Parents of slain NJ girl, Autumn Pasquale, battle over fund

February 7, 2013 6:55:35 AM PST
Three months after a 12-year-old New Jersey girl was killed, her divorced parents are in a court battle over control of a memorial fund and headstone for the girl's grave.

The lawsuit filed Tuesday is the latest publicly visible fissure in the family after Autumn Pasquale's disappearance that, at first, united the couple and an entire community in a search for the girl, who went for a bike ride on Oct. 20 and was never seen alive again by her family.

Forty-eight hours after 200 enforcement officers and hundreds more volunteers began searching, the girl's body was found stuffed in a recycling bin several blocks from her home in the small town of Clayton, 25 miles south of Philadelphia.

The two parents, separated for a decade, appeared together at a news conference and later at a tearful media interview.

Donations rolled in for a reward for an arrest in the case. After two teenage brothers were charged with murder, money came in for her funeral and other purposes. In all, donations totaled at least $100,000.

In the suit, the girl's mother, Jennifer Cornwell, says her ex-husband, Anthony Pasquale, took Cornwell's name off the memorial fund bank account that they had agreed to control together to pay for their daughter's funeral, legal expenses - at first, they jointly hired a lawyer - and help with the college education for their two surviving children. She also says her ex-husband has refused to consult her on what the girl's headstone should say.

Cornwell is asking a judge to split the memorial fund so that each parent can have partial control and to bar Pasquale from completing the headstone design without the input of Cornwell, who lives in Cherry Hill.

About the only thing the lawyers for the parents agree on is how sad it is that the saga has come to this.

"It's just disappointing and curious," said Douglas Long, a lawyer for Pasquale. "That's about it."

"This is a very sad situation," said Robert Feltoon, the lawyer for Cornwell.

Court filings lay out acrimony between the girls' parents: Cornwell moved out in 2002 when her children were 4, 3, and 1 years old. Though the parents legally had joint custody, they spent most of their time living with their father. The couple were divorced in 2005, seven years after they married.

Cornwell says her ex-husband did not inform her that their middle daughter was missing until two hours after police were called on Oct. 20.

Pasquale says his ex-wife picked up items left at a funeral home by mourners without his permission. She contends he said it would be OK. He also says she was wrong to withhold money raised at a concert in Philadelphia in December from the fund. She says the money - a $15,500 check plus unspecified cash - is in a safe-deposit box where she placed it after learning she no longer had control of the bank account.

Another issue is payment to the lawyers. The parents jointly hired criminal defense lawyer Jaime Kaigh soon after their daughter was killed to help them through the court process.

But since then, Pasquale has hired Long, who says he represents Pasquale, Autumn and her siblings. Feltoon objects to that, saying that the lawyer cannot represent the slain girl or other children without their mother's permission or a judge's ruling.

A judge has closed proceedings of the criminal case to the public and media.

The two defendants, Dante Robinson, 17, and Justin Robinson, 15, are now facing charges in family court, though prosecutors are asking for them to be moved to adult court.

The Gloucester County Prosecutor's Office has been handling the case. But late Wednesday afternoon, county Prosecutor Sean Dalton announced that the case has been transferred to Camden County because Pasquale's family members have hired an attorney and announced plans to sue the prosecutor's office.

State authorities approved the move at Dalton's request, though it will still be litigated in Gloucester County.

Dalton said his preference was for his office to continue prosecuting the case "to its conclusion." But he said the pending lawsuit by Pasquale's relatives has created a potential conflict that also compromises the office's ability "to discharge its duties" under state law.