Shocking is an understatement, but it’s one way to describe a drug scandal that rocked the St. Clair County Courthouse in 2013.
St. Clair County Circuit Judge Michael Cook was arrested by federal agents on May 23 at the Belleville residence of his customary drug dealer. Cook, who had presided over criminal cases including drug felonies and murders, quickly resigned, sought treatment out of state and pleaded guilty in federal court on Nov. 8 to possessing heroin while in possession of firearms.
Cook’s arrest came two months after the death of his friend and colleague, Associate Judge Joe Christ. Cook found Christ’s body on March 10, in the Pike County hunting lodge of Cook’s father, Belleville lawyer Bruce Cook.
At the time of his death, the public was informed by St. Clair County officials that Christ, a long time prosecutor for the State’s Attorney’s office who had only been a judge for less than two weeks, died of natural causes. The public was informed months later by Pike County Sheriff Paul Petty that Christ died of cocaine intoxification.
Cook’s plea agreement with federal prosecutors recommends an 18-month sentence, three years of supervised release and a fine within guidelines. His sentencing will take place on Jan. 17. In the meantime, prosecutors on Dec. 13 filed a presentence investigation report under seal.
The agreement requires Cook to forfeit all of his weapons and ammunition, which, according to a three-page list, includes 13 shotguns, 10 rifles and 10 other firearms, as well as plenty of rounds, shells and cartridges.
In connection with Cook’s arrest, the feds also took down Cook’s supplier Sean McGilvery of Belleville. He pleaded guilty Oct. 17 to conspiring to distribute heroin. In his stipulation, McGilvery said that Cook would “pick up amounts of heroin on an almost daily basis” from his residence. He will be sentenced Jan. 23 and faces 10 years to life.
The feds separately arrested St. Clair County probation officer James Fogarty in May, after showing him text messages that implicated him as Christ’s cocaine dealer. He pleaded guilty Nov. 6 to supplying cocaine to Christ and awaits sentencing Feb. 28.
According to an FBI agent’s affidavit, Fogarty said he “did a line” with Cook and Christ and sold them a split “eight ball” of cocaine for $140 each the day before the judges went to the Pike County lodge in March. Fogarty also told the agent that the men used drugs together on multiple occasions, including golf outings, at a hunting cabin and at his Belleville residence, according to the affidavit.
Fogarty’s plea agreement calls for a five-year sentence, without extra years that federal prosecutors could recommend if they proved his crime resulted in death.
“On your best day I can give you probation,” said U.S. District Judge Michael Reagan to Fogarty. “On your worst day I can give you 30 years in the penitentiary.”
He also said, “If your involvement was such that it resulted in death or bodily harm to anyone, I won’t accept the agreement.”
Two major players in the distribution conspiracy were arrested in January, pleaded guilty in August and were sentenced in December.
Agents arrested Deborah Perkins, who ran her home at 20 Kassing Drive in Fairview Heights as a drug market, after a confidential source told them she would step off a bus in St. Louis with a load of heroin.
Feds also indicted her son, Douglas Oliver, and Eric Beckley of Centreville, as dealers under her direction.
Perkins distributed locally through Oliver, McGilvery and Beckley. Beckley pleaded guilty on Oct. 31, and awaits sentencing in March.
At sentencing on Dec. 5, Perkins and Oliver faced not only U.S. District Judge David Herndon, but also the mothers and 12 other relatives of Jessie Williams and Jennifer Herling, whose deaths resulted from their crimes.
Jenny Thomason, mother of Williams, said, “They dumped my daughter’s body.”
“They show no remorse for their actions,” Thomason said. “Because of their actions I will never get to see my daughter again. I’ll never hold her in my arms one last time.”
Chris Keel, mother of Herling, said, “I don’t see my daughter’s death as an accident.”
“Deep in my heart I know they murdered my daughter. If we robbed a bank and somebody got killed, we would all be in trouble. It was her house. It was her that went and got the drugs. It was her that gave the drugs to her son.”
Oliver accepted a 30-year sentence for selling heroin. Perkins was sentenced to 27 years for her role in the conspiracy.
Whether the drug investigation is wrapped up or ongoing remains an open question.
Oliver dropped a clue that an investigation of St. Clair County corruption continues. He told Herndon that he is cooperating with St. Clair County authorities.
Prosecutor Robert Garrison at the sentencing hearing apparently hadn’t expected him to reveal his cooperation. Garrison rose and told Herndon that because Oliver had made the statement in open court, he would confirm it.
U.S. Attorney Stephen Wigginton has indicted dozens of drug defendants this year without indicating whether he caught them in the same investigation that caught Cook.
