Murder Suspect Will Go on Trial for Fifth Time : Guilt, Innocence to Be Contested in a Complicated Case

Times Staff Writer

Tony Cooks was visiting his old neighborhood in Paramount last week when Doug Henderson walked up and gave him a hug.

"I didn't know what to do," said Cooks, who for six of his 24 years has fought a murder charge in what he says is a case of mistaken identity. Cooks has been tried four times on the murder charge and next week is scheduled to be tried for a fifth time.

"When Doug hugged me I thought, 'This is crazy. What is he doing?' " Cooks said.

In open court Cooks has said he believes Henderson is the real killer. His original defense lawyer has also said, both in and out of court, that he suspected Henderson, not Cooks, committed the murder. The detective who investigated the murder said Henderson was his only suspect until Cooks was arrested.

Bizarre Episodes

Henderson denies committing the crime.

Getting an unwanted hug from the man he believes ruined his life is but the latest in a series of bizarre episodes that have turned Cooks' life into a Kafkaesque nightmare.

The continuing story of Tony Cooks, first reported in The Times on Nov. 27, 1983, begins with a particularly repugnant murder on a Paramount sidewalk and a game of backgammon in a tract house one block away.

In one extraordinary episode, Superior Court Judge Roosevelt F. Dorn in 1983 sentenced Cooks to 15 years to life in prison after twice articulating from the bench some of the many facts that he indicated convinced him of Cooks' innocence. (However, the judge, who let Cooks remain free on appeal bond, said he was forced by a court rule to pass sentence after a jury voted to convict the defendant.)

"When I tell people the judge said he thinks I'm innocent and if I'd gotten a fair trial the jury would have acquitted me and then he sentenced me to life in prison they don't believe me," Cooks said.

What Cooks said he hopes will be the last episode in his tangled case is scheduled to begin Tuesday in Superior Court in Compton, when he will be tried for the fifth time for murder.

Cooks has a new lawyer for this trial, John Yzurdiaga of Gardena. And Yzurdiaga is armed with some fresh evidence that Brad Batson, an associate of Los Angeles criminal defense lawyer Barry Tarlow, dug up.

Yzurdiaga said "this case scares me" because most of his clients are guilty.

Took on Appeal Free

"Do you have any idea how scary it is to represent someone who may be innocent? The burden that puts on you as a lawyer? The more I look into this case the more it looks like Tony's innocent," Yzurdiaga said.

Tarlow took on Cooks' appeal free after reading about the case in The Times. Tarlow and Batson said they devoted 1,000 hours to Cooks' defense. They won a unanimous state appellate court decision in 1985 overturning Cooks' conviction at the fourth trial. The appeals court agreed with Judge Dorn that he had erred in permitting inadmissible evidence.

Cooks said he thought that was the end of it. His mood turned upbeat after what he said had been months of contemplating suicide as the only way to end his misery and let his parents, brothers and sisters get on with their lives. The family lost its house fighting the murder case.

But the following day the Los Angeles County District Attorney's office announced Cooks would be tried for the fifth time.

"We are convinced more than ever after our second investigation that we have the right guy," Jeffrey C. Jonas, a supervising prosecutor, said in announcing plans to try Cooks for the fifth time. He did not say what new evidence the district attorney has uncovered.

Responded Tarlow: "Some prosecutors think it is more of a challenge to convict innocent people," and he added that it is "unfortunate that the prosecutor's office cannot admit making a mistake."

Thomas A. Gray, the assistant district attorney prosecuting the case, has said that "the evidence against Cooks is overwhelming" with two eyewitnesses and the testimony of a youth who admitted participating in the murder.

The evidence Batson turned up adds to a list of items that none of the four juries ever heard about.

Sheriff's Homicide Detective Vernon J. Clover, who has since retired on a psychological stress pension, said Henderson was his original suspect in the case. Clover told the prosecutor and The Times that he dropped Henderson as a suspect when a telephone call indicated that Henderson was at work in Orange County at the time of the murder.

Stopped for Questioning

But when attorney Batson interviewed Clover, according to papers filed in Cooks' appeal, the retired detective said that Henderson was near the murder scene minutes after the crime was reported.

Uniformed sheriff's deputies stopped Henderson for questioning a few blocks from the murder minutes after it occurred, Batson said Clover told him. (Teams of deputies evidently stopped every black youth they could find within a mile or so of the murder that night.)

Batson, in court papers, said Clover told him that the uniformed deputies even filled out a field identification card on Henderson. Batson said he has been unable to learn what happened to the card.

(Clover has since moved out of state and could not be located for further comment.)

