Media

How Facebook Helped a Small Town Fight Back Against a Crooked Cop

Friends and family of a woman murdered by a bad cop used social media to get answers and justice.

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Fifty-four-year-old Patricia Cook was shot to death on February 9 just outside a church parking lot in Culpeper, Virginia. The first two rounds, fired at point-blank range, tore into Cook's face and arm. Another round, fired as Cook was driving away from the shooter, entered her brain. A fourth round severed her spine and veered into her heart, killing her. A telephone pole brought her Jeep Wrangler to a halt. 

That week, local media in Culpeper (pop. 16,000) reported these few facts: Patricia Cook had been parked in front of Epiphany Catholic School for a long time and refused to leave. The school called the police. A Culpeper police officer confronted Cook. Cook rolled up the officer's arm in her window and punched the gas. The officer did what he had to do to stop the vehicle and save his own life. The Virginia State Police were handling the investigation.

Cook was a 54-year-old homemaker and Methodist Sunday school teacher who hadn't received so much as a speeding ticket since the 1970s. She enjoyed quilting and cooking for her congregation at Culpeper United Methodist Church. The Culpeper PD's story didn't sit well with Cook's friends and family, but for months, it was the only one they would hear.

"After about the third week of February there was nothing else in the newspaper, or any other bigger outlet, on the story," says James Jennings, the Culpeper resident who helped bring Cook's story to the attention of national media. "By the end of March, it had been completely forgotten."

Jennings, 56, is a former elementary school teacher and retired network engineer who's lived in Culpeper since 1994. He didn't know Cook personally, but says they shared some mutual friends. The week after the shooting, he read local media with a hawk's eye, waiting for more information on the case. None came. (Anita Sherman, managing editor of the weekly Culpeper Times, rebuts this claim. "The Culpeper Times has carried stories relating to the Cook case on: 2/16, 2/23, 3/15, 3/22, 4/5, 5/10, 5/17, 5/24, 6/7, 6/14, and 6/28," Sherman wrote in an email.)

Local residents flooded the comment boards of the Star-Exponent*. Under the guise of anonymity, they defended "Pat" Cook, and called for an investigation into the Culpeper Police Department. "Two weeks after the shooting, [the publication] stopped that," Jennings says of the message boards. "It deleted all the existing comments and all the existing discussion on that." The paper relaunched with Facebook commenting, requiring people to identify themselves. At that point, the message boards for the small-town paper went silent. "I think people were afraid to speak up," Jennings says, adding, "there are a couple of bullies in town."

Once the commenting stopped, it was like Patricia Cook had never existed.

The sudden absence of concern about how and why Cook died filled Jennings with guilt. "I felt like, boy, you know, here's somebody just needs to speak up and say something. And in town there was just a lot of pressure against people speaking up and saying anything. So finally I just decided that I had to do something about it. I'm a Christian," Jennings added, "and I just kept thinking of verses, 'I was hungry, you fed me. I was naked, you clothed me.' And then I thought, 'My life was taken from me, will you speak up for me?'"

Jennings created the Facebook page "Justice for Patricia Cook" on April 23. The About section reads, "Please consider joining our community, encouraging justice for the unarmed 54 year old woman who was shot by a Culpeper Police Officer, under questionable circumstances." Beneath that description are the following questions: "What if it was your wife? What if it was your mother, sister, daughter? Would you be willing to sit quietly and say nothing? What if you pulled the trigger? Wouldn't you want to see justice?" Jennings also created a petition on Change.org, calling for a special prosecutor to bring charges against the officer who killed Cook.

The page Jennings created caught the attention of regional media. Sissy Hicks, a resident of Culpeper, shared the page with her brother Donnie Johnston, a reporter with the the Free Lance-Star in nearby Fredericksburg. "His article did bring the attention we needed to get it off the ground," Hicks told me.  

On April 28, the Star Exponent ran a story titled, "Citizen seeks answers in Pat Cook shooting." On May 1, the local CBS affiliate WUSA 9 ran a story titled, "Citizen Wants 'Open Investigation' Into Officer-Involved Shooting Of Patricia Cook." On May 14, the Charlottesville-based alternative weekly The Hook reported on Jennings' petition, which had caught the attention of Albemarle Sheriff Chip Harding, a leading authority on using DNA in criminal investigations. "Culpeper silence: Citizens, top cop slam shooting inquest," read The Hook's headline. After nearly three months of government silence, Jennings had turned Patricia Cook's death into Virginia's biggest story in just two-and-a-half weeks. 

Before Jennings ever started his Facebook page, there was reason to doubt the official story promoted by Culpeper and Virginia State police. Kris Buchele, a carpenter who was working near Epiphany on Feb. 9, told WUSA9 the week of the shooting that "[Harmon-Wright] was not dragged and that he shot [Cook] before she drove away"; that "he didn't have his arm caught because the officer's left hand was on the door handle and right hand was holding a weapon"; that "he distinctly saw her roll up the window all the way before the officer shot out the glass and killed her." (Buchele was interviewed before Jennings' Facebook page was started, not after, as this article originally stated.) 

In other words, the official report initially parroted by Culpeper media and the Virginia State Police had some pretty big holes. 

After regional media began reporting the frustration highlighted by Jennings and others, the Fauqier County special prosecutor told media outlets in late April that a special grand jury had been convened, and that its investigation would be done by June. (The indictment came early: Harmon-Wright was charged with Cook's murder on May 29; his mother, a former administrative assistant with the Culpeper PD, was also indicted for altering her son's records to hide a history rife with police abuse and department reprimands.)

By June 21, the day the Culpeper Police Department concluded its own investigation and fired Harmon-Wright, eight regional media outlets, including The Washington Post, were filing daily reports about the Patricia Cook case.

The investigation into Harmon-Wright likely would have gone forward regardless of Jennings' creation of a Facebook page. It probably would have even concluded in his indictment without pressure from the media. This is, for instance, Sherman's take. "As far as Jennings Facebook page, he has caused quite a stir with it dividing many in the community and forcing them to take sides," she wrote in an email to Reason. "I wouldn't give him credit for pushing the process forward. It has moved at its pace and can be perceived as moving slowly or expeditiously depending on your perspective."

But there's more to the Patricia Cook story than just one woman's senseless killing. Everyone in town, and out, now knows that Harmon-Wright was hired despite objections from within the Culpeper P.D., and that he had a history of harassing Culpeper residents that his superiors failed to address. As a result, a conversation is happening in Culpeper about government transparency and police accountability. It's fair to say the town would still be shrouded in silence if Jennings hadn't spoken up in support of the Cook family, including Gary Cook, Patricia's devastated husband. 

"There is a fear of speaking up or speaking out against authority," says Jennings, who isn't done making noise. Now he wants the chief of police in Culpeper to hold a public post-mortem explaining why Harmon-Wright was hired despite objections from within the department.

"We should discuss, you know, what went wrong, and if anything related to procedures or hiring policies, things like that, contributed to the shooting," Jennings told me. "Every professional position I've ever worked in, when you have [a mistake], you try to step in afterwards and figure out what went wrong. Is it human error or what? And so far they just flatly denied or refused to do anything."

With every media outlet in Virginia watching Culpeper closely, Jennings just might get what he wants, and what Culpeper plainly needs.

*This article originally confused the Star-Exponent and the Culpeper Times.

Mike Riggs is an associate editor at Reason magazine. Follow him on Twitter