Man who admitted to string of killings could be released
Nathaniel Cook confessed to three murders in all with his older brother
By John Seewer
TOLEDO, Ohio — One of two brothers who admitted stalking, raping and killing young women during a string of eight murders in the 1980s is close to walking out of prison.
Nathaniel Cook confessed to three murders in all with his older brother, the ringleader who's serving two life sentences, but he has a good chance of being freed after serving 20 years.
The victims' families and prosecutors agreed to a plea deal nearly two decades ago that called for Nathaniel Cook's eventual release this year in exchange for the brothers' confessions. It's now in a judge's hands to decide whether to uphold the agreement.
For the families, the confessions gave them answers they long sought, but now they're hoping there's some way to block his release.
"It's hard to think about it," said Mitch Balonek, whose 21-year-old sister Stacey was among the last victims killed by Anthony Cook in 1981. "I can't imagine anyone else, anywhere else getting out after being involved in those types of crimes."
His family didn't know who killed his sister and her boyfriend until Anthony Cook admitted to police that he had abducted the couple, raped Stacey and beat them to death with a baseball bat.
Nathaniel Cook, now 59, wasn't involved in either of those deaths, according to the brothers.
His role in the murders began in 1980 when he shot their first victim and then took part in the next two killings, the pair told detectives.
But for unexplained reasons Nathaniel Cook said he never killed again while his brother Anthony went on to kill five more people before he was arrested in just one of the killings in 1981 and sentenced to life in prison.
Nathaniel Cook later said the two never discussed the other killings and he tried to forget what they had done.
"He had to know that was his brother's work when he heard about those other murders and didn't say anything or do anything," Balonek said. "He doesn't deserve to be out."
It will be up to a Lucas County judge to decide whether to grant Nathaniel Cook's release. A hearing was set for Thursday to begin determining whether he should be registered as a sex offender and forced to disclose his address if he gets out.
The question before the judge is whether there's any other choice. Rejecting his release would likely lead to a court fight because of the signed agreement in 2000.
County Prosecutor Julia Bates said she can't go back on the deal because "if my word isn't my word then nobody is ever going to trust the prosecutor in the future ever again."
"But I didn't say I would agree to it, support it or recommend it. I said I wouldn't oppose it," she said.
Still, she doesn't regret the decision, especially when she thinks about how the relatives held hands and clapped when the brothers were sentenced. It felt then Nathaniel Cook's chance for release was far away.
"That 20 years is gone like a flash, at least it does seem that way to me," Bates said.
About a month ago she gathered the families of Nathaniel Cook's victims so they wouldn't be blindsided by the possibility of his release. A therapy dog was in the room.
"It was pretty awful," Bates said. "These people are still are in a lot of pain."
Sharon Backes-Wright, the mother of the youngest victim, said there's no reason why her 12-year-old daughter's killer should be released.
"They used Dawn as a plea bargaining chip," she said. "I'm sure Dawn pleaded for her life and now they expect the same considerations."
Investigators long had suspected the Cook brothers were involved in the series of killings, but lacked evidence. In 1998, they finally tied them to one of the shooting deaths and rapes using blood samples and DNA evidence.
The brothers were about to stand trial but they offered to confess to the series of murders in exchange for a chance of parole for Nathaniel Cook. They told of how they preyed on women walking alone and young couples in parked cars, raping the women before killing them.
It wasn't an easy choice for the families or prosecutors to accept the deal, but those involved said the case against the brothers in the decades-old killing wasn't a sure thing. And the death penalty or even a life sentence without parole weren't on the table because Ohio didn't have those options when the killings occurred.
Anthony Cook's confession to all eight killings in the early 1980s included admitting to the death of a ninth person, a woman he raped and shot in the 1970s. Nathaniel Cook admitted to three killings, but only pleaded guilty to kidnapping and attempted murder and was sentenced to serve another 18 years.
Despite the confessions, investigators kept trying to connect the brothers to other unsolved slayings. Both had worked as truck drivers and detectives suspected there were more victims somewhere.
They also figured if they could convict Nathaniel Cook in another case, he'd never be paroled.
Detectives worked with the FBI on a half-dozen solid possibilities, said Frank Stiles, a retired investigator who spent decades pursuing the brothers.
"We always thought within 20 years we could come up with something," Stiles said. "But it didn't happen, and now those 20 years are up."
- Early Release