JeJuan Shauntel Cooks is a prisoner in the Eastham Unit in Lovelady, Texas. Ten years ago, he was sentenced to life in prison for allegedly firing two shots at a Milam County Sheriff’s Deputy. Cooks insists he couldn’t have committed the crime because he wasn’t carrying a gun. A gun was discovered at the scene of the incident, but it was never tested for fingerprints, DNA or gunshot residue. To his amazement, Cooks was unable to find a defense attorney willing to challenge the word of a respected sheriff’s deputy. This narrative will explain how, and why, our criminal justice system silences poor people of color.
Inside the Milam County Jail
JeJuan Shauntel Cooks was embarrassed. The wound where the EMS tech had removed the Taser probe was still throbbing. The bleeding hadn’t stopped; not completely. He had asked for a nurse while they were booking him into the Milam County Jail. “If I thought you were dying,” the officer said, “I’d get you some help. You’ll be fine.”
The holding tank was cold. His pants were soaked with mud and urine. When the Taser hit, he lost control of his arms and legs. Now he realized he must have lost control of his bladder too.
“Can I change out of these clothes,” he asked an officer.
“When you’re finished with Investigator Beathard,” the man said, “you’ll get a jumpsuit.”
Hours passed before an officer came to fetch Cooks. The path to the interview room led through a large office brimming with far more police officers than he expected to encounter in the middle of the night.
“What I can’t figure out,” one cop said with a cruel grin, “is how you’re still alive!”
Investigator Jay Beathard stood in the doorway of the interrogation room. His arms were crossed. Stocky, with close-cropped hair, the investigating officer was enjoying himself.
When Cooks entered the room, he saw two officers, Beathard and a second man, sitting behind a desk. Beathard motioned for the suspect to take a seat opposite them.
“You like messing with white girls, boy?” the unnamed officer asked.
Cooks glared defiantly, but said nothing.
“You think I’m playin’, boy?” the unnamed man barked. “You want me to show you I ain’t playin’?”
Beathard smiled silently.
“What is this?” Cooks asked, “Good cop-bad cop.”
At this, the unnamed cop sprang to his feet, eyes flashing with rage. He started to charge around the side of the desk but Beathard, smiling all the while, escorted the bad cop out of the room. He closed the door.
“You got a lot of angry people wanting a piece of you,” Beathard said as he settled into his chair. “Tell me, what were you going to do to those poor little white girls?”
“F**k you!” Cooks said.
Beathard just kept smiling. “You’re a regular Bonnie and Clyde, huh? That was quite a shootout you and Officer White had out there.”
“How could we have a shootout when I don’t even own a gun?” Cooks replied.
“Oh, really,” Beathard said. “Then how do you explain the shell casings I found at the scene? There were two from Officer White’s .45 and between six and eight from your 9mm. How do you explain that?”
“I don’t own a gun,” Cooks replied, “so I ain’t trying to explain shit.”
“Well, you’re being charged with attempted capital murder,” Beathard said.
Then I’m asking for a lawyer,” Cooks replied.
Realizing he wasn’t going to get a confession, Beathard slid a sheet of paper across the table. “Just sign this,” he said, “it’s your Miranda warning.”
Cooks signed the paper and slid it back.
“Officer White did okay out there tonight,” Beathard explained in a laconic drawl, “but he didn’t do good enough because, if he had, I wouldn’t be talking to you right now.”
He was still smiling.
“And I wouldn’t have all this paperwork to mess with,” Beathard added.
“What about my lawyer?” Cooks asked.
“Don’t worry,” Beathard replied, “we’ll get you your lawyer.”
The interview was over.
You won’t find this exchange in a trial transcript or an incident report. Every word of it comes from the pen of a convicted felon. The name on his birth certificate is JeJuan Shauntel Cooks. His friends and family call him Shaun.
When I first read his stark narrative, I was reminded of the interrogation of Jesus in the Gospels. You may find this a strange comparison. Mr. Cooks is a convicted felon, constantly getting into trouble. But then, so was Jesus.
Jesus, the gospels tell us, let his brief trial play out without saying a word. There was no point. The end of the story had already been written.
Shaun Cooks also sat in silence throughout his trial. But not by choice. If it had been up to law enforcement, there would have been no trial. If the prosecutor and the district judge had their way, there would have been no trial. Cooks’ defense attorney didn’t want this case to see the inside of a courtroom. The trial happened because JeJuan Shauntel Cooks wanted his day in court.
He didn’t get it.
He wanted to tell his side of the story.
He never got the chance.
So, now, for the first time, JeJuan Cooks gets to tell his own story in his own words.
Don’t worry, you will also hear the story the jurors heard at trial. But this story has big problems the jurors never got wind of.
In a good trial–a proper trial–two stories collide. The state tells its story, then its the defendant’s turn. It’s the jury’s responsibility to decide which story makes the most sense. That didn’t happen when Shaun Cooks was tried in the Milam County Courthouse. In fact, it almost never happens. If this story was utterly exceptional, it wouldn’t be worth telling.
