Knowing her rapist and would-be killer was going to be released from prison Thursday, Sandra Podgorski-Rollins told the court Nathaniel Cook and his brother had taken her innocence but not her will to survive or her passion for life.
“God was there with me,” Ms. Podgorski-Rollins said of the night in 1980 when she was attacked and her boyfriend murdered. “In the end, [God] is the one who they will have to answer to.”
Moments later, Lucas County Common Pleas Judge Linda Jennings reluctantly granted Cook's motion for judicial release. She said she was bound by the law and bound by a plea agreement struck with Cook and his brother, Anthony Cook, in 2000.
“Frankly Mr. Cook, I was trying to find a legal basis to prevent your release,” the judge told him. “Unfortunately I have found none, and although I never would have agreed to it, I am however forced to comply with the agreement entered into by my predecessor, the state of Ohio, defendant, and defense counsel.”
The plea agreement resolved a string of previously unsolved homicides committed by the Cook brothers, and guaranteed Anthony Cook, now 69, would spend his life in prison and Nathaniel Cook would be released from prison after 20 years behind bars.
As part of the deal, Cook pleaded guilty to attempted aggravated murder and two counts of kidnapping stemming from the May 14, 1980, abduction of Tom Gordon, 24, and his girlfriend, a then-18-year-old Sandra Podgorski. Mr. Gordon was shot to death, while Ms. Podgorski was raped and stabbed.
Cook and his older brother gave full confessions — with immunity — about the homicides they were responsible for in Lucas County. Most of the killings occurred in 1980 and 1981 and involved attacks on couples parked in cars or on young women abducted while walking down the street.
While family members of the Cooks' many victims were upset by Cook's release, Lucas County Prosecutor Julia Bates did not oppose Cook's motion for release from prison, saying she too was bound to uphold the agreement her office made.
“It was a very troubling, poignant, emotional, tumultuous roller coaster in my stomach,” Mrs. Bates said afterward. “... We can never say or do anything that will unravel the tragedy that those people felt, all of those people. We tried to give them just a modicum, a scintilla, of justice.”
Cook will be under the court's supervision for the next five years.
Judge Jennings placed him on community control for five years and ordered him to spend the first six months at the Lucas County Work Release Program — a lockdown facility where defendants work or look for work during the day. He was moved to the work release facility Thursday.
The judge ordered that Cook wear an electronic monitor with GPS for 12 months. She barred him from consuming alcohol or drugs during his five years of probation and ordered that he complete sex offender, mental health, and substance abuse assessments and treatment.
She classified him as a sexual predator and told him he must register his address every 90 days with the sheriff in any county where he lives, works, or goes to school for the rest of his life.
Cook also is to have no contact with any of the victims of his crimes, and the judge made it clear what would happen if he broke any of the rules she'd outlined.
“Mr. Cook, if you violate one condition of community control, if you violate any laws, if you leave the state of Ohio without the permission of the court or your supervising probation officer, you will do the balance of your sentence in a state institution and I will not hesitate to send you back if you violate the conditions of community control,” the judge said.
Cook remained calm and seemingly emotionless throughout the 26-minute hearing, even when Ms. Podgorski-Rollins and Doreen Powers, the sister of Tom Gordon, spoke.
Ms. Powers read the names of Cook brothers' victims: Vicky Small, Connie Sue Thompson, Stacey Balonek, Daryle Cole, Dawn Backes, Denise Siotkowski, and Scott Moulton.
She told the court Cook had “destroyed lives, generations.”
“There's no remorse,” Ms. Powers said. “I've seen no remorse from him whatsoever.”
Defense attorney Pete Rost said afterward that Cook knows what he did.
“He has lived with that for 40 years now,” Mr. Rost said. “Just because he may not have shown any emotion in court doesn't mean he fails to understand how everyone else feels. He is cognizant of what he's done, and he's sorry for what he's done.”
While the judge gave Cook a long list of conditions to meet or face returning to prison to serve out the balance of his 21-to-75-year sentence, Mr. Rost said he believes Cook can succeed.
“He's very intent on doing it right, and he will follow the court's orders,” Mr. Rost said.
Volunteers with the Reentry Coalition of Northwest Ohio have already begun working with Cook to help him get a driver's license and a job. Above all, their mission is to protect the victims and protect the community, said board member Jacob Spellis.
“I believe there's help for him, but he has to want it,” added Willie Knighten, Jr., a volunteer with the group.
Retired Toledo Police Det. Frank Stiles, who worked the cases for years, called Thursday “a horrible day.”
“We all knew that eventually this day could come, and there's no getting around it,” he said. “We need to live by the rules.”
Investigators had long said Anthony Cook was the more dangerous of the two brothers.
Considered Toledo's most notorious serial killer, he was convicted at trial in 1982 of attacking another couple in their car and then shooting to death the young woman's father — Ottawa Hills Realtor Peter Sawicki — when he came to their aid.
Anthony Cook was in prison serving a life sentence for Mr. Sawicki's murder when, in the late 1990s, Mrs. Bates learned about the emerging use of DNA to connect suspects to crimes.
Through DNA, both Cook brothers were indicted in 1998 for the murder of Mr. Gordon and the attack on his girlfriend. The brothers were set to go to trial in April, 2000 when the plea agreement was struck.
At their sentencing in 2000, now-retired Judge Charles Wittenberg said one of the “Evil Brothers,” as they were dubbed, “will never see freedom again, and the other will be 60 years old before he can walk the streets again.”
“While there may be critics of plea bargaining especially in a murder case, the interests of justice are better served in this case with the resolution that has been reached rather than by proceeding by trial and there are several reasons for that,” Judge Wittenberg said.
Among the reasons he cited: the risk of an acquittal at trial for Mr. Gordon's murder and Ms. Podgorski's rape and attempted murder. Faded memories, stale evidence, and all the other problems that come with taking to trial a case that took 18 years to bring indictments for and two more years to bring to trial.
The negotiated resolution, he said, brought finality and certainty for many grieving families. The Cooks' confessions answered the long-simmering questions of what happened and who was responsible, he said.
“Anyone living in Toledo 20 years ago will remember the fear and terror that gripped the city because of the gruesome and senseless serial killings that we now know were at the hands of one or both of the Cook brothers,” Judge Wittenberg said in 2000. “People were afraid to go out at night. Parents worried about the safety of their children. A date with a girlfriend, a walk to a pizza parlor, meeting someone after work, all of these could have, and in fact did, end in tragedy.”
Contact Jennifer Feehan at: email@example.com or 419-213-2134.
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