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.
Josh took the loaded shotgun out of his closet and stuffed extra shells into his pockets. He headed out into the hallway, down the stairs to the family room, holding the 48-inch Remington 870 Express Super Magnum in front of his chest. He would later say he did not remember many details of what happened next, but that he had a flash that it all reminded him of "The Matrix."
One -- Something's got to give
Two -- Something's got to give
Three -- Something's got to give
Let the bodies hit the floor.
He descended the stairs toward the basement, and his mother stood up and turned toward him. He pointed the seven-pound shotgun at her, squeezed the trigger and blasted her in the chest. She staggered but didn't fall. Josh turned to see his father, who was 6-foot-3 and nearly 250 pounds, dive under his computer table.
Josh did not realize that his father had been on the telephone talking with Josh's 18-year-old sister, Tiffany, a freshman at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. With his earphones blasting, Josh couldn't hear much, but Tiffany later told police that she heard what sounded like pots and pans falling to the floor.
Josh walked toward his father's computer table and stuck the gun barrel under it, firing several more blasts. He walked back upstairs to reload, then returned to the basement.
Skin against skin blood and bone
You're all by yourself but you're not alone
You wanted in
Now you're here
Driven by hate consumed by fear
Let the bodies hit the floor.
He took off the headphones to listen for his parents' voices. His mother was still standing, bleeding profusely from the chest. "What are you doing, Joshua? You wouldn't . . ." he heard her say. He looked her in the eye, and shot her in the face. Then he stepped over her body, and walked back to his father's side of the basement, where Paul Cooke already lay face down on the floor. Joshua fired several more shots into his father's upper body. The Fairfax County medical examiner would later determine that Margaret Cooke was hit twice, and Paul seven times.
When Joshua picked up the dangling telephone, his sister cried, "Josh, what are you doing? Let me talk to Daddy," she told police. But he told her to hang up. "I have to call somebody."
Josh grabbed his father's cell phone. He left the blistering-hot barrel of the shotgun propped up against the living room wall, and then he walked out of the house into the cold night air -- but not before stopping at the refrigerator to get a can of Coke. He punched in 911.
"I just shot my parents. I just blew them away with the shotgun -- 12-gauge Super Magnum. Get your asses over here," he said in a flat tone.
"Okay, and why did . . . why did you do that?" a county dispatcher asked. "Are you still there? Hello?" Josh, after providing the street address, had hung up.
A few minutes later, he called 911 again, reaching another dispatcher and complaining that police hadn't shown up.
"For what?" the dispatcher asked, "What was it for, sir?"
"Uh, I just, uh, I just killed both of my parents . . ."
Joshua Cooke moves gradually across the hall, his face placid and his gait steady and slow. He wears a dark green jumpsuit with "FAIRFAX COUNTY JAIL" in bold white on his back. Up close, he looks bigger and stronger than his police mug shot suggests, a late-adolescent growth spurt having filled him out to 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds. He's turned 20 during eight months in the jail, letting his dark hair grow out thick and curly, and starting his first serious beard. Under the fluorescent lighting, his pale beige skin nearly matches the cinder-block walls of the eight-foot cubicle where he normally meets with his lawyer. He takes a plastic seat at the table, offering a muted hello and firm handshake.
For the next three hours, this mostly coherent young man makes an eerily calm attempt to explain an act that remains, to him, inexplicable. "I don't know. I kinda went into a zone. I had no emotion at the time. I felt like I was kind of a zombie," he says. "And then I looked at my shotgun, and I felt like there was nothing left in my life. No future for me. I had all this anger building up, and I guess I just felt like doing something. Anything. There was no sense behind it. It was just senseless."
He speaks in a monotone, exhibiting the manners that he was taught by the Cookes. He is polite and helpful, even as he quietly describes in graphic detail the night that he shotgunned his parents to death. "Am I talking too fast?" "Did I answer your question?" "I hope I'm not going on and on." "Does that make sense?"
Occasionally, a question stumps him, as when he is asked to describe himself. What kind of person is he?
He responds, "That is the kind of question I would need a lot of time to think about. I am not very, uh, I am kind of a slow person. That is a very good question," which, after a prolonged silence, he cannot answer.
Late on the night of the murders, in a small interview room on the eighth floor of Fairfax County police headquarters, homicide detective Robert Bond, a 15-year police veteran, struggled to answer the same question. He looked at the calm, polite, fresh-faced young man sitting across the table in a ski jacket, bluejeans and Timberland boots and sized him up: He was an articulate, somewhat naive kid who had no history of smoking, drinking or doing drugs -- let alone anything violent -- and he was shockingly matter-of-fact in describing what he had just done.
