A crowd of about 250 at the Hub in Stettler’s Recreation Centre Jan. 29 come to listen to retired Judge David MacNaughton speak. He was the defence lawyer in 1959-60 for Robert Raymond Cook, the last man hanged in Alberta. Lisa Joy/Stettler Independent

60 years later Cook family massacre still haunts Stettler

‘I couldn’t have found (Robert Cook) guilty if I was the judge,’ says retired Judge David MacNaughton

Editor’s note: This story is based on the comments of retired Judge David MacNaughton and Stettler Town Coun. Malcolm Fischer. The two – who have opposing views of Robert Raymond Cook’s guilt – gave a presentation in Stettler on Jan. 29 to a crowd of about 250. All the seats were filled in the Hub at the Stettler Rec Centre and people stood along the walls to hear Judge MacNaughton and Coun. Fischer speak. Judge MacNaughton was one of the lawyers who represented Cook in 1959-60.

Was Robert Raymond Cook – the last man hanged in Alberta – guilty of a 1959 mass murder in Stettler?

Or was he innocent?

Cook, 23, was found guilty of killing his father on June 25, 1959, and sentenced to death by hanging. He was considered guilty but wasn’t charged with the murder of his stepmother and the savage killings of his five half-siblings who were bludgeoned beyond recognition from using the end of a rifle.

“I couldn’t have found him guilty if I was the judge,” said retired Judge David MacNaughton to a crowd of more than 250 packed in the Hub at Stettler’s Recreation Centre Jan. 29.

Retired Judge David McNaughton speaks to a crowd of about 250 at the Hub in Stettler’s Recreation Centre Jan. 29. He was the defence lawyer in 1959-60 for Robert Raymond Cook, the last man hanged in Alberta. Lisa Joy/Stettler Independent

“There was no motive,” added Judge MacNaughton, who, as a young lawyer in Stettler in 1959, represented Cook.

“He had never been involved (in violence). None of his criminal record showed violence whatsoever or the use of guns.

“He was not caring any gun. There was no suggestion he ever carried a double barrel shotgun. We advertised in the paper to see if anyone owned it or knew anything about it. The barrels were bent. That was from the bashing the children received. It was a disgusting, terrible thing.”

Judge MacNaughton said there was no blood on Cook’s shoes, in his vehicle or anywhere on him. Neither was there any evidence that Cook ever owned a gun. The shotgun didn’t belong to Cook or anyone at the Cook home.

In addition, Cook didn’t have any cuts or bruises on his hands.

“There was none whatsoever,” said MacNaughton.

“The other thing that was very interesting, at the house was a white shirt with the name ‘ROSS’ on it and it had blood and stains on it,” said Judge MacNaughton. “We tried to find out who owned the shirt. Whoever wore the shirt was probably the person who did it. We spent a lot of time on it (shirt).”

“You wonder, and if you’re wondering you gotta err on the other side (of not guilty). You can’t resurrect the dead and say ‘we’re sorry here’s a settlement.’

“He may well have done it but there was doubt,” added Judge MacNaughton. “I’m probably a fence sitter.”

Judge MacNaughton said the evidence was circumstantial.

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He also said that Cook never believed he committed the murders. Cook could have, however, suppressed the horrible memory, he added.

Judge MacNaughton said that when RCMP officer Cpl. Tom Roach read Cook his rights, he was shocked.

“He broke down completely. He said ‘not dad, not mom and not the kids.’ He was crying. We had to leave him for a while and went back later and explained what the circumstances were.”

Cook maintained his innocence until he was executed and wrote a poem that was given to Judge MacNaughton after Cook was hung.

Cook had an alibi but no one believed him because without a doubt he was a “consummate” liar, said, Judge MacNaughton.

“He was at a break-and-enter up in Edmonton at the time.”

POINTING TO GUILT

Retired teacher and Town of Stettler Coun. Malcolm Fischer, however, disagreed.

“I believe Robert Raymond Cook did these murders and I believe he was guilty.”

Fischer has been fascinated with the case ever since the murders happened in 1959 when he was nine years old growing up in Stettler.

He said Cook was arrested days after the murders for false pretenses after he traded in his father’s station wagon for a convertible and claimed that his father wanted him to do that. Fischer pointed out, however, that was unlikely because the Cooks had five young children at home.

Robert Raymond Cook’s mug shot after being arrested for the murder of his father. Cook was found guilty of his father’s murder and sentenced to death by hanging. He was never charged with the murder of his stepmother and five half-siblings but was believed to be guilty. Photo from Provincial Archives of Alberta.

