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DA: Pastor is innocent
Las Vegas murder case falls apart
COX--Dismissal PIC 1
The Place of Refuge Pastor Rob Cox points out the initial statement that he gave to police . - photo by JASON CAMPBELL/The Bulletin

Friday wasn’t a day of celebration for Rob Cox.

Standing in the foyer of The Place of Refuge and taking cover behind a granite countertop, the Manteca pastor – who has been embattled in a fight with Las Vegas prosecutors for more than two months about his role in the death of a man outside of a Las Vegas restaurant last year – shifted nervously as he talked about the case that has turned his life upside down.

Just hours before he had learned that the prosecutor had withdrawn his indictment consideration from the grand jury, effectively clearing him of all charges. It  ended a year-long ordeal filled with demonizing police reports, character assassination attempts and the constant fear that would at some point be separated from his wife and children forever.

But at the end of it all, 55-year-old Link Ellingson was still dead. His family is still shattered from what happened on that fateful June night. The magnitude of that situation wasn’t lost on the man that was finally, after a year of waiting, able to tell the full story.

“Even after all of this I don’t want to be the one that talks about how Link (Ellingson) came at us that night,” Cox said. “I don’t want to do that to his family. They’re grieving through all of this, still, and I don’t have any hard feelings against him or his family or anybody else – regardless of some of the things that they have said about me.

“I just don’t want that coming out to his kids or being the bar that I set for my kids.”

That doesn’t mean that Cox doesn’t want to clear the air after months of not being able to say anything about what transpired that night in the parking lot of The Four Kegs – a Las Vegas restaurant made famous by an appearance on Guy Fieri’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.”

Sitting on the counter in front of him was a stack of legal paperwork that outlined every last detail associated with the case. It had the first statement that he made to police, the one which he claims was dictated to an intern who then wrote and signed it for him, and included no mention of any punch ever being thrown. It had Ellingson’s toxicology reports that showed he was intoxicated at the time that incident occurred. It had the few witness statements that Las Vegas Metropolitan Police actually collected – three out of Cox’s traveling group and several from patrons inside of the bar who heard or saw what happened after the fact – and dozens of other pages all marked up and ready for a legal trial were it to proceed that far.

Cox thumbs through the papers looking for specific, highlighted details that he says show that the case against him was flawed from the start. For instance, despite the case that was supposedly built against him, he was never brought in to the Las Vegas Police Department for questioning on the matter, and never contacted by representatives from Clark County until after the warrant for his arrest had been issued.

By then the damage had been done. He was a fugitive from justice. A rogue Christian pastor that beat a man to death in a Las Vegas parking lot.

What was he doing there at 1 a.m. anyway? Who goes out to a restaurant at midnight with a bunch of young adults and his family in tow? What did he expect to happen?

The sounds of silence

From the start Las Vegas Metro police had painted the issue out as if Cox had admitted to punching Ellingson when police arrived on scene and then recanted that statement when asked to provide it in writing.

But the narrative, he said, seemed to be taking shape before he even got the chance to tell his side of the story. With Ellingson on the ground and Cox standing there with a broken ring finger on his left hand, officers, he said, automatically assumed that he threw a punch and that’s what led to Ellingson falling back and hitting his head on the pavement.

“You punched him?” they asked. “No. I pushed him away.”

And early paperwork that was filed seemed to reflect the fact that Cox was acting in self defense. Several documents paint Ellingson out to be the aggressor that attacked the group that Cox was with and him the victim – he was punched during the melee – but that somehow changed as investigators started digging deeper into the case.

The broken ring finger, he said, wasn’t indicative of anything substantial because, for one, he’s right handed and it’s highly unlikely like somebody, especially an untrained pastor thrust into a delicate situation, would know how to throw an off-handed punch with the sort of power that could put a gigantic man like Ellingson on his back.

