Jo'Anna Bird went to college while working two and three jobs at a time so she could provide for her children, Leo and Jo'Anna, her mother said. But she was murdered before she could fulfill her life's goal of building a better future for the children.
It is not Bird's life but her tragic death in 2009 that could ultimately free her children from material want. In the wake of a lawsuit charging that Nassau police failed to protect Bird from her killer, ex-boyfriend Leonardo Valdez Cruz, the county has agreed to pay her estate $7.7 million.
Although the settlement was signed in July, it has not been approved by the County Legislature. Now Bird's mother, Sharon Dorsett, who is raising Leo, 6, and Jo'Anna, 8, says this may be another holiday season when she can't buy them the things they need.
"They're good kids. They always say, 'That's OK, Grandma. I don't need to have that,' " Dorsett, 50, said. "But still, I'd like to do more for them."
In November, when the legislature was set to borrow $7.7 million to pay the settlement, Presiding Officer Peter Schmitt (R-Massapequa) refused to schedule the vote. In an interview with News 12 Long Island days later, Schmitt said he was concerned about the payout because Dorsett's lawyer, Frederick K. Brewington of Hempstead, had recently sued the county over a GOP plan to redraw county legislative districts.
Schmitt said he "did not feel comfortable voting on a settlement that would put a couple million dollars into . . . his [Brewington's] law firm, or his pocket while we were being sued, so I requested an opinion of the county Board of Ethics to see that there was no conflict there."
Brewington then sued the county in U.S. District Court, saying Schmitt and other Republicans were delaying the vote in "retaliation" for the other suit.
"They're hurting these individuals all to try and put me at a disadvantage," Brewington said. Schmitt has since said the county Board of Ethics ruled there is no conflict of interest in the case, and said the settlement will be voted on "as soon as we clear up a few minor things."
Katie Grilli-Robles, a spokeswoman for County Executive Edward Mangano, said the administration is not reneging on the settlement, and is discussing it with Schmitt.
'Get past an ugly moment'
The legislature's Minority Leader-elect Kevan Abrahams, (D-Freeport), said: "This settlement has been agreed to and it seems to be in Nassau's best interest to pay it and get past an ugly moment in the county's history."
Valdez-Cruz, who is Leo's father, threatened and mistreated Bird for months before he finally killed her, prosecutors said. One time, he violated an order of protection and kidnapped, beat and held Bird at gunpoint. Then in March 2009, he tortured and stabbed her to death in her New Cassel home, prosecutors said. In April 2010, a jury convicted Valdez-Cruz of first-degree murder and other charges in connection with Bird's death. That June, he was sentenced to life in prison.
In May 2010, Lawrence Mulvey, then Nassau police commissioner, said the internal affairs report revealed that seven officers, including a patrol supervisor, did not properly investigate in at least four domestic-violence visits to the home where Bird was staying in the days before Valdez-Cruz killed her. The internal affairs report has remained sealed, despite legal objections from Dorsett, Newsday and News 12.
"Little Jo'Anna always says, 'I should have stayed home with her that day. I never got a chance to say goodbye.' " Dorsett said.
Money is tight, she said. She tells of a time recently when she had to weigh letting the children take a pony ride against paying the family's bills on time. Leo was recently worried enough about the family's finances to bring home cash that Dorsett had sent to school so he could go on a class trip. "He said, 'It's OK. I don't need to go,' " recalled Dorsett, who sent him back with the money.
Dorsett said the first thing she will do with the settlement money is make sure the children are getting all the help they can, both from tutors and from counselors. Next, she said, she will put away money for their college education.
She said she has no plans to leave the area or even buy a bigger house. Dorsett would not say where she and the children are living because she said she fears for their safety.
"I don't want to leave the area now because the kids still like to see their mom," Dorsett said, saying she takes them often to visit Bird's grave at Cemetery of the Holy Rood in Westbury.
Speaking to their mother
On those visits, the children speak to their mother as though she were still alive, Dorsett said, and Jo'Anna tidies up the grave site.
"She'll say, 'Did I do a good job? Do you think mommy's proud of me?' " Dorsett said.
It's hard to stand in for the children's mother at the best of times, Dorsett said, but the holidays are particularly hard. Jo'Anna, she said, was a child at heart, decorating the house with tinsel and lights, and running out to the yard with the children to make snow angels.
"I say, 'Don't worry. I'm going out there to make angels with you,' " she said.
Though Dorsett is not shy about her need of the settlement money, she is also adamant that, if she had her way, she would rather have her daughter, and not the money.
"People tell me congratulations," she said. "I say, 'Don't congratulate me. That's blood money. What I really want is my daughter back.' "