The murder victim was John Franklin Gould, a former minor league baseball player who at 42 was so bent over with arthritis that he looked like an old man.

Witnessed Crime

The crime took place one freshly dark evening in January, 1980, as Gould and his wife returned to their Paramount apartment from a nearby bar.

Barbara Gould said she let her husband out on the sidewalk, then drove to the other side of Orange Avenue, collecting her purse and a six-pack of beer and locking up their old Chevrolet.

Suddenly she saw three black youths attack her husband, a white man.

(Detective Clover testified his investigation showed that the three youths wanted to kill the first white person they could find.)

Pleaded to Assailants

Barbara Gould said she ran up to plead that they stop, screaming in terror as the assailants beat, stabbed and shot her husband, who curled into a ball. Vivid nightmares conceived in those awful moments still torture her nights, she said.

Others witnessed, or said they witnessed, the crime. But not all of them would later appear in court to tell their conflicting stories.

The killers laughed as they ran off into the dark, according to Helen Foster, a white woman who later became the prosecution's key eyewitness.

Foster said she saw the attack from her doorstep. Her view of the attack, 177 feet away in the dark, was obscured by a chain-link fence and her accounts of the attack differed during the four trials. Her testimony also conflicted with that of the widow.

Another witness, a teen-ager named Gloria Fitzgerald, testified for the prosecution at the first trial and for the defense at the last three. The prosecutor told the jury at the fourth trial that Fitzgerald's testimony was "worthless."

Two other witnesses, sisters Pamela and Cathy Canales, told The Times that they saw the attack from the front window of their second-floor apartment, just a few feet above the crime scene. They said that the killers ran south, not north as Foster testified.

The Canales sisters never testified at Cooks' court trials because they were never called as witnesses.

Not Mentioned

Detective Clover told The Times he spoke with both sisters. But their names and their version of the attack are not mentioned in his reports, which are exceptionally brief for a murder case.

Clover told The Times that Cathy Canales was not included in his reports because she did not give him any useful information.

Both Clover and Pamela Canales told The Times that she spoke with Clover when he appeared at her apartment, politely, but firmly announcing that Cooks was guilty. Both Pamela Canales and Clover said the detective asked her if Cooks had offered her money to testify and that he told her that taking money in return for testimony is a serious felony.

Pamela Canales said Cooks never offered her money; Cooks says no money was offered the Canales sister, but at his lawyers' behest he did tack reward notices on telephone poles in the neighborhood seeking witnesses.

Both Canales sisters told The Times that they could not imagine the well-mannered Cooks committing such a crime. More than a dozen other residents of the neighborhood--white, black and Asian--also said they could not imagine Cooks being involved, but did name other youths whom they believe were easily capable of such violence.

Another witness the night of the murder was Tony Cooks.

Cooks, then just 18, testified that he was at the home of Dorothy McWilliams, a county probation officer. He said he was trying to learn to play backgammon. He said he was with Mrs. McWilliams, her daughter Rose and son Ronnie and a neighbor boy named Richard Baker.

When a sheriff's helicopter appeared in the sky and red lights began flashing on Orange Avenue, several hundred feet away across a school yard, all five say they got up briefly to look at the lights, then went back to their game and watching television.

Feared for Son

But when Cooks was arrested, Mrs. McWilliams did not attempt to tell the Sheriff's Department that they had the wrong man. Only when she was called as a witness at the first trial nine months later did her story come out. She said her reluctance was principally because her son and Cooks were on probation from juvenile court and a condition of probation was that they not associate.

Mrs. McWilliams told The Times she feared her son would be sent to Juvenile Hall for 90 days on what she regarded as a minor fight in which her son, Cooks and two other boys tried to recover some stolen property. She also said she was concerned that she would be disciplined as a probation officer for allowing her son to violate terms of his probation.

In addition, Mrs. McWilliams said that the night she moved into her home about 14 years ago Sheriff's patrol deputies held her family at gunpoint, accusing them of being burglars. The McWilliams were among the first blacks to move into the area and she said that after she complained about the deputies' conduct her children were constantly stopped and questioned, causing her to distrust the Sheriff's Department.

Prosecutor Gray, in a previous interview, said that if Mrs. McWilliams is telling the truth about Cooks being in her home when the murder occurred, then her failure to immediately contact the Sheriff's Department allowed the real killer to go free.

Eyewitness Identification

Cooks was arrested and charged with Gould's murder seven weeks later as he and two neighbor youths strolled up Orange Avenue, past the murder scene, just as he said he did several times each day for months. The arrest was made on the basis of an eyewitness identification by Helen Foster, a school crossing guard who testified that she saw the crime.