One such connection popped up from the mass on Oct. 18, when Augustus Stacker of Belleville pleaded guilty of cocaine distribution.
He and the government stipulated that he supplied cocaine to Fogarty, and that one of their transactions was audio recorded on May 23.
The stipulation suggested that the investigation continues, by declaring that Stacker bought cocaine from “persons in the Southern District of Illinois.”
Another sign of ongoing investigation appeared in a detention order that Magistrate Judge Stephen Williams signed for Beckley.
Williams afforded him “reasonable opportunity for private consultation with counsel,” which a defendant would not normally need after pleading guilty.
Williams wrote that by court order or on request of a government attorney, Beckley’s prison warden must deliver him to a U.S. marshal “for the purpose of an appearance in connection with a court proceeding.”
By coincidence or not, two men in the mass of defendants pleaded guilty on Oct. 31.
Michael Scott Jr. stipulated that he sold an ounce of cocaine to a confidential informant for $1,400, on July 2 in Washington Park.
Deanthony Tillman stipulated that he sold two grams of crack to a confidential informant for $200, on June 27 in East St. Louis.
What kind of fallout has resulted from the scandal?
On Oct. 2, Circuit Judge Robert Haida ordered a new trial for murder suspect William Cosby, who was convicted by jurors on April 23.
Cosby won a new trial after trying to remove public defender Charles Baricevic, son of Chief Judge John Baricevic, from his case for failing to argue that the drug addiction of Cook corrupted his trial.
Cosby filed a pro se motion to withdraw Baricevic on Aug. 22, writing that his attorney “steadfastly refuses” to raise issues Cosby wanted to raise.
Cosby wrote that the issues concerned Cook’s “conduct, demeanor, impatience and obvious drug problem while presiding over this case.”
He wrote that he would raise more issues after receiving a transcript.
Cosby apparently didn’t know that his message had finally gotten through.
On Aug. 16, Baricevic had amended Cosby’s motion for a new trial to argue that Cook could not have conducted a fair trial.
Baricevic wrote that “criminal activity may have occurred during the course of trial.”
Haida denied Cosby’s motion to withdraw Baricevic on Aug. 27, and Baricevic represented Cosby at a hearing on Sept. 18.
Baricevic followed with a brief on Oct. 1, writing that the state was both an investigator of a sitting judge and a party to that judge’s bench.
“It defeats the purpose of a fair trial for one party to litigation to be privy to that information and not another, particularly when the unknowing party is the defendant to a first degree murder charge,” Baricevic wrote.
“The defendant cannot point to a specific instance when Judge Cook was on drugs. The defendant is neither an expert nor familiar with addicts.”
On Oct. 30, Haida granted a new trial to murder suspect Gregory Muse, who challenged his conviction by a jury in Cook’s court.
Cook presided over Muse’s trial on March 12 and 13, two and three days after he found the dead body of Christ in the Cook family hunting lodge near Pittsfield.
Public defender Erin Conner moved for a new trial for Muse in April. In August, Conner amended Muse’s motion to claim Cook’s addiction tainted the trial.
She argued that State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly should have disclosed to Muse that federal prosecutors were investigating Cook.
Conner also argued that Kelly should have filed motions to continue the trial and substitute another judge for Cook.
In September, assistant state’s attorney Deborah Phillips answered that Conner didn’t identify any error that Cook committed.
She wrote that disclosure might have compromised the investigation.
In response, Conner wrote that the state may not withhold material evidence without violating due process.
“Cook had slurred speech during the reading of the jury instructions,” Conner wrote.
“Had Defendant known that Cook’s capacity was in question, Defendant would have moved to substitute Cook.”
Drug testing for some – but not the judiciary
St. Clair County employees can expect random drug tests under a policy the county board adopted on Sept. 30.
County board members approved a policy which makes testing mandatory for employees and optional for themselves, citing a precedent (Chandler v. Miller) that lifts politicians above suspicion.
The old policy was just three sentences long, the new one is 17 pages. The policy does not encompass the judiciary.
“Random tests shall be unannounced and conducted at various times during the year,” the new policy provides.
A new employee must pass a test before starting work, and a current employee must pass one before moving up to a managerial position.
The policy also authorizes the county to test any employee for probable cause.
While the judiciary is exempt from mandatory drug testing, some judges have expressed a willingness to submit to voluntary testing and reveal results to the public, including the two candidates running for former Judge Cook’s seat - Circuit Judge Stephen McGlynn, a Republican, and Associate Judge Heinz Rudolf.
(Steve Korris contributed to this report).