When Cook was arrested there were odd items found in the trunk, which Fischer believes points to Cook being the killer. In the trunk was a box with family documents including birth certificates, insurance policies, his father’s marriage certificate and the children’s report cards. He was also carrying a suitcase with four sets of children’s pyjamas, new bed sheets and a photo album with pictures of his mother.

“Why would you put (those) things in the trunk?” asked Fischer.

Cook was arrested for false pretenses and police went to the Cook home to look for his father but didn’t find him or the family at first. When Cook was arrested he had his dad’s wallet and bought the convertible in Edmonton under his father’s name.

“When asked where his parents were his story kept changing,” said Fischer, adding that Cook’s stories continued to change with what he thought police knew. “Nothing in his story when police check on it could be confirmed.

“He was a charmer and a conscienceless liar who changed his version of things to suit whatever new came up.”

Cook claimed that he gave his dad $4,100 and his family moved to B.C. and Cook was to follow. Fischer said, however, that the senior Cook’s best friend in town knew nothing about this and would have known if the Cook family was moving.

Fischer said Cook’s motive for the murders was that he came home from prison a year early and wanted his father to follow through with their previous plan of moving to B.C. but said his father likely didn’t want to go because he had a good job in Stettler and a new wife and family.

“He was out (of prison) a year ahead so the whole thing was a surprise.”

After his father said ‘no,’ Fischer said Cook likely left the house and returned with the shotgun.

“From the way I look at the evidence it suits it to a T.”

Cook was released a year early from prison before the mass murder in 1959. About 40 inmates were released in 1959 by the Queen’s Amnesty.

“He had a year to go on his sentence,” said Judge MacNaughton. “He was in for a B and E at the Treasury Branch in Bowden.”

Just days before the mass murder Cook was released from prison with $31.81.

The officers went to the house. They looked around and everything seemed in order. They didn’t turn the lights on and only used their flashlights and didn’t notice the blood splatter on the wall.

The Cook house in Stettler on 52 St. where seven members of the Cook family were massacred. Photo from Provincial Archives of Alberta.
The Cook house in Stettler on 52 St. where seven members of the Cook family were massacred. Photo from Provincial Archives of Alberta.

The investigating Stettler RCMP officer, however, thought something was off with Cook’s explanations so he phoned Red Deer RCMP and asked them to bring more investigators in the morning.

BODIES OF COOK FAMILY FOUND

On June 28, 1959, an RCMP specialist went into the Cook house in Stettler on 52nd Street and saw droplets of blood on the TV and then splatter on the wall that someone tried to wash off. The sheets were stripped off the bed and there was blood everywhere. The blue prison-issue suit Cook had on was in the midst of all these things and the remains of a double barrel shotgun. His blood soaked suit was in the paraphernalia, said Fischer.

The police found the grease pit in the garage. The floor was covered with cardboard and when they pulled the cardboard back the smell told them something wasn’t right.

The garage where the bodies of the Cook family were found in the grease pit. Photo from Provincial Archives of Alberta.
The bodies were found in this grease pit in the garage. Photo from Provincial Archives of Alberta.

“The bodies were in such savage condition they were almost unidentifiable,” said Fischer, adding that police say that kind of violence usually points to a family member.

Found dead were Cook’s father, also named Raymond, 53, stepmother Daisy Mae, 37, and five siblings, Gerald, 9, Patrick, 8, Christopher, 7, Kathy, 5, and Linda Mae, 3. They were dumped in the grease pit and covered with tires and cardboard.

Robert Raymond Cook was charged with his father’s murder and sent to Ponoka Hospital for a 30-day psychiatric assessment.

MASS HYSTERIA AFTER COOK ESCAPES FROM PONOKA

Just after midnight on July 11, 1959, Cook escaped from the Ponoka mental hospital and when the public found out there was “mass hysteria” across Central Alberta.

Judge MacNaughton said Cook phoned him from the Ponoka hospital and told him he wanted to go to the graves of his father, stepmother and half-siblings. He said Cook later told him that he escaped from Ponoka after discovering the bars on his window were loose.

“He said he was in the cell and he pushed on the bars of the window. They screw down and then they screw up into grooves. He said he pushed on those and they were a little bit lose and that night he was able to push them out. He said ‘when you’re desperate you get out’ and of course when he got out he had absolutely no problem stealing a car in no time at all without a key.”

The Ponoka mental hospital Cook escaped from. Here is the men’s ward. Cook was on the far left of the building. Photo from Provincial Archives of Alberta.

Fischer said his grandparents had their four adult children and grandchildren all packed into one house.

“We slept on the living room floor and the dads took turns with shotguns. Farmers had guns ready and loaded. Some people went to the city to live with relatives. It was a very, very hysteric time.”

Police told residents to lock their vehicles but terrified residents wanted Cook – if he came to their home – to steal their vehicle and leave.

