David and Angel Cook are struggling after the trauma of losing a son and then being charged with his death
CLEBURNE — By the time two-year-old Buddy came to live with David and Angel Cook, he had endured awful, unspeakable abuse.
He rocked in corners.
He put butter knives under his pillow.
Over time, Buddy got a lot better. He stopped needing the butter knife. He didn't rock in corners anymore.
But he remained thin — painfully thin, no matter what the Cooks tried.
Last March, Buddy died in Angel Cook's arms. Little did the family know that their nightmare was only just beginning.
"Everything was taken from us," Angel Cook said. "We lost our son. We had to bury him. I lost my volunteer work. I lost my kids, my church home, a lot of friends."
The Cooks were charged with injury to a child, a first degree felony punishable by up to life in prison.
Their other children — including 14-month-old Wesley — were placed in foster care.
It looked like they would permanently lose their other kids and spend the rest of their lives behind bars.
More than a year and half later, their kids are back home and the charges have been dropped amid questions about how Buddy's death was even ruled a homicide.
As for the Cooks, they contend they've been victimized by CPS caseworkers, who they accuse of withholding crucial medical information that led to the homicide ruling, of misrepresenting what they and their children said during the investigation, and finally, of failing to protect their children while in foster care.
"CPS has their view of the case, and their view of the case from the start was that the Cooks had deliberately injured this little boy and deliberately starved him to death," said Patrick Barkman, the Cooks' attorney.
David and Angel Cook were charged with killing their adopted son, Buddy. But even after evidence cleared them, they are struggling to get their lives in order.
The Cooks live in a modest brick home in a tree-lined subdivision in Cleburne. A "God Lives Here" sign sits prominently out front. The interior of the home has a distinct Texana feel. Family photos line the walls.
They were regular church-goers, a tight-knit family who did everything together.
The Cooks had a lot on their plate.
Austin, almost 13, has heart problems and wears a pacemaker. He had heart surgery the month prior to Buddy's death.
Paige, 9, suffers from a lung condition and asthma.
The Cooks had taken in Buddy and his younger sister, who are the children of a relative.
Mary Jane came to them as an infant. Buddy was a toddler when his mother dropped him off at the Cooks' home in 2010. He was covered in burns, cuts and bruises. The Cooks reported Buddy's injuries to Child Protective Services. Doctors examined him and found he had a sexually-transmitted disease.
"We were left to try to figure out how to help a two-year-old that was beaten and sexually assaulted and had a lot of anger issues," Angel Cook said, adding that CPS case workers offered no help since the abuse occurred out of state.
Buddy had significant emotional problems. He would hit, punch and kick others. They took him to a behavioral clinic where he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and reactive attachment disorder, medical records show.
He was too young for medications.
"They told us to bring him home, love him, protect him and he would be better," Angel Cook said. "We would have him go to each child and they would give him a hug and told him they loved him. You know, it changed him."
The Cooks formally adopted Buddy and his sister in May 2012.
Buddy came a long way in the Cook household, but it was a struggle after all that he had suffered.
He never did put on much weight. The Cooks gave him Ensure to help get extra calories into him.
"He was eating and drinking every day," Angel Cook said. "There's not a day that he ever went without food or nutrients. Buddy did not look like death was coming; we had people in our home three days before he died."
The night before he died, Buddy got sick. He threw up.
On the morning he died, Angel heard noises coming from his room and went to check on him. He wasn't breathing. CPR didn't work.
"Seeing your son die in your arms is very hard," Angel Cook said.
Suspicion immediately focused on the couple. The children were placed in foster care on the day of Buddy's funeral.
Angel Cook said CPS caseworkers misrepresented much of what they and their children told the investigators.
In one of the affidavits, here's how a CPS worker described Buddy:
"He appeared to be only skin and bones. Buddy's stomach was caved in and his ribs could be seen popping out from under his skin."
The worker described what appeared to be bruising around his wrists that could be restraint marks.
"We kept telling them Buddy had a CPS history in your office," Angel Cook said. "Those are not bruises; they're scars."
CPS initially said they had no record of any prior interaction with Buddy, but later acknowledged that those records had been purged from their system.
In fact, the autopsy showed that Buddy's bladder was full and that his stomach contained food and water. He was significantly underweight, but wasn't "skin and bones," said Dr. Lloyd White, the pathologist who performed Buddy's autopsy for the Tarrant County Medical Examiner's office.
"The police were not particularly suspicious of his death," White said. "CPS seemed to think there was a lot of suspicious activity involved, and somehow somebody had killed Buddy."
White said he was told by a CPS worker that they were skeptical of the family's claims of prior sexual abuse and about the legality of the adoption. He believed that Buddy died from natural causes related to his body failing to properly metabolize food.
