NORFOLK, Va. — A week before the Oct. 12, 2000, bombing of the destroyer USS Cole, Lakiba Nicole Palmer called her husband to tell him she had bought something special for him and their daughter that she was going to mail at her next port stop.
“We didn’t receive it,” Avinesh Kumar told a federal judge Monday.
The present had disappeared in the confusion surrounding the explosion that claimed the lives of Palmer and 16 other Norfolk-based sailors that morning in the port of Aden in Yemen.
Kumar recounted special moments from his short marriage during a hearing to determine whether he should remain on a list of family members entitled to damages for pain and suffering from the East African nation of Sudan, which was held responsible for supporting the terrorists who blew a hole in the Cole.
Senior U.S. District Judge Robert G. Doumar will decide how much money Sudan should pay about 60 family members of the victims. The judge previously awarded a group of 33 family members a share of $13 million in economic damages.
The judge had earlier denied damages for pain and suffering, but that decision was overturned on appeal. The appeals court also allowed the circle of family members to be expanded. They are seeking more than $200 million.
Kumar wasn’t part of the initial suit because, he said, he has been suffering from severe depression and other health issues as a result of his wife’s death. He’s also been struggling to raise their daughter, now 15. He said he missed her first day of high school Monday to be in court. They live in the San Francisco area.
He said he found it particularly difficult to explain to their daughter how her mother died.
“She first started asking when she first started going to school,” he said. She would ask him why all the other mothers would pick up their children from school, but not hers.
“I just told her her mom is in the heavens and that’s why she couldn’t be here,” he said.
Kumar, who hasn’t spoken publicly about his wife’s murder before, occasionally wiped away tears while on the witness stand, particularly when talking about their daughter, Preshilla Caprice Kumar, who goes by Capri.
As a teenager, Capri became more curious and used Google to find answers. She also asked him to stop taking her to the cemetery.
“She told me she didn’t want to go there no more because she would have nightmares afterward,” he said.
Palmer joined the Navy right out of high school in San Diego, where she had been a track star. The couple met in the Navy, married in 1998 and moved to Newport News. Palmer was 22 when she died.
Her father, Hugh Palmer Jr., also testified. He joked that his daughter must have gotten her track skills from running away from him as a young girl.
He described his life as “upside down” since getting the knock on the door from Navy officials with the news.
“In the beginning, I couldn’t get out of bed,” he said. “I said, ‘Lord, why am I even getting up?’ ”
Doumar said he held the hearing because he was concerned about the growing list of family members seeking payment.
“We can’t have people coming out of the woodwork saying, ‘Hey, I’m related,’ ” he said.
But by the end of the hearing, he indicated he would issue a ruling soon, allowing Kumar and Palmer to remain on the list.
Doumar said he will decide the damage award largely by reading depositions from the family members of the 17 victims. Sudan has neither fought the suit nor responded to it.
One of the attorneys representing the families, Nelson Jones III of Houston, said Sudan has assets available that remain frozen by the federal government. He also said there’s hope that Sudan will negotiate a settlement now that relations are thawing with the United States as it undertakes reform measures.
Back in 2000, Sudan had been a direct supporter of al-Qaida, providing weapons, explosives, radios and financing of terrorist training camps, as well as diplomatic passports and easy travel in and out of the country.
Sudan also faces a $314 million judgment from the federal court in Washington that is to be paid to 15 sailors severely injured in the Cole attack and three of their spouses.
©2014 The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.