By Jeff Sturgeon | The night of Dec. 8, 2012, a sheriff’s investigator invited a female grand jury witness to meet for a drink in Montvale, a small community between Roanoke and Bedford.
The woman wondered whether she might be in trouble. They parked her car shortly after midnight. The investigator, a member of a multijurisdictional drug task force, assured her she was in the clear.
He wanted sex. She told him no thanks.
She later told federal authorities that Bedford County Sheriff’s Deputy Christopher Lee Cook, 42, intoxicated on more than six beers, exposed himself during the encounter. He subsequently admitted the same to his superiors.
Authorities tried to keep Cook’s misconduct from being brought up in federal court when he testified against a man he investigated in a drug case. That backfired. The judge kicked the prosecutor off the case and the defendant went free, avoiding most of an 11-year prison term.
Cook was quietly suspended and demoted but kept his job. Unaware of his past, a group later named him Virginia’s school resource officer of the year.
The 19-year law enforcement veteran’s work history is documented at the Lynchburg federal courthouse in 91 pages of reports and memos that read like a made-for-TV police drama. An incident involving an extramarital affair cost him an earlier job with another agency.
The Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services, the state agency created to set and enforce standards for law enforcement, has taken no action against Cook. Sexual misconduct with witnesses, clients or patients can get doctors or lawyers sanctioned in Virginia, but not necessarily police.
The criminal justice agency generally can’t revoke an officer’s certificate for law enforcement work unless an officer is convicted of a felony or serious misdemeanor. That threshold is high compared to other states. Cook’s case did not meet it.
He was not charged with a crime. Nor was there a criminal investigation into the Montvale incident.
Using a process called decertification, Virginia has booted 33 officers from the profession during the past 17 years, including Andre Peak, a former state police trooper convicted of sexual battery, and Kenneth Walsh, the former Altavista police chief sentenced to a year behind bars for drug crimes, forgery and embezzlement.
Other states have decertified many more officers. Tennessee, similar in size to Virginia, decertified 40 officers last year alone.
The decertification rate in Virginia is a seventh of the national average, according to a Roanoke Times analysis of data collected by Seattle University criminologists for the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training.
Virginia’s police oversight agency, which does not take public complaints, generally depends on prosecutors to punish cops for crimes, and police chiefs and sheriffs to refer those officers for decertification. Lesser episodes of misconduct can be dealt with through retraining, counseling, demotions, suspensions and firings. The available options are sufficient, some say.
“Our profession is pretty severe on those who tarnish the badge. In Virginia in particular, there’s no tolerance for that,” said Dana Schrad, who directs the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police.
Retaining officers capable of redeeming themselves after a mistake can make sense to police chiefs and sheriffs, since training and equipping a new officer can cost $50,000, she said.
But limiting decertification to cases involving criminal convictions makes Virginia’s system weak, said Roger Goldman, a law professor at Saint Louis University School of Law and an expert on law enforcement licensing.
“I’d be surprised if there were not officers currently working in Virginia who have committed misconduct that would have gotten them decertified in another state,” Goldman said.
The investigator waited in a sheriff’s department van near a Montvale convenience store for his date: a grand jury witness whom he had invited for a drink.
The woman knew Cook from two earlier meetings about the case. She had testified five weeks earlier before a grand jury investigating unlawful distribution of prescription narcotics in Bedford County. According to a statement he later gave his superiors, Cook didn’t think she had added much to the case, code-named Operation Pain Train. He said he knew it was wrong as a married man to pursue her, but didn’t think it conflicted with his law enforcement duties.
He had drunk six beers by the time she pulled her vehicle near his van, the report said.
The woman, identified in court papers only by her initials, found Cook in jeans and a sweatshirt saying he had just finished work. He had six more beers with him. She told him she didn’t plan to drink. He climbed into her car. She drove a short distance, then pulled off the road. They talked about the case; Cook assured her she was not at risk of being charged. She asked if he was married, and he said he wasn’t, she later told federal authorities.
When he leaned over to kiss her, she initially declined but then relented. Later, Cook “tried to pull” the woman to his lap, at which point her knee hit the center console, causing a bruise. An FBI investigator who took down her story wrote that “Cook asked if she could ‘feel that,’ referring to his erect penis. [She] told him that she could, pushed herself back in the driver’s seat and told him again that she does not get intimate with someone she hardly knows.”