"He really didn't have any reaction whatsoever," Bond recalled in an interview. "He wasn't angry. He didn't show he was sorry for what he did. There were no tears. And no anger. It was just like your typical shoplifting arrest. You usually get more reaction from someone like that than we did out of Josh."
"His statement was that nothing really provoked it. Everything was fine in the house," Bond said, shaking his head.
In the entire 90-minute interrogation, Joshua offered only one detail suggesting any conflict with his parents, Bond said: The Cookes had adopted Joshua, at age 6, and his biological sister, Tiffany, at 5, in 1989, and, Joshua said, they had always refused to give them any information about their birth parents. Yet Joshua mentioned this situation almost in passing, Bond said, without anger.
Two weeks after the killings, long after police were finished processing the grisly crime scene, Joshua's court-appointed defense lawyer Rachel Fierro came upon some clues in the house that she thought might help explain her client's mental state. Entering Joshua's room, Fierro was struck by the prominent "Matrix" poster, then the black cape, the black boots and his collection of video games. She gathered up much of it, for possible court exhibits. When she and her husband and co-counsel, Mani Fierro, reinterviewed their client and asked about his room, Josh suddenly turned animated at mention of "The Matrix."
In describing the murders, Joshua told his lawyers, "It was like a video game . . . like I was in a virtual reality. It was like I was watching myself."
The Fierros believed they had the makings of an insanity defense, asking the Fairfax County Circuit Court to order a psychiatric examination because Joshua "harbored a bona fide belief that he was living in the virtual reality of 'The Matrix' at the time of the alleged offenses, and thus could not distinguish right from wrong or understand the nature, character and consequences of his act."
In June, the results of a mental exam by Nadine Fakhran, a staff psychologist at the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center, were presented to the Fierros, concluding that Joshua Cooke was mentally competent and capable of telling right from wrong. His lawyers abandoned the insanity defense, and he pleaded guilty on June 24 to two counts of first-degree murder and two felony gun charges. The lawyers decided that his apparent mental illness, while falling short of the legal standard for insanity, would be raised at his sentencing hearing, along with his obsession with "The Matrix" and video violence.
There was great excitement on Adel Road on August 11, 1989, the day that Paul and Margaret Cooke arrived home in their blue Volvo after the long drive from Dayton, Ohio, with their two skinny, bespectacled and somewhat bewildered new children. Six-year-old Joshua and his little sister had been rescued, it appeared, from a grim future in a succession of foster homes and had been delivered into a new life of great promise.
Paul Clifford Cooke and Margaret Louise Ruffin had met 15 years earlier when they received master's degrees at the University of Pennsylvania's prestigious Wharton business school. They married in 1978 and launched successful careers in different branches of IBM. They moved into a comfortable home in Manassas before building the bigger one in Oakton. But by 1986, when Paul was 35 and Margaret 40, they decided something in their life was missing. As Paul explained in a pre-adoption interview with Prince William County social workers, "We feel we have love to share."
The extended Cooke family was excited about the children's arrival, and Joshua and Tiffany were warmly received into the clan. In the kids' first year in Virginia, the Cookes held a gala 50th anniversary party for the children's grandparents, prominent Washingtonians Paul Phillips Cooke and Rose Clifford Cooke, with 50 guests gathering under a large white tent near the swimming pool. All dressed up, "Tiffany and Josh were introduced to everyone, and they went around from table to table meeting people, as if the party were for them," their aunt Anne Cooke recalled with a laugh.
"From the day they were adopted, they were Cookes. They were Cookes! Doctor and Mrs. Cooke's grandchildren, Paul and Margaret's children, and our niece and nephew," said Anne Cooke. On the kids' first Christmas in Oakton, their Aunt Katherine Cooke recalled, "we went berserk at Toys R Us! We had carts filled up for each of them."
But Margaret and Paul knew precious little about the life histories of the children they adopted. In 1984, at age 1, Joshua, and newborn Tiffany, had been removed from their birth parents, who had been declared unfit and neglectful by the Ohio Department of Human Services, according to their adoption records. Those records tell a harrowing story of Joshua's earliest years -- which the Cookes never knew because, when they applied to become adoptive parents in 1986, such documentation was not made available to new parents.
According to those records, Joshua's biological father was a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic and a former male prostitute who repeatedly battered Joshua's birth mother. Joshua's mother also had been a prostitute, and had a history of psychiatric illnesses, including schizophrenia. The father's violence persisted even during supervised visits at a social worker's office when Joshua was a 3-year-old in foster care. "The father ranted and raved, attempting to intimidate the staff. In fact, he terrified his children. Finally, on 4/18, he actually destroyed furniture and tore up carpeting during his visit," according to a September 1986 report used to get a court order barring further visits.
