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He's accused in 14 attacks, but still free
Cases dropped when suspect fails to show

Sunday, January 02, 2005
Chicago Tribune
by Carlos Sadovi

Diane Vonneedo remembers the "death stare" in Donald Cook's eyes just before his thick fist crashed into her left eye, shattering bone and threatening her eyesight.

Rachel Mentink never even made eye contact with Cook before he allegedly drilled his fist into her stomach. Though three years have passed, she still stashes a pocketknife in her purse and fears walking through the Loop.

Cook allegedly slugged Beth Weber in the neck two years ago at 200 N. Dearborn St. It was four months before she lost her fear of other pedestrians.

Since 1990, Cook, a stocky homeless man who has been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, has been charged with attacking 14 people, racking up 29 arrests, mostly for battery, trespass and disorderly conduct.

While Cook has been convicted twice of misdemeanor battery, in 1998 and 2001, the legal system has done little to stop him, a Tribune review of court documents shows. The system is simply ill-equipped to deal with mentally ill offenders who do not get lasting psychiatric help, prosecutors and police say.

Though prosecutors have repeatedly charged Cook with misdemeanors, the charges were dropped when he or the victims failed to show up in court.

In some cases, victims told the Tribune they were never given a court date. In others, the victims say they came to court only to be told that charges against Cook were being dropped because he could not be found.

In the last year alone, Cook, 47, has allegedly attacked four women, the most recent three attacks occurring in October and November on Michigan Avenue along the Magnificent Mile.

At least 17 times Cook has been institutionalized, stabilized with medication, then released to the streets, records show.

"The reason that people can't get into a mental health hospital is that we don't have enough beds. We don't have a well-funded and coherent mental health system," said Mark Heyrman, chairman of public policy for the Mental Health Association of Illinois.

Heyrman, a professor specializing in mental health law at the University of Chicago, said services for outpatient treatment are lacking. And once the mentally ill hit the street, supervision is non-existent, he said.

Chicago police say there is not much they can do. Sgt. Keith Mayo, of the Near North District, who is liaison to the Michigan Avenue Chamber of Commerce, said Cook is well-known by area merchants.

"We can't force him to take his medication," Mayo said.

Of all of Cook's cases, only one, the attack against Vonneedo, a traffic-control worker, drew a felony charge.

Cook was found not guilty by reason of insanity, court records show, and he was institutionalized for more than two years while the case wound its way through the courts.

In many cases, he was released within days, according to court records.

Combat boots

On Oct. 25, Cook came out of an alley on North Michigan Avenue and approached Jada Garner, 26, who was leaving her job at a marketing research company. Wearing combat boots, he allegedly kicked Garner's right leg from under her, knocking her to the ground.

About a month later, a court clerk called Cook's name as one of nearly 200 people charged with petty crimes that morning in Misdemeanor Court at Belmont and Western Avenues.

Judge William O'Malley peered up over his reading glasses expectantly, looking over the rows of people crammed on benches in the courtroom. But as usual, according to court records, Cook was a no-show. The prosecutor dismissed the case using a legal maneuver called SOL, which stands for "stricken off with leave to reinstate."

A warrant was then issued for Cook's arrest.

Theoretically, prosecutors could reinstate the charge once Cook is arrested. In practice, however, that has never happened.

Of the nine cases that were dropped, not one was reinstated when Cook was arrested on subsequent charges.

As it happened, Cook did not show up in the Garner case because he was in a different courtroom that day being sentenced on a trespassing charge. The Misdemeanor Court system did not tell one judge the defendant was in another judge's courtroom.

On Dec. 9, Cook finished his sentence for the trespassing case and walked out of Cook County Jail near 26th Street and California Avenue dressed in a dirty corduroy jacket and khakis.

`That wasn't me'

Cook, who said he was living at a hotel on the West Side, denied ever attacking anyone or missing any court dates.

"That wasn't me," he said. "I haven't been charged with battery. ... Yeah, I've been charged with battery, but I don't know what you're talking about."

He ended the conversation and climbed alone onto the California Avenue bus.