It began with a laundry run
Chris White is the popular Sheriff of Milam County, Texas. There are only 25,000 people in the county, but the people who live there don’t feel isolated. Austin, the state capitol, is a little over an hour away to the southwest. If you want to catch a Division 1 football game, Waco and College Station are close by. If you like franchise restaurants, Temple is half an hour up the road on I-35.
And it is on Farm to Market Road 485, just ten miles from Temple, that our story begins.
Nine years would pass before Chris White became the Sheriff of Milam County. Back in 2009, he was a humble deputy. White says he was driving west toward Temple when he clocked an approaching car doing 73 MPH in a zone where the speed limit drops to 65 at night.
Cooks places the incident much further west and insists that Officer White was parked at right angles to the road. Seeing the high beams in the distance, Cooks took his foot off the gas. He was driving under the speed limit, he says, but didn’t want to take any chances. It was just five days to Christmas. After that, they could do whatever they wanted to him. But not tonight.
Cooks was living in Temple at the time, but he grew up in Hearne, an hour to the east. Most of his friends and family lived in Hearne and that’s where he was heading on December 20, 2009, just a little after midnight. He was driving a black Mercedes that belonged to Brandi Acosta, his new girlfriend. She was 20, Shaun (as she called him) was just shy of 30. They had only been together a few weeks, but so far everything was cool.
The couple had travelled to Hearne the night before to deliver some laundry to Cook’s mother, Lois. Brandi had been too shy to come in the house, Lois recalls. Tonight, they were making the return trip to pick up the laundry. Shaun was hoping to coax Brandi into the house to meet his mother.
Ten months earlier
Cooks could have made the trip in his Crown Victoria, but that would have been risky. Temple is located in Bell County and Hearne is an hour to the east on Highway 485. To get from Temple to Hearne, Cooks had to pass through Milam County. That meant danger.
Ten months earlier, while traveling in the opposite direction (from Hearne to Temple), at the same time of night, Cooks had been pulled over. He was driving his Crown Victoria at the time, and was accompanied by Leonard Cravens, a guy from Hearne who had asked for a lift. Cravens had been texting madly the entire way. about what, Cooks had no idea.
A Milam County Sheriff’s deputy had been following them for miles. As they neared the Bell County line, the flashing lights came on.
The deputy said he had stopped Shaun for swerving over the center line. His dash camera didn’t kick in until he hit the siren, so there is no way of testing that assertion. The real reason for making the stop was that, a couple of miles further up the road, the Crown Vic would have been out of the deputy’s jurisdiction. It was now or never.
The deputy asked to search the car. Cooks refused. The deputy called for a police dog. Cooks and Cravens stood in the darkness for half an hour waiting for the dog to arrive. According to the police report, the dog performed a “passive alert” (which means he stared intently at a certain spot without barking or pawing). The car was searched, and sellable quantities of marijuana and cocaine were found in Cravens’ Foot Locker bag along with the kind of scale that drug dealers use.
Here the stories diverge. Cooks insists that only marijuana was seized and claims the dashcam video backs him up.
According to police report, the Milam County Sheriff’s department had received a “tip” from a confidential informant working with John Paschall, the notorious District Attorney of Robertson County who inspired the role of the villainous DA in the 2009 film American Violet. The film was scheduled to play in area theatres in the very month in which Cooks and Cravens were stopped.
Cooks can’t prove it, but he is 99% positive that Cravens himself was the anonymous informant.
The case dragged on through 2009, with a hearing set for November 2nd. The first plea offer from Kerry Spears, the Milam County D.A., was for 25 years in prison. Gradually, that had been whittled down to 2 years.
Cooks failed to show up for the November 2 hearing and that meant there was bound to be a bench warrant out for his arrest. He decided to put off calling his attorney until after Christmas. He wanted to buy his two young daughters some proper presents. He was still on good terms with the girls’ mother, visited when he could, and provided childcare whenever the mother found herself in a bind.
This tangled story was on Cooks’ mind as he and his girlfriend traveled east toward Hearne on December 20, 2009. Cooks had already done a stretch for burglary five years earlier. The thought of the prison door slamming behind him scared him to death. But if it he was going back to prison, it had to be after Christmas. He had purchased presents for his two little daughters.
Besides, getting arrested in front of his new girlfriend and her sister would be humiliating.
On the evening of December 20th, Sean and Brandi were traveling with Brandi’s sixteen-year-old sister, Andrea. Andrea saw the trip to Hearne as a chance to get out of the house. She had promised her mother that she would take care of her older sister’s one-year-old baby.
The girls decided to spice things up by rolling a couple of joints.
“Girls, kill your flame,” Shaun cautioned when he spotted the bright lights by the side of the road. They were nearing the spot where he had been stopped ten months earlier and that made him hyper-vigilant.