Two months later, a caseworker described Joshua as a "very loving and easy-going child," despite fairly severe speech, hearing and vision problems. Bed-wetting and recurring nightmares were also noted. The caseworker mentioned that after the father's visits "Joshua had nightmares and was trying to hurt himself and scratch himself . . . [He] does that whenever anything hurts him or [he] doesn't understand something."
Joshua, who does not remember his birth parents, says that he was abused by his foster mother, who smacked him and hit him with a belt. He says that she forced children who misbehaved to beat each other with "switches" from backyard trees, and that she also fondled him several times. Tiffany also has recollections of the foster mother making children hit each other, although no reference to abuse appeared in their records.
Whatever Joshua's traumas, that was all behind him now, as he settled into quiet family life in suburbia with Paul and Margaret Cooke.
Paul was the only son of one of Washington's most prominent African American educators, Paul Phillips Cooke, who from 1944 to 1974 was a professor, dean and president of the District of Columbia Teachers College, which later became the University of the District of Columbia. The junior Cooke described to the Prince William County adoption workers his happy middle-class childhood, growing up in a comfortable rowhouse in Columbia Heights in Northwest with his parents and sisters, all college-educated. He played football at Archbishop Carroll and worked to help put himself through the University of Maryland.
Margaret was the only daughter of a father she never knew, a Baltimore steelworker who was shot to death by a woman, according to Margaret's mother, Ethel Ruffin Jones. Margaret told the social workers that she grew up in a working-class Baltimore family, her stepfather a steelworker and her mother a nurse. Her mother had given her a strong religious background in the Episcopal Church. She graduated from Baltimore public schools, and paid her own way through Morgan State College, where she graduated with honors.
In addition to financial security, social workers enthusiastically cited the Cookes' other personal qualifications for adoption: They both had "a calm and reasoning manner" and "they appear to know each other well as a couple . . . a good-looking couple with a conservative lifestyle. They are serious about life, and it shows that they enjoy life. They are family oriented."
"They realize they have limited experience with children, and parenting will be a learning experience for them," the report said. "They are mainly interested in healthy children."
On a warm afternoon in October, Joshua's two aunts sat in the front room of their family's rowhouse on Girard Street NW, where they and Paul grew up. It is a home still shrouded in grief: One week after more than 1,000 mourners turned out for the Cooke funerals, their mother, Rose Clifford Cooke, 83, had a heart attack that the family attributes to the shock of the murders. She died in June. The two sisters now spend considerable time helping their father, whom they respectfully address as "Doctor Cooke" when speaking to him.
At 86, the elder Cooke is a pale and somewhat spectral presence, a man who has lost his wife, his only son and, essentially, his only grandson. He is blind but remains vigorous and active; while his daughters were reminiscing about family life upstairs, Paul Phillips Cooke was working with an assistant downstairs, organizing thousands of pages of his personal papers, many of which have already been donated to Howard University. He declined to talk about his family's tragedies, offering instead to talk about his work in the civil rights movement, which earned him numerous headlines and, he proudly added, an FBI file.
Anne and Katherine Cooke said they grew up in a family that emphasized the importance of education and discipline but always had room for fun. They said their brother created a similar tone with his own family. They recalled outings to movies, parks, swimming pools, miniature golf, family parties and vacations. Tiffany was clearly the brighter, more outgoing child, but they found Joshua to be warm and affectionate. Anne remembered Joshua, a movie lover, once offering to miss a movie and stay home with her when she was ill.
"He was compassionate. It's unbelievable to me. It's not the Joshua we knew," Anne Cooke said. "I just can't put the two people together."
The sisters said they believe Paul and Margaret were firm but loving parents.
"They were like the American dream to me," Katherine Cooke said. "Their MBAs, their careers, a beautiful home, a great community, two wonderful kids. I remember thinking, 'They have a great life.'"
Their assessment was echoed by friends and neighbors. "They were wonderful parents. I wish at times I could've been that good. They seemed wonderfully together" as a family, said Sue Coryell, a neighbor who considered the Cookes close friends for a decade and spent considerable time with Josh. "They were more normal than normal," said her husband, Ned.
"I never heard them raise their voice to their children. Never. And not many parents can say that. I can't." Neil Stottlemyer, who coached youth basketball with Paul Cooke and whose son was a Cub Scout with Josh, said he admired Paul's patience with his son. "There should be more parents like them," he said.
Outwardly, Josh was a shy, self-conscious but sweet and happy kid, recalled Grace Terzian, an across-the-street neighbor. She said Josh and Tiffany always had been open about discussing their adoption, and Terzian remembered one beautiful spring morning when Josh, about 12, stood with her and admired the Cookes' house with its blossoming garden and colorful landscaping that were Paul's pride. As Josh looked at his home, he told her, "I'm the luckiest boy in the world."
