'I Don't Think They Deserved It'

By Peter Perl
Sunday, November 30, 2003

Northern Virginia was smothered beneath more than two feet of snow on Monday morning February 17, and, under a brilliant winter sun, the Cooke family home on Adel Road in Oakton looked radiant. A spacious, 11-room, brick-and-wood split-level with beautifully manicured trees and shrubs and a swimming pool, it was nestled on more than an acre of white-coated oaks, elms, maples and pines. Paul Cooke, 51, a financial manager at Lockheed Martin, revved up his snowblower, cleared his driveway, and then went off to help a few older neighbors, as he often did. His wife, Margaret, 56, a retired IBM executive, spent most of her day inside, except for a bracing walk with Paul around their quiet neighborhood of $650,000 homes. Their 19-year-old son, Joshua, stayed home from his $9-an-hour job at Jiffy Lube and helped his neighbors shovel snow. Josh was not feeling right that day, he would later say, but he couldn't figure out what was bothering him.

That night, the Cookes had their usual quiet dinner. They warmed up a frozen pizza, and afterward, Josh did the dishes while his parents headed down to the basement to work on their computers. Margaret usually did work for the First Baptist Church of Vienna school, for which she was the volunteer superintendent. Paul, who kept financial records for his congregation, St. Mark Catholic Church, was an avid stamp collector. Many nights, he would go online looking to add to his impressive Frederick Douglass collection.

Josh went upstairs to his bedroom, where he'd spent countless hours playing video games on the PlayStation 2 that his parents had not wanted him to buy. His taste ran toward the violent shooter games that they particularly disliked, such as Grand Theft Auto III and BloodRayne. But that night he didn't feel like playing games. He sat on his bed and stared at the wall, which was dominated by a life-size color poster from his all-time favorite movie, "The Matrix." He'd watched the film over and over, so many times that he wore out the VHS tape and had to buy a new one. He was drawn into its surreal world of virtual reality and he strongly identified with the hero named Neo, played by Keanu Reeves, who soared through cyberspace and exacted revenge on his imaginary enemies, blasting them away with a 12-gauge shotgun.

Josh related so strongly to Neo that, unknown to his parents, he'd bought the identical black, floor-length, cape-like trench coat that Reeves wore in the movie, along with the matching black boots and black wraparound sunglasses. When his parents were not around, Josh sneaked out the outfit just to wear around the house, while playing the "Matrix" soundtrack CD full blast on his headphones. Sometimes, he would put on his "Matrix" get-up and walk around by himself at Fair Oaks Mall. In Neo's coat and shades, Josh attracted a lot of attention, and he liked that. Just two days earlier, though, he'd worn his regular jacket and drawn little notice when he walked into nearby Galyan's sporting goods and laid out $535.65 in cash to purchase a shotgun, along with five boxes of ammunition. It was virtually identical to the Remington 12-gauge shotgun that Neo used.

Nothing had been going well for Joshua Cooke for a long time. His school years were marked by low grades and lots of teasing and bullying because he had been a scrawny slow learner with thick eyeglasses. Last year, he had flunked out of Virginia State University as a freshman after spending most of his time in his dorm room playing computer games. He couldn't see his way out of a succession of menial jobs at Blockbuster, CVS Pharmacy and now Jiffy Lube. Just weeks earlier, his fervent desire to join the Marines had been dashed because his eyesight was too poor.

Failure after failure. School. Jobs. Girls. Never been on a date. No close friends. Nothing was right. His mind, he would later say, was a blur. His head was full of thoughts, yet somehow empty. Josh stuffed his portable CD player in his pocket and clamped on the earphones, choosing a song called "Bodies" by a favorite heavy-metal group, Drowning Pool. He had been listening to it repeatedly for more than a year. Now, in his room that February evening, he cranked up the volume to the max. The sounds pounding in his ears were relentless drumbeats, a blaring bass crescendo and a series of anguished, screamed lyrics:

Let the bodies hit the floor

Let the bodies hit the floor

Let the bodies hit the floor

Let the bodies hit the floor

Beaten. Why for?

Can't take much more.

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