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Fallen prison employee honored: Thousands, including Cooper, attend service for Darden

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In this frame from the video feed provided by the N.C. Department of Public Safety, a funeral service for Corrections Enterprise Manager Veronica Darden takes place at Elizabeth State University's Fine Arts Center, Saturday. Darden was killed Oct. 12 during a failed prison inmate escape at Pasquotank Correctional Institute.

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Law enforcement officials from across the country attended the state funeral for Veronica Darden on Saturday, joining her friends and family in mourning a life cut short while celebrating what some who eulogized her described as an example that endures.

Darden, 50, of Belvidere, was one of two correctional employees killed during an inmate escape attempt at Pasquotank Correctional Institution on Oct. 12. The N.C. Department of Public Safety honored Darden, a manager with N.C. Correction Enterprises, at a memorial service held Saturday morning at Elizabeth City State University. Justin Smith, a correctional officer also killed during the failed escape at PCI, is slated to be honored at a similar service today.

Darden's service began with a horse-drawn caisson carrying her remains to ECSU's Fine Arts Center. Her family, including her husband, Eric, her children and her mother, watched stoically as she passed an honor guard and line of saluting officers.

After speakers offered their prayers and reflections on Darden's service — among them Gov. Roy Cooper — officers performed a rifle salute to Darden at the ceremony's close. The officers participating in Darden’s funeral service on Saturday came from across North Carolina as well as roughly a dozen other states, according to Public Safety spokesmen.

A number of speakers at Darden’s service noted that everyone who knew her was dealing with a death that was sudden and harsh. Pastor Joseph Perry praised Darden, a member of Bay Branch A.M.E. Zion Church in Belvidere, as a “pillar” of her church and community who will be hard to replace.

However, he also said God ultimately calls people “home.”

“Special people have to leave some day; it’s not always like we intend it to be,” Perry said. “It’s never the right time or never the right place … but the truth of the matter is, special people do go home.”

Perry also noted that, even when people like Darden do pass away, they touch people’s lives in lasting ways.

Darden's supervisor, Karen Brown, also spoke during the service. She praised “Ronnie,” as friends sometimes called Darden, for changing the lives of many inmates over her career. Brown is the director of Correction Enterprises, the prison division for which Darden worked managing the sewing plant at the PCI.

“I was blessed to know Ronnie for over 10 years,” Brown said, adding that Darden's enthusiasm and potential were immediately apparent to her.

“She was so proud of the quality of the products that they made at her plant,” Brown said. “But beyond that, she really believed in the mission — that she could make a difference, and that everyone deserved a second chance.”

Brown then recounted how, on the night of the inmates’ failed escape attempt, a former inmate at PCI approached her at the hospital. The man, Charlie Little, was at the hospital out of concern for Darden and Smith, she said.

Brown said Little told her he credited two things for his reformation and return to society: his faith in God and Darden's faith in him.

“No one had ever told him to believe in himself until he met Ronnie Darden,” she said.

In brief remarks, Cooper offered his condolences for the “horrible tragedy” at PCI that took Darden’s life.

“My heart is deep with gratitude for the life of Ronnie,” the governor said.

Cooper also offered thanks for the work and sacrifices of other law enforcement officials, adding they aren't paid or recognized enough for that work.

“I think that what Veronica would want us to do is continue to fight for what is right,” Cooper said.

Though members of Darden's family declined requests for interviews, one of her friends offered brief comments prior to Saturday's service.

Joyce Miller, of Elizabeth City, said Darden sometimes visited her church, Melton Grove Missionary Baptist Church in Winfall. Miller said she knew Darden as a nice, friendly person.

Miller also called Darden’s death “sad” and “senseless,” and said she hoped the state would hire more correctional officers — and at better pay — to make prisons safer. Many officers are overworked and their turnover rate is high, she said.

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