But Joshua left a different impression among his few former friends. They described him as lonely and isolated, particularly demoralized by the strict rules in the Cooke house. "Most of what I remember is his dad lecturing and correcting him," said Addison Singleton, 21, a neighborhood friend. "His dad was kind to me, but I do remember he was pretty tough on Josh." Joshua was rarely, if ever, allowed to have friends play at his house, and then only with multiple restrictions. "It was kind of peculiar, playing with them," said Hillman Terzian, 18, whom Josh considered his closest friend. "They'd ask me to come over, and then they would say they'd have to check it out first with their mom . . . There was rigorous checking and confirming. Sometimes it was okay for me to come over, but only to play outside, not inside . . . Sometimes I could come inside, but it was only for a certain specific path." And he was never allowed into Josh's room.
"Inside the house always felt very rigid," Terzian said. "To me, he conveyed a sense of being trapped, like it was prison."
Joshua appears drained, his eyes downcast, as he recounts his bleak version of life in the Cooke home. Asked to recall any happy memories, he answers, "I never really enjoyed being with my mother, because she would always turn everything into an argument. My dad, he was a little bit better. We went to amusement parks a few times, and he would ride with me, and we had some fun. Other than that, of course we had Christmas, and I remember one or two birthday parties, but very small. I didn't have friends over. Everything was always arguing or miserable."
Joshua remembers very little affection. "My father was very formal with everything. He didn't want to hug me or Tiffany. He would give you a handshake. I remember wanting to hug him, when I was little, you know, like, 'Hey, I love you' . . . and he would kinda push me away, like this," he says, raising his hands, shrinking back. "It was the same way with my mom. She would let me hug her for a second or two, but then shrug me off. I just never really felt part of the love."
Nor can he remember his parents showing much affection for each other. "I don't even remember them ever hugging."
What Josh says he remembers most vividly is his mother's anger at his persistent bed-wetting, which lasted well past age 10. "It was just cruel things, like pushing my face into the urine, and slapping me or choking me," he says. "She would say I was nasty. I was pathetic. 'That's disgusting.' Call me pea-brain. Stupid. I just sat and didn't do anything. I just sat there and took it."
Nightmares persist to this day, he says. "Always about somebody trying to kill me, or something chasing me, something terrifying . . . I would get up and run around . . . One time I ran into the bedroom window . . . I'd had a dream about my father trying to kill me, and here he was banging on the door, and I was even more terrified."
Margaret and Paul rarely talked to outsiders about their problems, but Margaret's longtime college friend Sharon Spratley said that she told her about Josh's difficulties socializing with other kids and about his nightmares and sleeplessness, which she tried to remedy with over-the-counter drugs.
Discipline, which was primarily meted out by his mother, consisted mostly of losing TV privileges, or a meal, Joshua says. "I wouldn't get dinner, just for things like I didn't get my homework right, or a bad grade on a test." Joshua recalls being put on Ritalin briefly by his pediatrician when he was about 10, but it did not help his academic performance.
Tiffany Cooke, in a telephone interview from her Pennsylvania college campus, confirmed parts of Joshua's account, but said that much of it seemed exaggerated. She recalled that her mother would slap the children for bed-wetting and make them sleep in wet beds. "I don't know if she understood that when we wet the bed, we weren't doing it on purpose," she said. Her mother was a tough disciplinarian, particularly about schoolwork, she said. "No work, no eat," was her motto, particularly around report-card time.
Tiffany said her parents were "very private" people who did not display their affection. But up until about age 10, she recalled, the family had "kisses and hugs time" when the children were tucked into bed.
Because of their strictness, "I had a hard time with my parents" from about ages 11 to 13, Tiffany said. "I couldn't stand them. I hated them." But by the time of high school and college, "I loved my parents more than I thought I could. I fell in love with my father and mother."
But she remembered Joshua having a harder time, being particularly plagued by the nightmares and the school bullying. In grade school, Joshua was "thin and short, with big glasses, and they called him Urkel," referring to a famously nerdy character in a popular 1990s TV show, she said. "All through his life, he had that constant bombardment of negativity. He couldn't help what he was, or what he looked like. Even his friends made fun of him," she said. "We used to come home from school, and he used to tell me how angry he was about who was bothering him, and then he would just be silent about it."
When Josh got to Oakton High School, his tormentors gave him more names: Four Eyes. Ugly Duckling. Square Head. Puny. Dumb. "And I believed everything they said about me . . . I had absolutely no self-confidence," he says. "I was afraid of everybody." Josh sublimated that fear; later, when he watched "The Matrix," he'd sometimes imagine the people being shotgunned by Neo were actually the bullies from school.