By now the police car had swung in behind the Mercedes and was following at a distance.
Just the other day, Brandi had said “I want to invest in your mind.” That’s what he liked about her: she realized how smart he was. Cooks had dropped out of school at 14. His mother was so angry she kicked him out of the house. He had moved in with his grandfather, but spent much of his time on the streets.
Lately, he had been thinking of reinventing himself. Going legit. Fixing up real estate in Hearne and building duplex apartments.
And now he had a cop on his tail.
The Twilight Rapist
Chris White didn’t usually pull people over for driving a few miles over the speed limit. Technically, he wasn’t even on duty that evening. Police departments throughout Texas were looking for a man they called the Twilight Rapist.
They didn’t have a lot to work with. The victims were all older women, mostly widows living alone. Typically, he struck in the early morning hours. He’d unscrew porch lights, cut phone lines (few seniors had cell phones in 2009) and was very good at covering his tracks.
The Twilight Rapist targeted rural areas where he was unlikely to be observed, so his crimes covered a territory larger than most states. He had yet to strike in Milam County, but he had recently raped an elderly woman just over the line in Bell County. Across Texas, women were living in fear. Panic was rampant.
In response, law enforcement agencies were creating dedicated patrols. Officers like White worked a regular shift, then spent several hours on the road, looking for anything the least bit suspicious. Most of the victims had been too traumatized to make a reliable identification. All White knew was that the man he was looking for would be between five-foot-six and six feet tall and of athletic build. And he was Black and his victims were overwhelmingly white.
Had it not been for the Twilight Rapist, Deputy White would have been safe at home with his family. But there he was, looking for a young Black man who preyed on White women.
Shaun Cooks was used to being pulled over on a flimsiest of pretexts. In Hearne, the harassment had been constant, especially after he refused to snitch for the DA. That’s why he was living in Temple. Slowing to a crawl, he steered the Mercedes into a driveway and waited for the cop to pass him by.
Deputy White saw the Mercedes rolling slowly up the driveway. Too slowly. He decided to swing around and head back west at a slow roll. When he saw the car pull back out of the driveway and continue in an easterly direction, White decided to make a stop. As the Mercedes rolled past the intersection of Highways 485 and 190, he switched on his flashers.
“Are you lost,” White asked when the young Black man rolled down the window.
“Yeah,” Cooks replied.
“I clocked you eight miles over the limit back there,” the officer said.
“If you were going to pull me over,” Shaun said, “Why did you follow me for so long?”
“Just trying to figure out what you’re about,” White replied, his voice calm and professional.
Brandi fished the insurance card out of the glove compartment and handed it to the officer.
“And can I see your license?” White said.
That’s when JeJuan Shauntel Cooks made the worst decision of his life. To this day, thinking about it fills him with a sadness verging on despair.
“F**k this,” he said. His foot hit the gas.
A high-speed chase ensued covering approximately fifteen miles. In the back seat, Andrea was hysterical. The baby was oblivious. Brandi was on her phone to her mother, Beverly Daniels. In minutes, her parents were headed east on FM 485.
When Beverly wasn’t talking to Brandi, she was on the phone with the Milam County Sheriff’s Department.
If Shaun had been alone, Officer White might have recorded his plate and let him go. But two young women were in the car. And a baby! What if this guy was the Twilight rapist? You couldn’t rule it out. White knew that one-third of high-speed chases end in a wreck, but he saw no option to pursuit.
As Cooks raced down a two-lane road at speeds in excess of 100 mph, the desperation of his situation gradually sunk in. The Hearne PD was bound to be waiting for him when he crossed the Port Sullivan bridge into Robertson County. “I’ve got this under control,” he told Brandi. In reality, he had no idea what to do next.
In the back seat, Andrea’s screaming was non-stop.
Two miles from the Robertson county line, Shaun slowed down and swung across the road onto the westbound shoulder. The car was still rolling when he hopped out. Mostly, he just wanted to put some distance between himself and his passengers so they didn’t become collateral damage.
But this was hardly a random stopping place. Shaun’s grandad, the man he loved more than anyone in the world, once lived up this road. Shaun himself had lived on this road as a young boy. His grandad was buried nearby in an obscure family cemetery, as were several uncles who died before their time.
When life was too much for him, Shaun liked to visit these graves and commune with the dead. They never talked back, but Shaun derived great comfort from these encounters.
An open pasture lay between Highway 485 and County Road 260. If Shaun could clear the fence on the far side of 260, perhaps he could disappear into the darkness and find a place to hide out until this thing blew over.
White watched the suspect exit the Mercedes and bolt across the pasture. It had been raining heavily, but he figured he could follow in his patrol car without getting stuck. Skidding across CR 260, White stopped his car a couple of feet from the fence. The suspect was off to his left.
What happened next depends on who you choose to believe. Continue to Segment 2: Five Conflicting Accounts