Cook fondled himself and asked if she was going to leave him “hanging,” the FBI report said.
He later phoned a fellow deputy, who offered to follow him home for his own safety because he had been drinking, the woman told federal authorities. Cook dumped empty beer containers in a garbage can outside the convenience store before returning to his vehicle.
A few days later, at Cook’s invitation, he met her again at the same spot. This time, Cook warned that drug investigators considered her “involved” as a potential target and, if she needed to be arrested, he would go to her house and give her a “thorough” strip search, she told authorities.
Prosecutors told the FBI they never considered charging the woman.
Cook did not respond to messages left with the sheriff’s office and at his home.
Cook is reported
In April 2013, the woman told her attorney about the encounter with Cook — reluctantly, she said, and out of concern about her legal situation. The attorney persuaded her to notify federal authorities. Two FBI agents, a federal prosecutor and an agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives listened as she described her meetings with Cook.
Later the same day, the prosecutor and ATF agent met with a Bedford County sheriff’s captain. The prosecutor shared handwritten notes from conversations with the woman and her attorney. The sheriff’s office said a short time later it had been unaware of the incident.
Cook told an internal review panel that the woman’s account was true. Bedford County Sheriff Mike Brown suspended Cook without pay for two days during each of five months, reassigned him to road deputy and ordered him to attend counseling with a police specialist. The violations: consuming alcohol while operating a department vehicle, inappropriate use of a department cellphone and engaging in “unprofessional conduct,” court papers said.
His salary was unchanged, according to pay records. A few months later, he, along with all other county employees, received a 3 percent raise, increasing his pay to $36,684, eventually offsetting the $1,370 his suspension had cost him, records show.
Brown warned Cook that his conduct could have justified firing, according to a disciplinary letter. But, the sheriff told his deputy, he believed it was “out of character with your normal high caliber of work.”
In September 2013, the sheriff granted Cook’s request to work as a resource officer at Staunton River High School. School officials later said they didn’t know about the incident or the resulting sanctions.
Near the end of 2014, Brown announced what he called the successful completion of Operation Pain Train. He touted the combined 170 years of prison time for the 37 defendants convicted.
“The Hammer Has Dropped,” a news release proclaimed.
Tables are turned on Cook
In fall 2015, a defense attorney for one of those defendants dropped a hammer of his own.
Established case law is supposed to guarantee criminal defendants access to all information favorable to their side, such as exculpatory facts or evidence of lying that could be used to impeach government witnesses. Prosecutors who have such material are required to share it. This includes background on police witnesses that might call into question their reliability or character.
Ashley Neese, an assistant U.S. attorney, knew about the woman’s complaint against Cook and supported his removal from the task force. But she kept details that illustrated the seriousness of the incident out of view during the Operation Pain Train prosecution, despite Cook’s role as a case investigator and key source of evidence.
Before Les Christopher Burns’ trial, Neese provided his lawyer and the judge with a written memo that described Cook’s December 2012 encounter with the witness as “flirtatious” but did not detail what took place. The judge deemed the matter irrelevant and prohibited testimony about it.
Neese, who was then in her sixth year as a full-time federal prosecutor, said supervisors directed her on what to disclose. Elizabeth Wright, her primary supervisor on disclosure matters, was in her second year as a full-time prosecutor.
A jury convicted Burns of conspiracy to distribute controlled substances. Cook was among more than a dozen witnesses who testified against him. Another was a then-18-year-old woman who said she started hanging out with Burns when she was 15 and he gave her pills. That progressed to Burns injecting drugs into her arm.
He was sentenced to more than 11 years in prison.
In 2015, Paul Beers, a new lawyer assigned to represent Burns during an appeal, read in the case file about Cook’s “flirtatious” encounter. Beers suspected there might be more to it — he recalled having a similar impression a year earlier when federal prosecutors, with a judge’s consent, filed sealed charges against another regional drug force task member who, like Cook, had engaged in sex-related misconduct with a woman he encountered during an investigation.
Beers said he “asked and asked and demanded” to know more about Cook and the incident in Montvale. Prosecutors, who maintain confidential files on police officers with misconduct in their pasts, gave Beers a roughly 90-page document. Such files could include private personnel records that are rarely made public. When that material could help a criminal defendant, prosecutors must share it.