The negative reaction of girls only reinforced his low self-esteem, even after he got rid of his eyeglasses in favor of contact lenses around 16. "I always thought I was ugly. I still do today," he says. "I just thought girls like guys who are handsome, with wavy hair. Tall and dark." As he says this, he laughs self-consciously for the first time, and averts his eyes.
The Cookes had already pulled Tiffany out of public school because they thought her language and behavior were getting rougher, and they feared more negative influences in high school. So Josh joined Tiffany at the Fairfax private school Margaret had selected -- Way of the Faith Christian Academy, operated with missionary spirit by the Assemblies of God. Josh, a steady churchgoer with his mother, did better in the tiny school with only four students in his graduating class. With tutoring, he got passing grades. "His stay here was so natural, and nothing outstanding or bizarre about his behavior," said Ellen Blackwell, the school director. "I think whatever altered his personality, he encountered after he left here."
Despite all the Cooke family's emphasis on education, it was obvious Joshua didn't measure up. Tiffany got B's and A's, and Josh C's and D's. The Cookes, on rare occasions, expressed to family and friends their disappointment and concern. "Margaret and Paul were both high achievers. Joshua was not, and he didn't want to be," said James Hines, a family friend and former IBM colleague. "And that was unfortunate."
Joshua says he felt his parents' growing frustration, but the conflict intensified after puberty hit, around 15. "A girl I met at church, we got talking. I never had a girlfriend and never been on a date. We were talking on the phone, and I asked if I could write to her, and she said, 'Send me some pictures, too,' and I said, 'What about, like, naked pictures?' And she said, 'Okay.'" So, "I sent them to her house . . . these close-up shots, and it didn't show my face," he says.
When the girl's parents found the photos and told the Cookes, "I thought I was dead. Man, that was embarrassing," Joshua says. "My father, he was so mad at me, he just didn't look at me and he ignored me. After that, things were really different."
Relations with his father were "already bad enough," Joshua says, "but then one day -- this is stupid, but -- he found me gratifying myself, and after that, it was really over with us. He just looked at me and said, 'You're disgusting' . . . He was just so mad at me, he said I was like scum."
With the years, Joshua's isolation grew. "I always wondered why Tiffany had more friends, and she would tell me, 'You know, you're antisocial. You need to go out and make friends, go to parties and things, whatever.' Try to sneak out, you know, because our parents wouldn't let us. But I just didn't want to. I would stay in my room all day and play video games. Just lay in my bed all day. I didn't want to go out anywhere."
Asked who his closest friends were, he names three neighbors, Hillman Terzian, Addison Singleton and Marcus Edmonds. One reason he liked going to their houses, Josh says, was that his parents didn't allow violent games or toy guns, so he'd go to the neighbors to play war. Terzian and Singleton, in separate interviews, each said they had liked Josh as preteens, but started to avoid him years ago because Joshua only wanted to shoot baskets or play video games; he had nothing to say, and they had no other common interests. "I'd tell my dad to tell him I was napping" if Josh came over, said Terzian. Said Singleton, "I would say, 'Mom, tell him I'm not home,'" when Josh called. As for Edmonds, now a college freshman, his family said he had cut off contact with Josh at age 11 for reasons they did not want to discuss.
Josh, whose parents did not allow him to get his driver's license until 18, recalls running away from home one night several years ago. He walked more than an hour to the nearest Metro station, going into Washington, wandering around the Mall and spending the night shivering cold. When he took the Metro back and walked home the next morning, his furious parents told him they had called the police. But he doesn't remember any severe penalty. By then, Joshua says, "it seemed like they just gave up on me."
Joshua did not want to go to college, but his parents pushed it, and he agreed to try Virginia State's program in hotel management. He found it boring, quickly stopped going to classes and never socialized. One night, he screwed up his courage enough to go out to a nightclub, he says, with devastating results. "I remember I got rejected by all the girls. I would go up to them and try to be as nice as I could and ask, 'Would you like to dance?' I didn't do anything out of the ordinary. But they just took one look at me, and went, 'Shooo,' " he says. "And all the other guys found a girl, and they were dancing, having a great time, and I just sat there, looking around, like, 'What's wrong with me?' So I never went back."
In July 2002, in simple, childlike handwriting, Joshua Cooke filled out an application for the Marines. He wrote: "I, Joshua Cooke want to be a Marine because I need to have more discipline and structure. I want to have a transformation of mind and body and become someone who is respected."