"He was eating with the family, and — in fact — the Cooks were taking special effort to try to convince him that he needed to eat more," White said. "It was my conclusion — based upon everything that I evaluated — that there was no evidence of death due to injury or abuse or neglect."
But the medical examiner's office still ruled Buddy's death a homicide, finding that he had died of starvation.
"The chief medical examiner said he had seem similar cases in Bosnia, and that he felt that somebody had starved the child to death," said White, who says he was let go from the office last year because they didn't approve of his testimony in an unrelated case.
One irregularity about the autopsy is that one doctor signed his signature and that of another doctor for reasons that have not been explained.
The medical examiner's office did not respond to a request for comment.
The homicide finding resulted in what happened next: The arrest of David and Angel Cook on charges of injury to a child.
They became instant pariahs.
They woke up to the words "Child Killers" splattered in red across their garage. Gasoline was twice poured around their house.
The Cooks paid hundreds of dollars to obtain Buddy's medical records.
Five months after Buddy's death, they got the records and learned that he had previously tested positive for HIV antibodies. Recommended follow-up testing had never been conducted. The Cooks were never told — apparently because at that time of the testing they were not yet Buddy's legal guardians.
"Until I found this in the medical records, they had no clue that Buddy had tested positive," said Barkman, the Cooks' attorney.
White said when CPS workers gave him Buddy's medical records, there was nothing in them about the HIV test. He didn't find out until months later when the Cooks' attorneys showed him the documents.
Once he learned about the earlier HIV test, he said it explained something unusual that he had discovered in the autopsy.
"He had an atrophied thymus, and there was no explanation medically for an atrophied thymus, but an HIV-related problem certainly would explain that," White said.
The medical examiner ordered an HIV test more than seven months after Buddy died. The result was negative.
How reliable that testing would have been depends greatly on whether the blood was properly stored, a medical expert said. The most reliable time to test a blood sample is shortly after death, said Dr. Nan Yan, an assistant Professor of Internal Medicine at UT Southwestern Medical Center.
"Seven months sounds like a long time," he said. "You want to do it very soon."
By last fall, White was no longer an employee of the medical examiner's office. He came forward to say that he didn't believe Buddy had been killed.
The Johnson County District Attorney dropped the charges last December, citing medical evidence and new fact witnesses.
After the charges were dropped, the Cooks' children were released into the care of family friend. It would be another four months after the charges were dropped before the children were allowed to come home.
But the battle is not over.
Three of their sons say that they were abused by other children while in foster care. Their oldest son had bruises covering his body when he was released from the foster care system.
Paige had a staph infection covering her face. She was placed with smokers, even though she suffers from lung disease. The Cooks say they noticed that she was coming to their weekly visits sick and wheezing.
Records show that when state workers questioned the foster parents, they said they did smoke, but only outside and out of the presence of the children.
The Cooks' youngest child was throwing up blood when he first went to stay with the family friend. Doctors determined that he had swallowed screws.
CPS workers again questioned Angel Cook. But in interviews with the children, Paige told social workers that Wesley had accidentally swallowed the screws while in foster care.
Angel Cook soon began demanding that Child Protective Services investigate the allegations of abuse and neglect in foster care. She would soon find that CPS doesn't investigate foster homes; that falls to a sister agency.
She and two of the boys testified before legislative committees about the abuse they say they suffered.
"I reported to my foster parents and my social worker," Bryan Cook testified. "The social worker told me it was not a big deal, not to worry about it. … When I told my foster parents again, the foster dad took me and my brother into a room and showed his guns and said we needed to keep quiet about it."
The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services has sent Angel Cook two letters indicating that they have not found any issues with what happened during the children's time in foster care.
Her attorney questions the adequacy of the investigation.
"It basically said, 'We asked the foster parents, and they said that didn't happen,' so there's that. 'We asked the social worker, and they said it didn't happen,' so there's that," Barkman said. "That's not an investigation; that means we did the absolute minimum required to make it appear that we looked into it. If the shoe was on the other foot and somebody was accusing Angel, they would have never ended the investigation with, 'Well, Angel said it didn't happen.'"
But what bothers him the most are the circumstances surrounding Buddy's autopsy.
"We could have saved a lot of heartache and a lot of money — and some of the Cooks' children from being mistreated in foster care — if that autopsy had been done right, and Dr. White had had all the records," Barkman said.
The Cooks still struggle financially. They've exhausted their life savings and sold all of their valuables. David Cook works seven days a week to support the family.
The family is under CPS supervision until October. Their two youngest children are court-ordered into day care.
It is still not easy for them. They haven't gotten over Buddy's loss.
"It's hard," Angel Cook said. "We lost a big part of our lives. All we have left is pictures and his toys and his graveside."