Motive is probed in death of 4 in family; Wife made calls alleging abuse

Date: 1994-09-27

Star Tribune: Newspaper of the Twin Cities
Author: James Walsh; Staff Writer
Dateline: Racine, Minn.

On Saturday, Lois Cooke called the Mower County Sheriff's Department after her daughters, Holly and Nicole, told her that their adoptive father had sexually abused them.

By Sunday morning, Lois, 48, Holly, 15, and Nicole, 14, were dead - shot by James Cooke, 63, who then turned the gun on himself minutes before deputies arrived at the family's home. Mower County Sheriff Wayne Goodnature said deputies could smell gunpowder in the air when they found James Cooke dying from four self-inflicted gunshot wounds. He was pronounced dead on arrival at St. Marys Hospital in Rochester on Sunday night.

Goodnature said Cooke, who laid out his daughters' funeral clothes and wrote a detailed note admitting to the killings but not mentioning sexual abuse, may have found out about his wife's allegations of abuse by tapping their telephone. Lois Cooke called the Sheriff's Department from a friend's home. Later that day, she called Cooke's son in California from her home, and told him of the alleged abuse. Goodnature said wires tapping into the family telephone line were found in the basement ceiling.

Goodnature said James Cooke, a retired Los Angeles city employee and occasional farmhand, made two calls to his son, Al, in California after Lois Cooke spoke with police.

During the first conversation with Al, on Saturday, James Cooke denied abusing his daughters. During the second call, on Sunday night, Cooke told his son that he had killed Lois and the girls and that he was going to kill himself.

James Cooke then told his son to call a neighbor in Racine "and call 911," Goodnature said.

Kenny Erickson, who lives next to the Cookes' well-kept yellow rambler, received that call.

"He said, `My dad told me that he killed Lois and the girls and that he's going to take his own life. He gave me your phone number and said you were to call police.' " Erickson said. "I wasn't sure if it was a hoax. I guess I was hoping it was. I thought maybe I was going to get in trouble for calling the police out here. . . . But I called."

What police found was perhaps the most grisly scene in the history of Racine, a farming community of 280 people, 20 miles south of Rochester.

Holly and Nicole were found dead in their beds - each with a gunshot wound in the middle of the forehead. Goodnature said they were shot with James Cooke's .22-caliber handgun.

Lois Cooke was found in bed with her husband. The condition of her body indicated that she was shot outside the house and then dragged into the bed sometime later. The sheriff said police believe she was killed in one of two storage buildings on the large lot behind the house.

In his letter, about eight pages long, Cooke wrote about the "overwhelming smell of death" in his house, and his need to join his family, Goodnature said.

James Cooke had shot himself twice in his chest and twice under his jaw.

The eruption of violence came with very little warning and left friends and neighbors stunned and saddened.

Erickson, who has a young son and a baby daughter, said Holly often watched his children. The 10th-grader was a member of the Stewartville High School girls tennis team. Nicole, a ninth-grader, was a cheerleader. Both were on the "A" honor roll.

A crisis intervention team of counselors, teachers and psychologists was meeting with students and visiting the girls' classes, Stewartville Superintendent Russell Hoeffner said. "There were tears . . . and there were hugs," he said.

A prayer service was held for the family in Racine on Monday night and another was scheduled for Stewartville. In addition, the school library remained open late as a place for people to gather and talk about what happened.

"They were great girls," Erickson said. "Holly would always be reading to the kids when we came home, and the plates would be washed. . . . She never said a word about this to us. I wish she would have. But I might not have believed her anyway, knowing her dad."

Lois Cooke worked in the housekeeping department at St. Marys Hospital in Rochester.

James Cooke was retired, but couldn't stay idle, Erickson said. He worked for a local dairy farmer and restored old automobiles. He visited area auctions and bought old junkers. He tended bar in the area. Erickson said he and Cooke talked, usually neighborly chit-chat about gardening and hobbies.

According to Los Angeles city personnel records, Cooke worked for the Bureau of Public Works from 1963 until 1981, when he retired. He started out driving a street sweeper in 1965, then was promoted to supervisor in charge of about a dozen drivers. The records list his birthplace as Ridge Farm, Ill.

The Cookes loved to work in the yard, neighbors said. Lois would tend to the yellow, maroon and pink mums that brighten the area around their home; James took care of the lawn, which was covered with fresh grass clippings Monday.

"I trusted the guy," Erickson said.

But it all came crashing down Saturday.

Goodnature said some sort of family "falling out" led to Lois Cooke's call to his office. She said the girls' father had molested them, but she didn't give details; there were other people in the room, she said. For more than an hour, a detective who handles abuse cases tried to persuade Lois Cooke to file an order for protection or take the girls and move to a shelter in Rochester or a motel in Austin, Goodnature said.

But she refused.

"She said if he found out, she feared for what would happen," Goodnature said.

He said Lois and the girls decided to return home and "not say anything to Dad." They would come to Austin on Monday to be interviewed by detectives and social service officials.

"They would have been here right now," he said late Monday afternoon. Autopsies are to be performed on Lois and the girls at the Ramsey County medical examiner's office today, Goodnature said.

A source close to the family said Lois and James Cooke were married in 1986. They had lived in the house in Racine since 1987. They met when James Cooke bought a place next to Lois and her husband at the time, Tom O'Connor. O'Connor, who now lives in Rochester, was married to Lois when they adopted Holly and Nicole. The girls were born in Korea; the O'Connors adopted them because Lois could not have children, Tom O'Connor said. "I gave them their first names," he said Monday. "Lois gave them their middle names."

They named the oldest girl Holly, O'Connor said, because she was born Dec. 19. The girls became U.S. citizens in May 1982.

Cooke, who was married to another woman at the time, worked as a farmhand in the Preston, Minn., area. It wasn't long before he was helping out at the O'Connors' dairy farm, O'Connor said. And it wasn't long before his wife and James Cooke were romantically involved, O'Connor said.

Lois and Tom were divorced in 1983. In 1989, O'Connor gave up parental rights after Lois accused him of abusing the girls. Fillmore County Court records show that she also sought a court order restricting O'Connor's visiting privileges with his daughters because of fears of "physical and emotional abuse."

O'Connor said he never abused his girls, but he agreed to walk out of their lives so they wouldn't have to go through a long court battle. He last spoke to his daughters five years ago, he said. But he still kept track of their honor roll announcements in the local newspaper, and he kept the photographs and drawings that mark their years together. On one drawing, a yellow circle with stars and hearts, the girls scribbled, "I love you Daddy."

O'Connor said he will be at their funeral. "I heard about their death this morning on the radio," he said Monday. "It's hard . . . you know?"

Goodnature said police have heard about Lois Cooke's allegations of abuse against her former husband. They have not yet investigated any connection between the two situations, he said. But he has no reason to doubt the truthfulness behind Lois Cooke's allegations against James Cooke, he said.

Things just don't blow up like that without reason, Goodnature said. "In very violent cases like this, the male primarily sees his family as his ultimate possession - especially the wife," he said. "They are so possessive and protective, they don't feel their family can survive without them. And . . . he probably didn't want the family to talk about the abuse.

"In my heart of hearts, I believe there was abuse," he said.

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