The infant daughter of pro football player Jovan Belcher, who fatally shot his girlfriend before killing himself at the Kansas City Chiefs' facility, is living in Austin while relatives vie for custody in a convoluted battle that is playing out across three states.
Zoey Michelle Belcher, who turns 4 months old today, was orphaned after Belcher shot Kasandra Perkins and then himself late last year.
Zoey's maternal grandfather, Darryl Perkins, lives in Austin, and she is in the temporary care of an adult cousin, Sophie Perkins.
Jon Michael Franks, the Grapevine lawyer representing Zoey's maternal grandmother, Rebecca Gonzalez of Fort Worth, in Tarrant County family court, said Zoey is being well cared for while his client seeks permanent custody in local courts.
The debate over who will permanently care for Zoey begins today in Independence, Mo. An initial hearing in probate court has been scheduled at the request of Belcher's mother, Cheryl Shepherd of West Babylon, N.Y.
The custody case is scheduled to be heard in Fort Worth on Jan. 22, although that depends on the outcome of the Missouri hearing.
"Right now, the case is in a jurisdictional legal dilemma," Franks said. "The judges are going to have to confer and determine how we should proceed with the case."
Zoey's various relatives are reportedly no longer speaking to one another. Franks has recommended that Gonzalez not talk to the news media, and Shepherd, when reached Thursday by phone, declined to comment.
J. Steven King, a prominent Fort Worth family law attorney, said that there are interstate agreements over how to handle these types of cases, but that this one clearly is a complicated legal mess.
"This is the ultimate law school problem," said King, who is not connected to the case. "Where is the jurisdiction? The home state is Missouri, but nobody is left in Missouri."
Witness to tragedy
On Dec. 1, Belcher, 25, shot Perkins, 22, with .40-caliber handgun after reportedly arguing with her at their Missouri home. Belcher then drove a few miles to Arrowhead Stadium, where he spoke with coaches and other team officials, then shot himself in the right temple.
Afterward, Kansas City authorities temporarily gave custody of Zoey to Shepherd, who, according to police reports, had moved in with her son and his girlfriend about two weeks before the shooting.
Shepherd and Zoey saw the shooting, police said.
Shepherd filed a petition in a Missouri probate court Dec. 14 seeking appointment as Zoey's guardian and as conservator of her estate, which could be worth millions.
She agreed to temporarily allow Zoey to be taken to Texas for Perkins' funeral. Perkins' relatives have since refused to return her calls or give the child to her, according to court records.
At today's hearing, a probate commissioner is scheduled to hear Shepherd's petition seeking custody of Zoey and a second petition seeking appointment as administrator of her son's estate.
Millions at stake
Zoey's estate or guardian will receive more than $1 million, including $108,000 per year for four years, under terms of the NFL's collective bargaining agreement. Payments will continue with $48,000 in the fifth year and, after that, $52,000 a year until she turns 18 - or 23, if she attends college.
The Hunt family, which owns the Chiefs, also has set up a trust fund to care for Zoey. The fund includes contributions from coaches, players, employees and the public.
Belcher's life insurance will pay $600,000 to a beneficiary, plus $200,000 for each season credited to him. Belcher was in his fourth season.
A $100,000 retirement account will also go to his beneficiary or estate.
Most states, including Texas and Missouri, abide by the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act. In custody cases that cross state lines, that agreement helps judges determine which state should have jurisdiction.
King said his best guess is that Missouri would want to maintain jurisdiction in the case, even if Zoey is temporarily living in another state and no other relatives live in Missouri.
As for permanent custody, King said that in a case where both parents have died, the relative who spent the most time with the surviving child often has an advantage in custody cases even if the child is only a few months old.
"It might boil down to how much contact each grandparent has had," he said.
This report includes material from the Kansas City Star.