When Nicole Lea Cox got married, she wore jeans and a black T-shirt splattered with pancake batter.
The 16-year-old girl had little time to prepare.
She learned she would marry her 33-year-old fiance - a man once accused of raping her - just minutes before the Shoshone County Courthouse ceremony.
Cox’s dad wasn’t there to give her away - he was in prison. Cox’s stepmother wasn’t there to add tears of joy - she was in prison. And in August, Cox’s new husband also will be behind bars.
Still, “I was very, very happy,” the teenager said.
“She had tears coming out of her eyes,” said William Lee Garwood, Cox’s husband and her former legal guardian.
Cox and Gardwood’s unusual marriage has raised eyebrows, incurred wrath and left those in the Shoshone County justice system throwing up their hands in resignation.
The couple is ridiculed by some in their small community of 1,600.
“I stopped in at the store and people actually backed away from me “I don’t look at her as being 16, I look at her as being a grown woman my age because of how mature she is.”
because they recognized me and thought I was a child molester,” Garwood said.
Others have shouted insults at the couple while driving by.
“I feel like (Nicole) has a rough road ahead of her,” said Sgt. Diane Bowcutt, the Osburn Police officer who removed Cox and her three younger siblings from Garwood’s care three months ago.
Bowcutt found Cox, her 7- and 8-year-old brothers and 5-year-old sister living in a house littered with pornographic videos, dog feces and other filth.
But Garwood said he merely was trying to help the children whose parents were headed to prison when he took over caring for them.
Despite all the furor, the couple said they’re enjoying married life.
“He treats me like I’m a regular person with feelings,” the blond teenager said. “He doesn’t haul off and hit me. It’s totally different than what I’m used to.”
Nicole Cox’s real mother died when she was 1 years old.
Taking a drag off a cigarette, she spoke almost casually about being sexually and physically abused, about growing up in and out of foster homes. She said she practically raised her younger brothers and sister.
Garwood got to know the Cox family - Nicole, her father John and her stepmother Teena - last July through his former girlfriend. He sometimes stayed at the family’s home and even borrowed $3,000.
But in January, Cox’s stepmother was sent to federal prison, followed by her father in February. The couple is doing time on witness tampering and weapons charges, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
Garwood and Nicole’s brother Michael, 19, were appointed guardians of the teenager and the children. The six of them lived together in the Osburn home Michael Cox bought with an inheritance from his mother.
Garwood, a thin man with dark hair and mustache, said he thought taking care of the four kids would help repay his debt to the parents.
But in April, police and the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare received a report of child abuse at the house. The couple still doesn’t know who turned them in.
Based on the tip, Sgt. Bowcutt inspected the green split-level home on Larch Street. “It was filthy,” she said. “The stench was bad - real bad.”
Bowcutt found dog feces scattered throughout the house and ground into the carpet. A female dog in heat had bled on the floor and one of the children’s blankets, according to court records.
Amid the filth, she also discovered pornographic movies. “They were in easy access to any of the children,” she told a judge.
“I’ve seen a lot of (dirty) houses,” Bowcutt said. “This one pretty much tops the cake.”
Bowcutt also found girl’s underwear and a negligee in Garwood’s bedroom. One of the younger boys told Bowcutt he saw his big sister sleeping in Garwood’s bed.
Nicole Cox and the three other children were taken from Garwood and put in the care of Bowcutt, a longtime foster parent.
For those living conditions, Garwood was charged with three counts of injury to a child.
The Shoshone County prosecutor also filed a rape charge against Garwood after Nicole Cox admitted having sex with him, said sheriff’s Lt. Spike Angle.
Cox said she was badgered by officers and lawyers into telling the police she had sex with Garwood. And Garwood says having women’s clothes in his bedroom does not mean he was having sex with the 16-year-old.
He said the house was dirty because they were in the midst of shuffling the children into different rooms and had been in Coeur d’Alene to take care of business.
“I was the scapegoat,” he insisted, pointing out the house is not his, yet he was held responsible for it.
Nicole Cox said the pornographic videos were left by her parents, who once owned a video store.
Still, Garwood agreed to plead guilty to the three misdemeanor injury-to-a-child charges in exchange for the rape charge being dropped.
Deputy Prosecutor Val Siegel said he had to drop the rape charge after Nicole Cox made it clear she wouldn’t testify.
On the other charges, Garwood was sentenced to 90 days in jail - with all but 30 days suspended.
Police and child protection officials hoped to keep Garwood and Cox apart. But the two kept “running into each other” in the small town.
“I told them, ‘Look, I love him and I’m going to marry him whether you want it or not,”’ Nicole Cox said.
“Everybody says this is immoral. What’s so immoral about it?” Garwood asked. “Twenty years ago, there were people getting married at 12 years old.”
After spending several months hanging out together, talking and going swimming, the two began dating just before Christmas, Garwood said.
The couple said they received permission from the teen’s father to marry. Idaho law requires parental permission before a teenager under 18 can marry.
They planned to be wed in February but needed her father to sign a state consent form. With him in prison, it took until late May.
Two weeks ago, Bowcutt finally gave up and decided she no longer could keep the teen in her home with all the turmoil.
With the father’s permission to get married and the girl making it clear she wanted to be with Garwood, Siegle said forcing Cox to stay in a foster home seemed pointless.
“I did the only thing I felt I could do,” he said.
On June 23, Health and Welfare workers picked up Nicole Cox at Bowcutt’s foster home where she had been making pancakes for the younger children.
She thought she was in for another bout of interviews with lawyers as they whisked her to the courthouse. Instead, Garwood was waiting for her.
The wedding lasted about three minutes, said William Schillereff, the Orthodox priest who married the couple in a civil ceremony.
Although Schillereff said he doesn’t think such a relationship is appropriate, he figures that by marrying the two at least they no longer will be sinning.
“The easy thing to do would be to say no,” he said. “But I don’t think that would be good pastoral care.”
Although nearly everyone from police and the prosecutor to townspeople believe the marriage is wrong, Nicole Cox said it is the best thing that ever happened to her.
She said teenage boys never have interested her - Garwood did.
“I have never gone after a guy younger than 20,” she said from her brother’s home that has been tidied up. “They’re more wrapped up in music, drugs and joyriding. I think that’s stupid.”
As for Garwood’s feelings, “I don’t look at her as being 16, I look at her as being a grown woman my age because of how mature she is,” he said, flashing his wife a smile.
That’s not the way some people in Osburn view the relationship.
Garwood said he has lost friends and angered his father, whose pizza business was hurt by the whole affair.
The couple said people stare when they go out together. “You get this dropped-jaw look,” Nicole Cox said.
Other’s have driven by yelling, “You’re the child molester” at Garwood.
The two said they are surprised by the negative reactions. And Garwood, now unemployed, said finding work in the area is impossible.
“I can’t even get a job from some of the best friends I’ve had,” Garwood said. “They’re afraid it’s going to hurt their business.
“They’ve literally destroyed my life here.”
After Garwood serves his jail sentence in August, they plan to move to Montana.
“I’ve got a reputation around here for being the baby molester,” he said. “We’ll never be treated fair in this valley like other married couples.”
The two hope to have a second, bigger wedding in a year or two when Cox’s father is scheduled to get out of prison.
Her younger siblings will remain in foster care with Bowcutt until their mother gets out of prison in less than a year.
Still, Bowcutt is concerned about the teen. She fears the girl won’t get the help she needs.
“You do care about them and you want something to change for the better,” she said. “But I don’t know if this is for the better.”
Lisa Benson/Washington Post Writers Group
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