While reading The Dry by Jane Harper, which I reviewed in my last post, I thought about the real life mass murder of a family in Alberta for which Robert Raymond Cook was convicted and hung. Late last year I wrote a series of posts about the murders and trials and execution of Cook. In both book and real life I found some intriguing similarities.
(This post does not contain spoilers which solve the mystery in The Dry but there is more information than some readers would want before reading the book.)
In each case there is overwhelming evidence the murders were committed by a family member. In The Dry Luke Hadler is believed to have gone insane and killed his wife and son and then himself. In the Cook murders Robert Raymond Cook was convicted of murdering his father, step-mother and five half-brothers and half-sisters.
In both cases a shotgun was used. In The Dry all the victims were killed by the shotgun. In the Cook killings the parents were shot and the children bludgeoned with the shotgun.
In both cases the proffered motive was money. In The Dry the Hadlers are facing financial disaster because of prolonged and it is thought Luke cannot bear the loss of the family farm. Cook takes the family station wagon the night of the murders and trades it on a flashy convertible the next day.
|Robert Raymond Cook|
Yet the motives are challenged. Luke was not showing signs of depression. His parents, in particular, cannot believe he would have killed his wife and then hunted down and killed his 6 year old son because of financial problems. Cook returns to the town of Stettler the day after the murders and shows no sign of mental imbalance. Within the correctional system guards, accustomed to the manipulations of inmates, cannot see him as a ruthless killer.
For the murders in each case not to have been committed by Luke or Cook there is the challenge of determining another suspect. There is no immediate alternative in either case.
In the book and real life the murders took place in small rural communities. With everyone in the respective towns knowing each other there is a larger group of potential suspects than most big city murders. At the same time the isolation means the killer is most likely from the community.
In both cases there is no evidence of any family member or friend being in the family home at the time the killings took place.
In the Cook case there was an effort to find enough clues to implicate an unknown stranger. In the end there were the inevitable discrepancies of a major case but not enough to be convincing to a jury that there was a mysterious stranger.
In The Dry there is no thought of a mysterious stranger being the alternative to Luke as killer. The investigation focuses on the members of the community who would have had the opportunity to commit the murders.
In the real life Saskatchewan case of David Milgaard, wrongfully convicted of murdering a nurse, the actual killer, a known rapist at the time of the murders, was residing near the location of the murder.
As usual in cases where the evidence is convincing the police investigation in The Dry and the Cook murders was not rigorous. There was little reason to think each piece of evidence must be carefully assessed.
Modern technology offered some evidence in The Dry. There is a camera mounted on the barn that provided video of the family truck being driven into the yard and the sounds of the killing shotgun blasts and then leaving the yard. The video was also limited as it did not show the driver.
In the Cook case there were uninvestigated fingerprints but, taking place in 1960, the murders were long before DNA evidence. One of the reasons Milgaard was ultimately freed was the identification of Larry Fisher’s DNA on the clothing of the murder victim.
The most striking commonality between fiction and real life is a major issue with regard to shotgun. The shotgun shells used in The Dry were not the shells normally used by Luke. In The Dry the investigators spend a lot of effort on working out whether the different shells mean Luke did not commit the murders. In the Cook case neither the police nor Cook’s legal counsel could solve the mystery of whether the shotgun was owned by Cook’s father before the night of the murders or whether it was brought to the house by the killer. The unidentified ownership of the shotgun was one of the discrepancies that did not bother the jury.
There was tunnel vision involving the police in both cases. In The Dry the original investigating officers do a comprehensive but superficial examination of the evidence for they do not see contradictory evidence requiring a more thorough investigation. The RCMP are completely focused on Cook. What might have happened in the Cook case had there been a pair of officers such as Aaron Falk and Sgt. Greg Raco from The Dry who examined the evidence without assuming guilt before they started considering the evidence? I doubt they would have found a different killer. There was too much evidence pointing to Cook’s guilt.
One of the chilling but fascinating sections of The Dry was the killer’s justification of mass murderer. Harper provides an all too credible rationalization. As Cook went to the gallows protesting innocence we cannot know his reasons for murdering his family. Some in Alberta have always believed he did not kill them.