None of this, however, could be spoken of while the district attorney’s office and the grand jury were kicking around the idea of either pursing charges or an indictment that could have put him in jail for life. It wasn’t so much that he or his attorneys were worried about what the truth would do, but that the prosecutors would use something that he said to the press against him. He had a right to remain silent, and the potent legal team that was representing him advised that he do just that.

That came with its own challenges. It meant swirling accusations and misinformation and having to sit idly by while one side presented its evidence in the court of public opinion when he was not able to do the same himself. It ground on him. It wore him down.

“You become anxious about nothing and have to learn to practice patience,” he said. “I had to trust the system that was coming after me with everything that it had, and obviously it persevered in this case. But this is something where the evidence just doesn’t lineup and that’s a hard thing to process.

“Especially when it’s something that you can’t talk about for such a long time. I don’t hold any animosity towards anybody in this, and I’m just glad that I can speak publicly about it for the first time. People have asked me whether I’m going to sue (the district attorney’s office) and right now I’m just really focused on clearing my name.”

The surge and the storm

Cox spent a week in the San Joaquin County Jail, and by the time that his story had made the rounds – spread quickly thanks to the advent of social media and the Internet – media outlets from throughout the region, and the country, were clamoring to carry the story about the pastor being charged with murder after defending his family and his flock from an attacker.

There was a live Fox News segment. Nancy Grace carried it on her show. Newspapers from New York to Los Angeles had the story and The Associated Press had a dedicated reporter in Las Vegas that carried every aspect of the court proceedings.

The coverage was overwhelming. And learning how to deal with it on the fly was something that he said just needed to be done.

“You need to keep your mind and your emotions in check in situations like that,” he said. “You’ve got your body and your soul and your mind and your spirit and you’re trying to explain to somebody who is on the outside looking in what is actually going on and you can’t really tell them the entire story, and you can’t get emotional or swept up in any of what’s happening because that’s when you get trapped.

“I’m just a Regular Joe and it was definitely unexpected.  The bad came with the good – there was a lot of support.”

Despite its reputation as Sin City, Cox said that the Mormon community, which founded Las Vegas, came out in droves to support him when his story became public. Well-wishes and prayers from people around the country and from right here at home, helped propel him forward and give him the drive needed to continue fighting the good fight.

And along the way he picked up friends and he picked up followers. Media representatives from Las Vegas told him about how local law enforcement likes to “crack the whip” on out-of-towners that come in and break the law thinking that it doesn’t apply to them. Some of that, he said, might have come into play when officers first responded to a large group of California people and a battery allegation that put one man in the hospital.

His church, and the greater Manteca community, rallied behind him. It took three trips to Las Vegas and the financial support of both his family and his fellowship, but the only days that Cox actually had to spend behind bars were while his attorneys were arguing against extradition to Nevada.

“If it wasn’t for all of that support, without a doubt, I would be in jail in Las Vegas, right now,” he said. “There’s no way that I could have done that on my own. They (the state) have all of the resources in the world and you’re completely outgunned. All that we had on our side was the truth, and that was enough this time to make it work.”

Adoption put on hold

Just two weeks before Cox was arrested he and his wife Julie, who has worked adamantly to maintain social media accounts and keep on top of web comments that have swept across the Internet since the case became public, learned that they had been approved to adopt two more children into their family.

The possibility of a murder conviction derailed those plans, and even though the agency felt comfortable enough knowing that Cox was innocent of the charges being levied against him, the weight of the situation was too much for the couple to handle at the time.

Now he wants to get back to that.

“That’s what it’s about me – faith and family and living my life to honor God,” he said. “I truly do feel sad for the Ellingson family and everything that they’re going through right now. But this wasn’t my choice.

“I didn’t go out and look for this. I was legitimately afraid for the safety of my children and my students and myself and I did what I thought I had to do in order to protect them. He just made a poor choice that night. We tried to save the guy – we were the ones that called for the ambulance. It’s just a crazy situation.”