Shaun Cooks has never been arrested for a crime he actually committed. But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t earning his living on the streets at the time of his December, 2009 arrest. After twelve years in prison, Shawn isn’t the same person he was back then. He has his share of regrets. “I’m ashamed of the path I chose,” he says, “even if I feel forced on it. There’s no beauty in stupidity and no victory in blame.”
Given the risk of prison and street violence, why would anyone choose to sell illegal drugs? There’s an obvious answer to that question: money. But there are plenty of ways to earn money that come with far less risk. For most people, anyway. But if you find somebody slinging dope on the street, chances are they have run out of alternatives. The Shaun Cooks story is a prime illustration of that fact.
A Brief Recap
If you’re new to the Shaun’s story, a brief recap will be helpful. Cooks is serving a life sentence in a Texas prison for allegedly firing his gun at a Sheriff’s deputy following a high-speed chase. You can find the entire saga here, and the details of the altercation that sent Cooks to prison here. But here’s the Cliff Notes version.
Cooks was stopped by officer Chris White late at night on December 20, 2009. He wasn’t speeding or driving erratically. But he was pulled over all the same. Because Cooks had missed an important court hearing, a bench warrant was out for his arrest, a fact that officer White would have learned the moment he checked the driver’s license. Not wanting to go to jail so close to Christmas, Cooks made the worst decision of his life. He sped away.
Ten miles down the road, with the deputy in hot pursuit, Cooks abandoned his vehicle at the side of a road and ran across a ploughed field. White pursued in his patrol car. A couple of feet from Cooks and a barbed wire fence, White slammed on his brakes, jumped out of the car, and prepared to make an arrest.
What happened next is a matter of dispute. White claims that Cooks tried to run away but tripped, landing face first on the ground. While the officer stood over him, his Taser at the ready, Cooks allegedly rolled over and fired two shots at point blank range. According to this official story, White would have been killed if Cooks’ gun hadn’t jammed. White retreated behind his vehicle (the wires from his Taser visible in the headlights) and called for backup.
Shawn Sayers, an officer with the Hearne PD in nearby Robertson County, was a couple of miles away when he got the call from White. He and another officer jumped in their vehicles and raced to the scene. Sayers arrested Cooks and took him into custody. No gun was found on the suspect at the time of arrest. No gun was found during the next hour as at least a dozen officers from Milam and Robertson counties congregated at the scene. Considerable effort was made to locate the suspect’s weapon during this hour because White insisted that shots were fired in his direction. But to no avail.
But when the investigating officer arrived and most of the officers had left the scene, the gun was found right next to a fence, just a few feet away from the deputy’s car. The gun was never tested for gunshot residue, finger prints or anything else. No spent shell casings from the alleged weapon were found at the scene.
If this sounds suspicious, that’s because it is.
Cooks could have taken a plea for fifteen years, but to the dismay of everyone involved (including the attorneys assigned to his case), the defendant insisted on forcing Milam County to prove their case in court. As typically happens in our broken criminal justice system, Cooks’ defense attorney made no attempt to defend his client, no investigation was performed, the hard questions were ignored and Cooks wasn’t allowed to testify in his own defense. Since the jury only heard the official story, they found Shaun guilty and imposed a life sentence.
A sentence this severe was only possible because Cooks had served five years in prison at the turn of the 21st century on trumped up theft charges. (Again, if you don’t want to take my word for that, click on the link.)
Today we pick up the story as Cooks is released from prison in 2004.
Back in the free world
As we learned in an earlier segment, Shaun’s mother kicked him out of the house at fourteen. Actually, she gave him an ultimatum: stop skipping classes and running the streets, or find yourself another place to stay. So, Shaun moved in with his grandfather who lived just down the street. This arrangement worked surprisingly well. His grandfather was a straight arrow individual who had performed farm labor for a living. He knew how to survive. But the old man was in the early stages of dementia and, on his bad days, he needed someone to point him in the right direction. Shaun performed this service and it gave him a sense of identity.