The Marines, in retrospect, were his last chance. "It seemed to give him hope," said Grace Terzian, who remembered telling Josh about her brother, who had always struggled in school but thrived after a stint in the military. "He smiled at the idea that it would straighten him out. He was very optimistic," she recalled. "He said he knew he had to grow up some more."
Last fall, while awaiting word from the Marines, Joshua became a "courtesy technician" at Jiffy Lube in Vienna, vacuuming cars, washing windows, checking tire pressures. A bawdy atmosphere prevailed among the male mechanics, with much talk about women -- and Joshua never seemed to fit, said Lorenzo Ramsey, 23, a mechanic who tried to befriend him. "All the guys at Jiffy had nicknames: Mac Dog, Hannibal, Seven and Lulu. But we could never come up with any nickname for Josh. I don't know why. He was just different."
Guys liked to fool around and wrestle, and Josh "once hurt a guy accidentally, and he was so, so apologetic, like, 'I'm so sorry, man. I'm so sorry' . . . He was such a gentle guy," Ramsey said. When small things went wrong, as they inevitably did, Ramsey said, Josh would severely berate himself, repeatedly saying, " 'I messed up. I messed up.' And I had to tell him that the managers yell at everybody."
After work, a group of the men occasionally frequented strip clubs in Southeast Washington, Ramsey said, and often talked about the night's activities the next morning. During one such conversation, 19-year-old Josh informed his co-workers that he was a virgin and was "waiting for the right woman," Ramsey said. The crew hooted and teased him. "I rolled my eyes" and took Josh aside to counsel him that he shouldn't tell everybody his business, Ramsey said. "And he said, 'I got nothing to hide.'"
Several weeks later, Josh says, he lost his virginity by calling an escort service he found listed in the Yellow Pages. He met the woman at a motel in Vienna. "It cost like 200 dollars up front, and like 50 dollars for oral copulation; I think that is what you call it. I have a slang term for it, but I shouldn't say that," he says, bashfully. "And then it was like 50 more for, uh, intercourse. I was surprised at how well I did. I thought I would be like all scared and timid, but I was fine."
One night last January, after many attempts, several members of the Jiffy crew persuaded Josh to join them at a strip joint near the Washington Navy Yard. A wide-eyed Josh spent most of the night just gawking, Ramsey said, and didn't drink even a single beer. But by night's end, he said, Josh worked up the courage to follow the club's custom and slip a bill into a stripper's G-string. Later that night, at an "underground" club, Josh says, he had sex with one of the strippers. "You have to pay, like 60 dollars, but she said she liked me, 'So just give me 15.'" He pauses as he says this, and looks down. "It's pretty sad, basically."
That night, they didn't get home until about 1 a.m., Ramsey recalled, and Josh was "cold sober." But the next morning, Josh told the Jiffy guys that he could never come out with them again. "My parents didn't like it," Ramsey remembered him saying. "He seemed really hurt that he couldn't hang out with us anymore . . ."
"Josh, he wanted to get away. He felt trapped. It was like the kid was locked down," Ramsey said. "I wish he had told me. If he had to escape something, maybe I could have helped."
Joshua Cooke sits without movement or visible emotion for nearly three hours as he tells his story. Recounting his awkwardness with girls evokes a shy smile, but otherwise his manner remains hauntingly detached, even as he describes what happened the night of February 17.
"It didn't seem real," he says, when the conversation comes to the actual shootings. "I had never seen anything like that before. I'd seen a lot on video, but it's nothing compared to real life. On video, they have, like, someone gets shot and a little bit of blood comes out. But when you shoot somebody in the face with a 12-gauge shotgun -- I never thought I would see anything like that."
He says this in a flat tone, as if describing something unusual that he happened to witness. He makes eye contact as he speaks, but betrays no pain. "It replays in my head, over and over," he says. In his dreams, his parents' faces are healed, but horribly scarred, and "my mother is yelling at me, and my father is yelling at me, like, 'I hate you,'" he says. "But another night, she might say, 'I forgive you for doing that,' and I might say, 'I am sorry, Mom. Blah, blah, blah.' I have those dreams like every other night."
Asked repeatedly about his motivation, he says, "This might sound sick, but it didn't seem like that big of a deal at the time. It kind of seemed like, well, let me do this, you know. I mean, kind of like that. I had given up on my life. Failing college was my fault, and then rejection from the Marines, and never having a girlfriend, and being antisocial, not having any friends. I mean, like, what is there left for me to do? I didn't really care. I didn't care if I died. I didn't care what happened to anybody.'"