Tom Stanton, a spokesman for the Cook County state's attorney's office, said the latest case against Cook was dropped because the victim did not show up in court.

"Certainly should the victim want to reinstate those charges, we would do so at her request," Stanton said.

He said the office could not track down records to indicate why Cook's previous cases had been dismissed because of the thousands of misdemeanor cases handled each year.

In interviews, however, three alleged victims said they showed up in court only to be told that charges were being dropped.

Harrison Speakes, an off-duty Chicago police sergeant working security at the old main Chicago Public Library, alleged Cook hit him in the face in 1990. He said he showed up in court, but Cook did not.

"This guy didn't come to court; all they did was issue a warrant for his arrest," Speakes said.

In 2001, Cook was charged with battery for allegedly spitting hot coffee into Adrienne Brown's face and threatening her.

Brown, who was then working for an accounting firm, said she went to court, but after Cook failed to show, charges were dropped.

"They said, `We don't know how to catch up to him.' They said, `We're going to have to dismiss the case,'" Brown said.

Case never called

Three months later, Weber was allegedly knocked down by Cook at Dearborn and Lake Streets.

"He just shot his arm out and punched me in the neck," Weber said.

When she came to Misdemeanor Court a month later, court officials never called the case. Prosecutors told her he had been found unfit for trial, she said.

Records show her case was dismissed, but there is nothing in the records to indicate that he was institutionalized in 2002.

"`You were girl No. 3,'" Weber recalls prosecutors saying to her. "I'm not sure you ever get over this; it makes you feel vulnerable."

Cook's legal history has left his alleged victims frustrated.

"Why is this man continually let out on the street?" Vonneedo said.

She was attacked while directing traffic at 8:30 a.m. on Aug. 11, 1998, at Clark and Harrison Streets. Cook went up to her and pointed to a man he said was harassing women. As she turned to look, his fist smashed into her face, fracturing the bone around her eye.

These days, Vonneedo warns her colleagues by radio if she sees Cook walking toward their intersections.

"I know when he takes his medication," she said. "When he doesn't, he has that death stare."

Doctors have struggled to control Cook's behavior through medication, records show, but he doesn't always take it or show up for outpatient treatment.

Cook was evaluated in 2001 after he groped a 25-year-old woman in the 600 block of North Clark Street while dressed in a Superman costume.

A psychologist for the Cook County Court's Forensic Clinical Services Division warned that he should not be allowed to return to the streets but said medication could help him within a year.

The psychologist, Susan Messina, wrote that Cook suffered from "schizophrenia, paranoid type" and was "delusional, irritable and evidenced very little insight into his behavior. The defendant is considered a danger to others and subject to involuntary admission in a secure psychiatric facility."

Violating probation

Yet, he was released and five months after the evaluation, Cook was charged in another street attack, records show.

On Jan. 15, 2002, a judge convicted Cook of the groping attack on Clark Street and sentenced him to two-years' probation.

Within five months, Cook violated the conditions of his release by racking up four arrests.

According to Messina's report, Cook said he hadn't held a job since 1990, when he worked in a New York hospital cafeteria.

He said he had plans to start a men's magazine called "Bumble Bee." He was an art student for two years, he said.

"That's how I'm gonna start Bumble Bee Magazine. I'm an expert at drawing nude models. I'm going to do pornography," he told Messina.

Cook was arrested eight times in 2004, and he's spent 33 days total in Cook County Jail, said Bill Cunningham, a Cook County sheriff's spokesman.

While O'Malley would not discuss Cook's case, he believes there is a need for more social agencies to deal with people such as Cook.

O'Malley suggested setting up a division in Misdemeanor Court to handle cases involving people with mental illness.

In May, a Mental Health Court began to handle cases of mentally ill inmates who are charged with non-violent felony crimes in Cook County.

The pilot project, which has targeted 50 inmates, aims to get them back into counseling and on medication, officials said.

"It's a social problem, and it becomes a criminal problem," O'Malley said. "There is nothing set up in the social services agencies to help the defendants, and they are returned to the street. [They] fall through the cracks."



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