By the time Shaun was released from prison in 2004, his grandfather was dead. So were several of his uncles. Several members of his family, and most of his friends, were involved in the “underground economy” in one way or another. John Paschall, the Hearne Police Department and the Robertson County Sheriff’s Office, followed every move these young men made. Painful experience had told Shaun that Paschall didn’t need hard evidence to get a conviction. Dozens of young Black men in Hearne served as Paschall’s eyes and ears. The testimony of one of these snitches, backed up by police testimony, was enough to secure a conviction. These cases, as we have seen, almost never went to trial.
Which explains why Shaun hardly left his house for the better part of two weeks after being released from prison. Gradually, however, his need for money trumped his fear of the streets. He was determined to do it right this time, to get a job and pay his own way. He didn’t want to be dependent on his family for support. Besides, if you landed a decent job, the police would eventually stop following you everywhere you went. They were guessing that, if you didn’t have work, you would find illegal ways of paying your bills. Not everybody in Hearne, Texas lived in a police state, after all, just the folks on DA Paschall’s radar.
The quest for work
It was kind of exciting to get out of the house. It was also frightening. Everywhere he turned, friends were offering him beer and blunts (weed stuffed inside a cigar). He turned them all down cold. It wasn’t worth the risk. He was NOT going back to prison. He had learned his lesson.
Shaun got a job building trusses for home construction, but the pay was meagre. Noticing that truck drivers were always in demand, he enrolled at a truck driving school in Waco and earned his Class-C license. Even in a booming economy, it was difficult for a Black man with a criminal record to find work. There were plenty of temporary positions available, and some short-term contract work, but landing a full-time job with benefits felt like an impossible dream.
Then, in 2007, one of Shaun’s brothers told him that the Alcoa aluminum smelter in Rockdale was hiring. Shaun was excited. This could be his big break. The Alcoa plant in Rockdale had been the primary engine of economic activity in the region since the mid-1950s. Conveyor belts brought coal from a nearby mine twenty miles to the aluminum plant where it was burned to power the smelting plant. With the aeronautics industry well-established in the Dallas Fort-Worth area, aluminum was always in high demand.
Shaun landed a contract job with Alcoa, but he was that he was in line for full-time work if he did a good job. He enjoyed the work and was beginning to feel hopeful. But one day a heavy garage door malfunctioned and came crashing down on his left shoulder. During a long period of rehabilitation, he was unable to do any kind of manual job so he filed for workers compensation. Alcoa stalled and gave him the runaround. Shaun didn’t know it, but the company had been hanging by a thread for a long time and, when the economic crisis hit in 2007, the corporate office decided to close the Rockdale plant. The closure plunged the entire economy of Milam and Robertson Counties into crisis mode just as the worst economic downturn since the great depression was wreaking havoc with the national economy.
Realizing that Alcoa might stall forever, Shaun filed suit against the company. After a few months, his shoulder had healed enough for him to start looking for work, but heavy lifting was still out of the question. With the economy in freefall, work was scarce regardless of ability and qualifications. For a young Black man with a physical disability, no high school diploma and a prison record, the prospects were bleak.
The worst decision of his life
As the bills piled up, Shaun grew desperate. By this time, he had two young children. He had discussed marriage with his girlfriend, but first he needed a good job. His inability to provide even minimal child support, or even support himself, was humiliating.
And that’s when Shaun did what he had sworn he would never do; he succumbed to the lure of the streets. He started dealing drugs. It is a decision he regrets deeply. “It hurts to wake up here;” Shaun told me in a recent letter from prison, “it hurts to see life wasted. I’m ashamed of the path I chose even if I feel forced into it.”