Dressing as Neo became an important break from that life, he says. "I felt like it was drawing attention to me, like, 'Hey, he looks like the guy in "The Matrix." He looks like one of those guys from the Columbine shooting' . . . Any kind of attention was good -- negative or positive. I just wanted it. I didn't have any kind of love or understanding for Dylan Klebold, the guy in Columbine. But I just thought if I resembled them, so maybe somebody would point at me, and people would look at me and say, 'Look at him.' Does that make any sense? I know it sounds weird . . .
"I felt like nobody wanted me, and maybe if I could get some kind of attention, any kind of attention, somebody might come up to me and talk to me."
Eight months after the killings, he is able to express regret. "I mean, obviously, I feel really bad about it. I am not a monster. Right after it happened, I felt like I was a monster. How could I do something like this? But yeah, I definitely feel remorseful." He continues, "Really, I don't deserve any mercy. I really deserve the death penalty, and I think God has shown me a lot of mercy. I mean, I killed two people . . . and every day, obviously every day I wish I didn't do it. Not because I got caught, but just because it was so horrible and I never should have done that. I don't think they deserved it."
On October 1, Joshua Cooke sat impassively next to the Fierros for more than four hours as his fate was being determined by Fairfax Circuit Court Judge Kathleen MacKay and as his troubled brain was publicly dissected in court testimony. The only legal questions remaining were how long a prison term he would serve and whether he would receive psychiatric treatment. Looming over the proceedings, though, were the unanswered questions about the crimes: Why did he do it and what could make a seemingly gentle teenager capable of this?
After belatedly obtaining, by court order, the more than 400 pages of adoption records, Joshua's lawyers wondered: Had Joshua inherited his parents' schizophrenia? His sentencing was delayed so the Fierros could arrange another mental exam. David Shostak, a Northern Virginia clinical psychologist with 25 years' experience in treating childhood disorders, interviewed Joshua on September 13.
"In a nutshell, there is truly a schizophrenia here," Shostak wrote, but he added that it was "well-masked" because Joshua never showed outward signs such as the hallucinations and delusions associated with full-blown cases. Shostak later testified that the combination of deep childhood trauma and failures in adolescence -- when schizophrenia typically develops -- had resulted in a "detachment from the self."
"People are scarcely real to him," Shostak said, and "video games are a community he could relate to." Because of his unsettled, disjointed early childhood, Joshua had never formed a normal bond to parent figures, Shostak said, and then suffered an "attachment failure" with his adoptive parents. He testified he believed the murders arose from a subconscious self-loathing that Joshua aimed instead at the only available targets. "Let me destroy the mirrors," said Shostak, "and I won't have to look at the self." He called the act "a deflected suicide."
"This was a truly preventable tragedy. He shouldn't have had a gun. He should have been diagnosed and treated long ago, maybe from age 10," said David Pickar, a psychiatrist and internationally known expert who for more than a decade headed the schizophrenia research unit at the National Institute of Mental Health. Pickar, who reviewed the basics of the Cooke case at the request of The Washington Post, said a biological child of a schizophrenic has roughly a 10 percent chance of developing the disease, while a child of two schizophrenics would have a 40 to 50 percent chance. He added, however, that he was not convinced that schizophrenia was the proper diagnosis because Joshua never was comprehensively examined.
"This kid, from the information I have, went into the legal system without an adequate work-up, psychiatrically," Pickar said. The defendant should have had a brain scan and been examined by a psychiatrist, a neurologist and a neuro-psychologist, he said, because there is a question whether he suffered from brain damage or possibly a form of retardation from a very early age.
The description of his mental illness was a revelation to him, Joshua says. "Yes, it seemed very true, especially the part about separating my emotions from the self. I never realized that until recently. When big things happened in my life, I tended to not take them very hard. I tend to be like, 'Hmmmm,' you know?" he says. But his recent failures, in retrospect, have jarred him. "I just kinda got this new look at life, like, 'This is reality. This is the real world. It's a terrible place, and you just have to expect things like this and take them. Take them like a man.'"
Under Virginia's sentencing guidelines, Joshua faced about 26 to 46 years in prison for the murders. Defense witnesses included a University of Michigan psychologist, Brad Bushman, who published an article in the journal Science reviewing 287 previous studies of the effect of video violence on the behavior of more than 50,000 research subjects. Bushman said the research definitively showed that video violence increases heart rate, arousal and anger, and thus the likelihood of violent behavior.
In her summation, Rachel Fierro argued that Joshua's deprivations as a child and his mental illness made him particularly susceptible to the influence of violent video. Fierro asked the judge for a prison term on the lower end of the scale, and also requested that Joshua be sent first to a state mental hospital for medication and treatment before entering prison.