The records documented the 2012 incident, Cook’s admissions, the resulting discipline — and more.
A state police report in the file said that in 2010, a private investigator had tailed a woman to a Daleville motel, where she met Cook, who was working then as a Botetourt County sheriff’s deputy. The woman, with whom Cook later admitted he was having an affair, complained to Cook that she had been followed, court papers said.
He then used his police authority to request information about the private eye’s vehicle by calling in its license plate to police dispatch, state police found. A special state prosecutor asked a grand jury to indict Cook on charges of computer invasion of privacy, accessing criminal history information under false pretenses or identity theft. The grand jury declined. Botetourt County Sheriff Ronald Sprinkle said Cook opted to resign rather than be fired.
The file also said that in seeking a job with the Bedford County’s Sheriff’s Office a short time later, Cook failed three questions on a lie detector test: Did you ever commit a serious crime you did not tell me about? Are you withholding any information about your involvement with any illegal drug? Are you withholding any adverse information from your personal history?
When Bedford County sheriff’s officials confronted him over those questions, he answered that he knew senior Botetourt County deputies were using marijuana but hadn’t reported it.
Asked about that recently, Sprinkle said his office conducts drug testing and there were no signs of marijuana use there. He said he couldn’t recall Brown asking for details about Cook’s resignation.
“Mr. Cook is who is he is. I hope people can figure him out,” Sprinkle said.
About a third of the file explained the grand jury witness encounter in Montvale.
Beers argued in court papers that Cook “committed any number of crimes including” indecent exposure, obscene sexual display, public intoxication and driving under the influence, all misdemeanor charges that carry a one-year statute of limitations — which had long passed by fall 2015.
Brown said his office neither conducted a criminal investigation of Cook nor asked anyone else to do it.
“To date our office has had no inquiries or complaints from this woman nor was she ever available for an interview,” Brown wrote in a written response. “Without a complaining witness there are no grounds for a criminal case.”
When contacted by The Roanoke Times, the woman declined to comment.
The sheriff added: “We had no reason to make Deputy Cook the subject of a criminal investigation, although he was the subject of an Internal Affairs inquiry. His conduct was addressed not only through that inquiry, but the alleged conduct was investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and other federal agencies, who did not find evidence by which to charge him with misconduct.”
Federal prosecutors recently released a statement to the contrary.
“The U.S. Attorney’s Office reviews only matters pertaining to Federal law and neither decides nor makes recommendations regarding how state and local law enforcement agencies enforce state laws or handle their internal affairs,” the statement said. No violation of federal law was apparent, the U.S. attorney’s office told the FBI, whose role was limited to documenting the complaint in a six-page report.
U.S. District Court Judge Norman Moon kicked Neese off the case and wrote that he strongly disagreed with her description of the deputy’s December 2012 encounter with the witness as “flirtatious.”
Cook’s actions “might be more appropriately called sexual assault,” the judge said, declaring that prosecutors should have released Cook’s background before Burns’ trial. The failure to do so was misconduct, the judge said.
Burns’ trial attorney could have used the background information to cross-examine Cook and possibly discredit damaging testimony he gave against Burns, according to the ruling. Moon wiped away Burns’ conviction and ordered a second trial.
Prosecutors dismissed the case, leading to Burns’ July 22 release. He had served about 30 percent of his 136-month sentence.
Burns, 35, said he complained to the Department of Justice’s Office of Professional Responsibility about Cook and Neese.
“I’m not done,” Burns said. “You got a dirty cop and a dirty prosecutor.”
In a later interview, Burns denied the charge on which he had been found guilty but admitted he had become addicted to narcotics after taking drugs for neck pain following a motorcycle wreck. He also denied injecting the girl who testified at his trial. He added that, in hindsight, prison did him good and he kicked drugs and is employed. In West Virginia, where Burns served time, he holds a state license as an electrician’s apprentice, according to that state’s fire marshal’s office. He still lives in the area.
Who should be a cop?
For most of the past 20 years, Virginia decertified police only for felony convictions, failing or refusing a drug test or violating training standards.
That changed in 2013 after Del. Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, authored the addition of serious misdemeanors to the list of offenses meriting decertification. Those include crimes involving domestic violence, sexual assault or moral turpitude. That expansion toughened the law in a way supported by both police and the public, Herring said.
