MANASSAS, Va. (AP) - For years, Joseph Velez endured the grief of his mother's 2008 death and the frustration that, in his mind, it had been wrongly ruled a suicide. Then earlier this year, he was hit with another indignity: learning that his estranged brother had stored their mother's cremated remains in a rented storage locker.
Now, authorities are investigating whether their mother was slain, and Velez is working to give her a proper burial.
Velez filed a lawsuit against his brother - who is jailed on charges of drowning his 15-month-old son - to seek possession of their mother's ashes.
The lawsuit in Prince William County is the latest twist in the case against Joaquin Rams, 41, who is charged with capital murder in the death of his son, Prince Rams. Prosecutors say they'll seek the death penalty against Rams.
In addition to Prince's death, police are investigating the 2003 shooting death of Rams' ex-girlfriend, Shawn Mason, and the 2007 death of Rams' mother, Alma Collins. The deaths attracted renewed interest after Prince died in October while on a court-ordered unsupervised visit with Joaquin Rams.
Members of Collins' family have long suspected foul play in her death.
Velez - who's her oldest son and Rams' half-brother - filed a civil suit last month against Rams to take possession of Collins' ashes and other personal possessions.
The West Palm Beach, Fla., resident filed the suit while he was in Manassas testifying before a special grand jury investigating his mother's death, which was ruled a suicide, after she was found lying on a plastic bag in her home. He declined to discuss his grand jury testimony, but said he is committed to seeking justice in his mother's death.
His immediate focus is on recovering his mother's ashes. Police found them when executing a search warrant in a rented storage locker, Velez said. He believes the remains are in police storage, though police won't confirm that.
He wants have a ceremony in Florida where her ashes can be scattered to the ocean.
Court records show Manassas police executed a search warrant in May on a storage locker that Joaquin Rams leased. The paperwork shows that police found insurance documents and videotapes that they believe may be relevant to the investigation of Mason's death and the broader investigation. The paperwork makes no mention of Collins' ashes, but some search warrants may remain under seal.
Lowell Nevill, a spokesman for Manassas Police, declined to comment on the searches.
Rams, who is in custody awaiting trial, has no attorney listed on the civil suit over the mother's remains. The lawyer who had been representing him on the criminal charges, Timothy Olmstead, did not return calls seeking comment.
Velez expressed frustration with aspects of the Prince William County Police Department's investigation of Collins' death. Even though it is the subject of a grand jury investigation, county police still refer to her death as a suicide.
A supposed suicide note Collins wrote has never been given to the family, Velez said, despite repeated requests. Only this year was Velez given a summary of the note's contents. Velez said he was told that the message was written on sticky notes, and contained only a vague reference to the fact that, "I'm leaving." Velez said it is much more likely the note reflected Collins' desire to get away from her son, Rams, after years of defending his behavior and looking out for Rams' young son, Joaquin Rams Jr.
"Days before she died, she called me and said her life was in danger, and she was desperate to get out," Velez said.
Collins' sister, Elva Caraballo of Tarpon Springs, Fla., also said she tried for years to see the suicide note, and was told by police that she would have to go to court to get access. More broadly, she said police were uninterested in hearing from her after her sister's death. Caraballo was convinced from the beginning that her sister did not commit suicide. She was allowed to see a portion of the purported suicide note recently and said it wasn't her sister's handwriting.
Prince William County Police spokesman Jonathan Perok said he does not know why the note was not provided to Collins' family.
The concern of Velez and Caraballo that their suspicions about Collins' death weren't taken seriously is echoed in the story of Prince Rams, whose mother, Hera McLeod, fought to deny Joaquin Rams unsupervised visitation.
McLeod argued to a civil judge that her son would be in danger if he were left alone with Rams, and presented evidence that Rams ran a pornography business and was a suspect in Mason's death. But the judge granted unsupervised visits. Prince Rams died on his fourth unsupervised with his father. Rams told authorities he only gave his son a cold bath to try to break a fever-induced seizure. A medical examiner ruled Prince's death a drowning. Prosecutors said Joaquin Rams had taken out more than $500,000 in life insurance on the boy.