The first jury that heard the case deadlocked, the 10 white jurors voting for conviction, the two black jurors voting acquittal. The second trial ended in a mistrial when a juror visited the crime scene. The third jury deadlocked, nine whites for conviction and three Latinos for acquittal. The fourth trial jury, nine whites and three blacks, convicted Cooks.

Judge Dorn, who presided at the fourth trial, said from the bench that Cooks did not get a fair trial because in a fair trial "any jury" would have voted acquittal.

The judge criticized the defense lawyer, the prosecutor, the detective and crossing guard Foster, the prosecution's main eyewitness.

He said in court that the defense lawyer, Gus T. Poole of Gardena, was "totally incompetent" and accused Poole of having a "serious conflict of interest" because he represented Henderson in an unrelated criminal case.

Poole vigorously asserts that "I did an excellent job" and that "I did the very best I possibly could." He has said there was no conflict of interest in representing Henderson because Clover had excluded Henderson as a suspect. Poole is suing The Times, claiming he was libeled in reports of the case.

At Cooks' sentencing, Judge Dorn charged that Gray, the prosecutor, was "not interested in justice; you are only interested in a situation where you put this young man (Cooks) in the state penitentiary."

'Worst Job of Investigation'

Gray denied the charge and insisted that despite what he said are "serious flaws" in the case he believed Cooks is guilty. He recently reiterated that position.

In an earlier proceeding, Dorn said from the bench that Detective Clover conducted "the worst job of investigation I have ever seen. This detective in this case, I am astonished at his conduct."

Gray defended Clover's investigation in court, but in a series of interviews Gray characterized Clover's investigation as "slipshod." Gray emphasized that many police investigations are seriously flawed, even in murder cases.

The judge, at the time he tried to throw out the conviction, noted that crossing guard Foster's testimony was riddled with inconsistencies, such as describing the length of one suspect's hair even though he wore a knit cap. He also expressed doubt about Foster's claim that she had not known Cooks, who walked past her house daily.

Dorn also challenged the testimony of a 14-year-old boy who twice said, and then later denied, that he took part in the killing and named Cooks as the leader of the attack.

The boy is Doug Henderson's half brother. In a tape-recorded 1983 interview with The Times, the boy, who has a history of mental problems, said that if a relative committed a murder he would never tell the authorities and he would feel justified concocting a story to convict an innocent person "so long as my brother didn't go to jail." He added that he was not implicating his half brother in the Gould murder.

Imposed Sentence

Dorn threw out the conviction on a technicality, only to have an appeals court reinstate it. When the case came back to him, Dorn said he was required by law to impose sentence and so despite his belief that Cooks was innocent, Dorn sentenced him to 15 years to life in prison.

Then Dorn told Cooks he could remain free on bail pending appeal, assuring him that his case was finally going to get a full airing in the courts.

It took Cooks months to find a job after that. Every time he acknowledge he was under a sentence for murder prospective employers showed him the door, he said.

Robert Kleppe of American Trailer and Manufacturing Co. in Downey didn't ask Cooks if he had a record. Kleppe said he didn't know about the case when he hired Cooks as a steel cutter for the firm, which manufacturers commercial and industrial trailers.

"He's a model worker and he's been promoted twice in pay and position, first to the finishing detail and now he's our paint man," Kleppe said.

But when Cooks gets home at night he said the murder case weighs on his mind. He hurts for his parents, he said, who moved into a crime-ridden area of Compton after losing their house and couldn't get to a better area of Compton until recently.

Cooks said that when he starts thinking about killing himself to get the case over he turns to drinking to quell the pain inside. "When I wake up I'm sick and I hate myself," he said.

'It Is Such a Tragedy'

"I just wish this was all over with. What I don't understand is how come Mr. Gray (the prosecutor) won't look into my case, how come the district attorneys and the sheriff's don't care about how they are ruining my life for something I didn't do . . . they could see I didn't do if they would just take the time to look," Cooks said.

"It is such a tragedy that they won't believe me because of what it's done to me and my family and to Mrs. Gould, although I find it hard to feel sorry for her even though I should because she lost her husband and what she's been through.

"It's just wrecked my family, torn them apart. And you know what my lawyer, Mr. Yzurdiaga, told me? He said that Mr. Gray offered to let me plead guilty to manslaughter.

"If Mr. Gray is so convinced I'm guilty that he'd put me through five trials, how could he do that?" Cooks asked.

Gray said he would present his case at trial. "It's basically the same case as before," he said.

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