The prosecutor, Fairfax Commonwealth's Attorney Robert Horan, dismissed the issue of video images causing crime. "Millions of people have seen 'The Matrix' and maybe three have committed violence," he said. In his cross-examination of Shostak, the defense psychologist, Horan also demonstrated that the specific illness that Shostak diagnosed, "simple schizophrenia," was actually an antiquated definition that is no longer recognized by the American Psychiatric Association.
Shostak testified that Joshua might have understood the act he committed, "but as far as the self, it was as if it was the action of another." But Horan pointed to examples of the defendant appearing fully aware of the nature of his crime, and its consequences. In his second 911 call, Joshua told the dispatcher: "I'm, I'm 19. I know I'm gonna get the [expletive] death penalty for this [expletive] but, uh, I guess that's the way it is."
MacKay sentenced Joshua to a total of 40 years, which, in Virginia, is without possibility of parole. She declined to order psychiatric treatment, leaving that decision to the state prison system. Pickar said Joshua obviously required long-term incarceration but added that it was "tragic" he has never gotten a full diagnosis. As an indigent with court-appointed lawyers, Joshua could not have afforded a comprehensive psychological exam, Pickar said.
At the time of his sentencing, Joshua Cooke stood, without looking at the judge or any of the several family members in the courtroom. He read a brief statement he had written: "Your honor, I have asked the Lord to forgive me . . . Every day I think of that Monday night. I feel terrible for what happened to my parents. I apologize to my family. I am deeply sorry. I hope and pray to God that one day they will forgive me."
Tiffany Cooke has visited and written to her brother in jail. She said she feels pity for him, but has not yet found forgiveness.
After his sentencing, in a second interview over the course of two hours, Joshua Cooke agrees to pose for photographs. Initially, he is quiet, politely respectful. As the session progresses, he loosens up and becomes more animated, seeming as eager as a little kid to pose for the camera. He tells the photographer he once took a photo class and thought it would be cool to be a photographer for Playboy.
He is told that he seems both more lively and more tranquil. "I've already exploded," he says. "Before this happened, I felt I was on the edge, like I was gonna explode. People would say, 'You seem angry,' and I was. Now I am more relaxed and more at peace." He says he spends considerable time reading Christian books and the Bible. "I'm gonna try to be good for the rest of my life, and serve God. Does that make any sense?"
Unlike his past life, he says, he has made friends in jail, mostly among older inmates who have counseled him about his upcoming prison life, particularly about avoiding violence and sexual predators. He says he plans to steer clear of conflict, "but they told me you can't just walk away, because you will be treated like you are weak. You will be treated like a bitch. That's what they call them. So if somebody hits you, you gotta beat them to the ground." Because he's never been in a real fight, Joshua acknowledges that this might be difficult, "But I can't just walk away."
In some ways, he says, the prison environment reminds him of the "structure and discipline" he was seeking in the Marines. "That's what I wanted," he says, "to get away from home and be on my own." He admits to being apprehensive, but says, "I'm really looking forward to going to prison. I've talked to a lot of people in my eight months, and they say prison is better than jail" because you have time for recreation, working out and watching TV in your cell.
Asked about his future, Joshua ponders the question and then looks over his graying interviewer. "How old are you?" he asks. The answer is 53. "If I get credit for good behavior, I could be out at 55.
"You seem to have a good life," he goes on. "I'd still have time to have a good life. Maybe have a family." If he ever has children, he says, he would allow them to play video games, "but not violent games."
His only regret about the legal process, he says, is that the judge did not order psychiatric treatment before prison. "I'm not right in the head . . . I know there is something wrong with me . . . Otherwise I wouldn't have done this. I feel different from other people and I know I need some kind of treatment."
"It's not normal," he says. "I got 40 years a couple of weeks ago, and I just don't really feel much about that. It's just like, 'Whatever,' and I don't really understand that. I should be crying, and all sad and stuff, but I am not. I am just . . . I am okay with it."
An improbable outcome of the case is that Joshua has finally been able to answer many of the questions he had about his identity. He has received a copy of his adoption records that he keeps among his few personal belongings, and he says he has pored over the entire file. He learned that his birth father joined the Marines at 19 and was later discharged, and met his mother, who was a former waitress and truck driver, when they were both in a therapy program. As their relationship grew more violent, she fled to California, and underwent numerous psychiatric hospitalizations.
But his birth mother also kept track of her children, through Ohio social workers. Among the hundreds of pages of Joshua's adoption records is a letter that she wrote to her son, asking that it be forwarded to him via his adoptive parents. It read:
"Son, here are some pictures of all of us together. I pray for you. Tradgedy hit our lives and I only want you to have the best life you deserve. I pray your parents will be the best parents in the world. Thank God you and Tif can stay together. I've prayed for it so much. I love you, Josy." In closing, she wrote, "Please forgive me, Mom.