The Murder of Heidi Bernadzikowski

On April 20, 2000 police in Dundalk Maryland, near Baltimore responded to a call.  They would find Stephen Cooke Jr. in the middle of his front room floor holding the bloody body of his girlfriend, Heidi Bernadzikowski.  He would say that he had come home to find her there with her throat slashed.  

Police were almost immediately suspicious of Stephen and everyone knew it. Some believe they were simply suspicious because he was the closest person to Heidi and everyone knows those are the ones who are first looked at.  Others say the suspicion came from several other things such as their was no forced entry into the home and nothing appeared to have been stolen.  But, the most suspicious thing of all was the fact that investigators learned that just one month before her murder a life insurance policy for $700,000 had been obtained on the twenty-four year old and Stephen was the beneficiary.

But, investigators had no evidence to prove Stephen was guilty.  In fact, his alibi had checked out and they knew he had not been the one to murder her, but they were not convinced that he had not hired someone to do the deed. Suspicion grew when Heidi's family sued Stephen in 2004 for the $700,000 under what is called a "slayer's rule." This is when someone who is charged, or sometimes even highly suspected in the murder of someone they are not allowed to profit from the crime.  And, in reality the burden of proof is much lower in civil suits than they are in criminal cases.  Stephen ended up settling with Heidi's parents in an out of court settlement for $575,000.  Detectives saw this as an admission of guilt, but still they had nothing.

Fingernail scrapings had been taken from Heidi at the time of her death but it took until late 2011 to get a match.  It came back to a Colorado man named Alexander Bennett.  Bennett was arrested and charged with murder in January of 2012.  For the next two years Bennett sat in jail awaiting trial.  Then, just before his trial was to begin in March of 2014 Bennett began to talk.  

Bennett would tell authorities that he, and another man, Grant Lewis (also of Colorado) had been hired by Stephen Cooke to commit the murder and had been promised $60,000 in return.  It appears that Lewis and Cooke had me though the Internet.  Bennett would claim that in March of 2000 Lewis gave him a one way ticket to fly to Baltimore.  Once there he claimed to have began walking to Dundalk and stated that an officer had even stopped him warning that walking on the highway was dangerous and drove him into Dundalk. Bennett would claim that he spent the next few weeks in the area, speaking to Lewis every day on the phone, calling him collect and meeting with Cooke at least once.  The idea was that Lewis was the "middle man" and did most of the conversing with Cooke apparently so there was little direct contact between Cooke and Bennett.  Upon meeting with Cooke he had been given a key to the home in which Cooke shared with Heidi.  On April 20th Cooke would drop Heidi off at the house and according to Bennett, knew he was inside waiting.

Bennett would claim that he had been told to make the murder look like an accident but that his nerves got the best of him and as he strangled Heidi as she came in the door and fought him he had apparently dropped the accident idea. After strangling her he had taken a knife and cut her throat.  He then ransacked the home to look like a robbery.  He then took some lipstick and wrote "#1" on the wall above where she lay to imply to investigators that they may have a serial killer on their hands.

After Bennett told his story both Cooke and Lewis were arrested on charges relating to Heidi's murder.  Bennett would garner a deal that many involved with the other two highly disagreed with considering he was the admitted killer.  But, as is often the case Bennett was offered a lower sentence in the event that he testified against both Cooke and Lewis.

While awaiting his trial Cooke seemed to get himself in more trouble.  He was accused of attempting to solicit another inmate to kill Lewis.  Charges relating to this would be added to the murder charges that he would face at trial.    

Lewis would be the first to go to trial.  He was convicted in October 2014 and in February of the following year he was given a life sentence.

Cooke would go on trial in June of 2015 on charges of 1st degree murder, solicitation to commit murder, conspiracy to commit murder when it came to Heidi's murder.  He was also charged with witness intimidation, 1st degree assault and attempted 1st degree murder relating to the issue while in jail. On June 20, 2015 Cooke would be found guilty on all charges except the last, the attempted 1st degree murder against Lewis.  He would also receive a sentence of life without parole in August.  

For Bennett's cooperation, and the fact that Heidi's family, as well as the prosecutor and the judge believed he was truly remorseful, he would receive a life sentence, but, the judge would suspend all of that but thirty years.  So in essence he got a thirty year sentence which raise the ire of especially Cooke's family who believed in his innocence.  I find Bennett's sentence interesting because you do not see this often, but I must admit that I like it and wish we would see it more. Although the judge suspended the life sentence down to the thirty years, once he is released if he were to commit another crime, this one can come back and bite him and force him to serve out that life sentence.  This means that he will be forced to walk the straight and narrow or he'll be back in prison.  I found his cooperation and the sentence he was given appropriate.

As I said though, Cooke's family especially were critical of Bennett's sentence and his supporters believe in his innocence.  They argue that there was no evidence that Cooke was involved in the murder aside from Bennett's testimony. They argue, although I could not find information one way or the other, that neither phone records or the home computer was inspected to verify Bennett's story.  I understand what they are arguing and there is a part of me that agrees with them honestly.  The problem was there was no way of likely getting the phone records some nearly fifteen years later, nor could they be sure about what computer had been used or if it was still available.  It could have long since been gone.  I admit that I would have liked to have seen more evidence against Cooke than I found but I also believe that there likely was more substantiated than the supporters claim.  

In the end Heidi lost her life and three men will be in prison for most of the rest of theirs.  One of the saddest parts is that Cooke had an eight year old son at the time of his arrest and he lost his dad.


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