“No cars were locked. The (vehicles) were sitting under a light with the window down, the keys in it and with a full tank of gas.”

About 100 police descended on Central Alberta to search for Cook.

About 100 police officers searched for Cook. They used police dogs and helicopters as well. Photo from Provincial Archives of Alberta.
About 100 police officers searched for Cook. They used police dogs and helicopters as well. Photo from Provincial Archives of Alberta.

For four terrifying days, Cook was on the loose and it was women in Alix and area that spotted him first and reported it to police, resulting in his capture.

Cook was eventually arrested without incident at a pig farm near Bashaw and taken to the Bashaw fire hall. He had no weapons on him.

After being arrested, Cook was taken to the Bashaw fire hall. Photo from Provincial Archives of Alberta.

URBAN MYTHS

What Judge MacNaughton and Fischer do agree on, however, are the urban myths surrounding the mass murder.

Fischer said some books claimed Cook was found in a straw shack but that’s not true. He was found in a pig shed.

The Cook murders were claimed to be at the Cook farmhouse but Fischer said it wasn’t at a farmhouse but rather at a house in the Town of Stettler.

Some claim Cook’s uncle made a deathbed confession claiming to be the killer. Again not true, says Fischer. Some reports say Cook was charged with all of the murders but he was only charged and found guilty of the murder of his father.

TROUBLED LIFE FROM THE START

Fischer said Cook was born in 1937 and his mother died when he was nine years old and he started to get into trouble when he was 10.

When he was 12 his father married Cook’s elementary teacher Daisy Mae Gaspar and moved the family from Hanna to Stettler.

Judge MacNaughton said Cook stole his first car at the age of 10 and he was in the Bowden penitentiary at the age of 14. He added that today, a troubled young Cook would have been removed from the Cook home by social services.

An earlier mug shot of Robert Raymond Cook. Photo from Provincial Archives of Alberta.

From the time Cook was incarcerated at age 14 to the time he was executed at 22, he was only out of the cells for 243 days, said Judge MacNaughton.

Cook’s family was massacred just days after he was released from serving two years in the penitentiary and arrived back in Stettler.

But the reason why Cook would kill his entire family has never been viably answered.

Judge MacNaughton cautioned that rumours aren’t facts, hearsay isn’t admissible in court and when it comes to the mass murder in Stettler, false rumours are rampant.

“There were all kinds of rumours and of course they were all wrong,” he said. “That’s what happens and everyone has an opinion without having any evidence and that’s a common occurrence.”

Several books written about the massacre contain rumours and Judge MacNaughton said the best book to read about the case is The Robert Cook Murder Case: An Alberta Story by Frank W. Anderson because it only presents the facts.

THE TRIALS

Judge MacNaughton said he was a young and inexperienced lawyer in 1959 so seasoned lawyer Frank Dunne helped. Judge MacNaughton said the first trial was in Red Deer. The jury found Cook guilty in about an hour and a half.

The verdict was appealed on the basis that Justice Greschuk didn’t allow testimony from a witness. A second trial was ordered.

The second trial was in Edmonton and presided over by Justice Harold Riley.

On the stand, Cook defended himself and gave an alibi.

“I went to the Commercial Hotel in Edmonton and checked in,” court transcripts show Cook said during his testimony. “I got a car – stole it from a lot on the south side out the Calgary Trail.”

Cook said he then drove to Bowden to get cash he hid there back in 1957. He said after that he drove back to Edmonton and returned the car to the lot he took it from.

Cook told the court that he then just walked around “because I had been locked up for two years.”

Cook was also found guilty at the second trial.

After each trial Cook called his lawyers to the cells and thanked them “profusely,” said Judge MacNaughton.

“Never ever did he admit to doing this, to me or to anybody else. He gave his body to the university hospital, his eyes to the eye bank.”

Cook, while in his death cell waiting to be hanged, wrote a poem. After Cook was executed, the poem was given to Judge MacNaughton.

Judge MacNaughton read Cook’s lengthy poem to the packed room at the Stettler Rec Centre.

The end of Cook’s poem read:

“So I ask you is it strange that I’m sentenced to the noose

While my family’s killer is on the loose…

So you people of the world take note,

It’s murder when the innocent die, at the end of the rope.”

The crowd of about 250 at the Hub in Stettler’s Recreation Centre Jan. 29 give retired Judge David McNaughton a standing ovation. He was the defence lawyer in 1959-60 for Robert Raymond Cook, the last man hanged in Alberta. Lisa Joy/Stettler Independent

WEB POLL: Was Robert Raymond Cook guilty or innocent of massacring his entire family in Stettler in 1959?



lisa.joy@stettlerindependent.com

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