oliphant declined to press charges against Booker, opting only to charge the two white men, who were from Hendricks County. Sean Purdy was charged with felony criminal confinement, battery and intimidation; Jerry Cox received felony charges of aiding criminal confinement and battery, along with misdemeanor charges of intimidation and battery.

After public outcry, Oliphant recused herself from the case, as did all of Monroe County’s criminal court judges – that’s how the case ended up in the hands of prosecutor Sonia Leerkamp and former Johnson County Superior Court Judge Lance Hamner.

Booker, who served on the Monroe County Human Rights Commission before he moved to Indianapolis, said he was a proponent of restorative justice, so he agreed to pursue that option in lieu of going to trial. But he abruptly pulled out of the process in the summer of 2021, saying he couldn’t agree to the terms of the deal – signing a confidentiality agreement, having the charges against his alleged attackers dropped and being required to make a public statement with them.

Leerkamp then filed charges against Booker in line with what the DNR had suggested: misdemeanor trespass and felony battery. After four months of hearings that ended with Booker losing his public defender over a GoFundMe, he decided to re-enter the restorative justice process with the understanding that if he completed it, his charges would be dropped. Booker has declined to comment on why he re-entered the process.

Purdy and Cox decided to finish the restorative justice process not long after Booker made his decision, under the same sentencing agreement.

Where are things headed? 

In the Thursday phone interview, Leerkamp said Booker was close to the end of the restorative justice process, but it wasn’t over. She said Booker still needs to finish the public aspect of the process, which could include making a statement explaining how restorative justice helped the two sides come to an agreement. After that happens, the charges against him will be dropped.

It was Leerkamp’s understanding that Purdy and Cox were nearing the end of their process with the Center for Community Justice in Elkhart. They will also have to make a public statement on how restorative justice helped them come to a conclusion before charges against them are dropped.

Leerkamp said it was her hope the Fourth of July incident at Lake Monroe will be an example for others in the state on how to use restorative justice.

There is one more issue that needs to be sorted out – former Judge Lance Hamner resigned his position in early February so he could run for Johnson County Prosecutor in the Republican primary. Judge Jeffrey Eggers was picked to fill his position on the Johnson County Superior Court.

Because Hamner was initially chosen as a special judge, the Indiana Supreme Court will have to decide who is overseeing the case before any charges can be dropped.

This story has been updated.

Mitch Legan