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Russ Cook: A good cop's lonely death

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When Jefferson County deputies found their former boss, Russ Cook, dead in his home on November 21, the press reports were short and predictable. They began with a hasty, almost embarrassed review of the man's public disgraces of the past few years -- his 2003 resignation as sheriff after just six months in office, his arrest in a bizarre stalking case earlier this year. Then some tsk-tsking about the insidious nature of addiction and lurid language about a life that "spiraled downward in a fog of alcohol," as in Bill Scanlon's report in the Rocky Mountain News. Then adios.

I can't leave it there. Russ Cook was my friend.

I didn't know him all that well, but I suspect few people did. He told me that not many people returned his calls since his resignation, so I guess he welcomed even the occasional bull session with a reporter, as long as it was all off the record. We had lunch four or five times a year and talked on the phone once or twice a month -- until the last few weeks, when he didn't return my calls and I wondered if he was in a hospital somewhere.

On a Friday morning, deputies conducting a welfare check found him on the floor in the home he'd occupied alone since his divorce. No one had talked to him for several days, and it's not clear when he died. It was not, in any case, a good week for troubled former law enforcement professionals of my acquaintance. On Monday, an ex-corrections officer I knew barricaded himself in his house in the Bronx, held cops at bay for 24 hours, then jumped out an attic window, seriously injuring himself (see previous blogs "Joe Principe's Standoff Ends Badly" and "Update on the Joe Principe Standoff"). Cook's death was even more unexpected.

I first met Cook eight years ago, when he was winding down his long tenure as Golden's police chief. I was working with a team from Sixty Minutes that was investigating the Columbine shootings and desperately looking for anyone in local cop shops who would talk about active shooter response procedures. Thanks to the lawsuits filed by victims' families, almost everyone with a badge in this town was running for cover, hiding behind lawyers and flacks.

Except Russ Cook.

He was gracious, generous, funny and thoughtful. Almost too nice, in fact, to be a cop. He didn't want his face on camera. He just wanted people to understand police and the pressures on them. The people in Jefferson County on the hot seat over the Columbine response were his friends -- some, like Sheriff John Stone, had been colleagues going back to his days on the force in Lakewood. But he was fair and insightful in his analysis. He helped us a bunch and clearly had nothing to hide.

Lots of cops like to drink. Nobody seemed to have a problem with Cook, though, all those years he served as a damn good police chief in Golden. I didn't see any signs of trouble until he decided to run for Stone's job in 2002. He was by far the most qualified candidate, but it was a vicious campaign just the same; if Cook was too nice to be a cop, he was way out of line trying county politics. An anonymous smear accused him of being gay (news to his wife and two sons) and threatened his life. Cook won handily, but I could see the pressure of the race and the challenges ahead getting to him.

He scared the bejeezus out of the powers that be in Jefferson County during the short period he was in office. For one thing, he talked to reporters without clearing it first with his handlers, a major departure from the hunkered-down stonewalling of the previous administration. And he was vowing to get to the bottom of the Columbine mess. Whether he would have or not, we'll never know. His personal demons got the best of him and cost him the office. He always disputed the news reports that claimed he left an alcohol rehab program early, giving county officials a pretext to pressure him into resignation. But it's clear that he was pressured and felt betrayed by people he'd thought would help him through the dark hours. After he quit, he never heard from most of those people again.

Although he acknowledged that he'd brought it on himself by drinking, he never seemed to get over his abrupt departure from his dream job. He took a stab at being a mortgage broker, had his ups and down, down, downs as a day trader. He talked about running for county commissioner and was writing a book about Jefferson County politics. It couldn't have been easy for him, enduring such a drastic career change and a divorce in his late fifties, but he managed to be upbeat and genuinely concerned about helping other people. Whenever I saw him, he was focused on the future, candid about his addiction, and humble about the things that were precious to him, including his sobriety.

But things started getting weird late last year. He apparently became obsessive about a woman he was dating, prompting her to file a restraining order. Cook violated the order; nothing violent, I understand, but any contact at all can have serious court consequences. He ended up having an arrest warrant delivered to him by some of his former employees. It was another painful, costly, humiliatingly public lesson for someone who should have known better.

The last few months I saw less and less of Russ. He would cancel lunch, reschedule, cancel again. He was burdened with court appearances, losing money in the market, having health problems and bad reactions to prescription medication. There was a lot more going on, I'm sure, than I was allowed to know. Other friends of his report similar experiences. Russ was turning into a recluse, they say, and wasn't taking care of himself. But none of them wanted to write him off; he would never do that to them, if the situation was reversed.

I don't know what happened at the end. No signs of foul play, the sheriff's office says. I realize a man makes his own choices, and Russ Cook made his. Maybe what happened was beyond any choice he could make.

I only wish he had decided to call me back. He was a great believer in comebacks, in giving people a second chance, and he deserved something more along those lines himself. -- Alan Prendergast

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