Police chiefs and sheriffs “don’t want bad actors; they want them out,” Herring said.
Herring said Friday the Cook case could illustrate the need for still another look at the issue. “This is a discussion that needs to continue,” she said.
Former Roanoke police Chief Chris Perkins defended the status quo.
“Law enforcement is the most regulated profession in Virginia,” he said. “Try wearing a video camera every day you go to work, while responding to the worst humans have to offer and see how it impacts you. God bless those in this noble profession and may they continue to serve.”
Virginia’s law enforcement officer standards run for 189 pages. Like most states, Virginia can sanction an officer with revocation for failure to comply.
Federal standards neither govern the rigor of state oversight nor require reporting to a national database so that problem officers are less able to move from one state to another. Virginia voluntarily sends decertification reports to the database.
Virginia is one of about 15 states that require a criminal conviction prior to decertification. Twenty-eight states don’t require a criminal conviction to decertify and tend to discipline many more officers than do other states, according to Goldman, the law enforcement officer licensing specialist.
From 2009 to 2014, Florida decertified 2,125 officers, 162 for sex-related misconduct, an Associated Press investigation found.
During the same five years, Virginia decertified 17 officers. Last year Virginia posted a decertification rate of 0.3 per 1,000 officers, while Florida’s decertification rate was 2.8 per 1,000 officers, The Roanoke Times’ analysis found.
In Florida, actions like those described in Cook’s case likely would have triggered a state investigation, said Glen Hopkins, a bureau chief with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement who oversees professional compliance.
Hopkins said the conduct the woman reported suggests a violation of a Florida state code section that — like one in Virginia — generally prohibits exposure of sexual organs. Another possible charge, misuse of official position, makes it illegal for a public officer or employee to “corruptly use or attempt to use” his or her position “to secure a special privilege [or] benefit,” Florida law says. The penalties range from suspension to decertification.
“This is very concerning what this gentleman did,” Hopkins said. “This is pretty glaring.”
The U.S. Attorney’s Office made changes to ensure that prosecutors with the “proper level of experience” oversee the disclosures of required information to criminal defendants, Rick Mountcastle, an assistant U.S. attorney, said in June.
Neither the FBI nor federal prosecutors would comment on Cook. The U.S. Attorney’s Office also declined to comment on Neese and Burns.
At Staunton River High School, Cook worked well with students and found a good fit, school officials said. He excelled in supporting the school’s chapter of a statewide student safe-driving club. Youth of Virginia Speak Out About Traffic Safety named Cook its Virginia school resource officer of the year.
The revelations about Cook’s actions in Montvale surfaced in The Roanoke Times that fall. Cook immediately asked to leave his post and never returned. He’s been a civil process server ever since.
Venting by some parents put school officials on the defensive.
“This is a serious matter and it is DISGUSTING to me to think that you as a superintendent as well as every school board member are allowing this to happen,” one parent told Superintendent Doug Schuch, according to emails obtained from the school. “I don’t even want my daughter attending Staunton River High School anymore. Or any school in Bedford County for that matter, for how safe can they truly be?”
Schuch said school officials were blindsided. “I was as shocked as you were to read the alleged accusations against Deputy Cook, and our school division had no knowledge of any of this information before that article was published,” Schuch wrote to the parent.
Just before 1 a.m. the day after the news about Cook broke, Bedford County public schools spokesman Ryan Edwards directed Josh Cornett, principal of the high school, to ensure that Cook’s name would be stripped from the school website “first thing this morning.”
Cornett circulated a brief homeroom announcement to the student body, saying Cook had asked to be transferred.
School board member Jason Johnson of Moneta inquired: “So out of curiosity: SROs are assigned by the sheriff’s department and we do not have any input as to who is placed where, nor do we get to see their disciplinary record prior to their assignment?”
He was told county school officials had had no input in the choice of Cook, but had been reassured the process would be reviewed.
The safe-driving organization no longer displays any mention of Cook or his award on its website.
Another parent said she and her daughter, while searching for a lost family dog several months later, ran across Cook sitting alone in a parked squad car.
The daughter and Cook talked. Cook apologized and said he wasn’t allowed to contact students after he departed, the woman said. She said he later offered the daughter a summer job. The mother said no.
Cook replied that he understood. The family has not heard from him since, the mother said.
Written by: Jeff Sturgeon: Article in Roanoke Times