The course Shaun took now fills him with shame. For a couple of reasons. First, it made him complicit in human misery—a fact he encountered first-hand on a daily basis. Secondly, he knew that, given his circumstances, his return to street life was bound to end badly. With Paschall and his army of snitches, cops and prosecutors on the prowl, it was a question of when, not if.
It wasn’t long before Shaun was on the police radar. Police officers like Shawn Sayers (the man who would eventually take him into custody in December of 2009) and Phillip (Red) Crowell (the man who taught snitches how to fake drug cases on their friends) would pull Shaun over or stop him as he walked down the street. “The D.A. knows what you’re up to and he’s going to throw your ass back in jail,” they would say.
Neither the Brightest nor the Best
The men who stalked Shaun’s life, always looking for an opportunity to bring him down, were also pawns on the chessboard of fate. The illegal behavior of John Paschall, the DA, would eventually inspire a movie, put him in jail and force the surrender of his law license. Men like Shawn Sayers and Red Crowell would likely be running the streets themselves if police work hadn’t presented a way of escape. The two men became fast friends while working for the Hearne PD. Their over-the-top behavior got them into the regional headlines on two occasions. The second mention was positive. Driving home after a day’s work in Fort Bend County, the men saw a vehicle swerve off the road and plunge into a pond. The driver was trapped in his vehicle, the water creeping slowly toward face level. While Crowell called for backup, Sayers plunged into the water, cut the driver’s safety belt, and helped him to shore. The two men were celebrated as heroes in the Texas media. That was in 2014, five years after Shaun Cooks was shipped off to the Texas Gulag.
The first brush with fame, was downright humiliating. In fact, it almost cost Sayers and Crowell their careers. In 2008, the two men were working with the Grimes County sheriff’s department, about a half hour drive from Hearne. Barack Obama had just been elected president and the two men were sent to the Washington DC metro area to help with inauguration day security. The two men had been called up as alternates and, in these simpler times, no one anticipated trouble.
Reasoning that the chances of seeing active service were remote, Crowell and Sayers treated the trip to DC as a free vacation. According to press reports, the two men “used toilet paper to wrap the patrol car of the female lieutenant, who served as a liaison between out-of-town volunteer law enforcement officers and Washington police.”
Some argued that the stunt wasn’t enough to warrant forced resignations. But when you dig a little deeper, the official story begins to sound like the original police statement that referred to George Floyd’s death as a “medical incident during police interaction.” First, the victim of the prank was an African American female, so racism and sexism are factors in the story. Secondly, Sayers and Crowell didn’t just wrap her car with toilet paper, they also smeared it with Vaseline. In addition, they had been seen running up and down the hall of their hotel, mooning everybody in sight. They had locked a fellow officer in his room and refused to let him out. During the entire caper, eyewitness reports show, the two men were dead drunk.
The same kind of high spirits that come in handy at the scene of an accident can produce the kind of erratic behavior that gets you fired. Shaun Cooks isn’t the only person in this story to exercise bad judgment.
The sheriff of Grimes County told Crowell and Sayers to submit letters of resignation. He couldn’t have men of such obvious immaturity on his force. It is significant that the Hearne Police Department was more than happy to hire Sayers and Crowell back, no questions asked. Which is why, a few months later, Sayers was in a position to arrest Shaun Cooks and take him into custody.
In a brief phone conversation, Sayers confirmed that he was well aware of Cooks’ reputation on the night of the arrest. The officer, now a Constable in Fort Hood County, assured me that Cooks was a bad dude and that Chris White (the Milam County deputy who says Cooks fired two shots at him at point blank range) was a man of his word. But Sayers’ version of the arrest on December 20, 2009 corroborates Cooks’ version while contradicting White’s account at every point.
What’s the alternative?
You will not be surprised to learn that when Shaun Cooks went back to dealing drugs, his interactions with officers like Red Crowell and Shawn Sayers became highly adversarial. Trash-talking and extreme profanity flowed in both directions. Crowell would wave at Shaun and his best friend, Chandell Lewis, and taunt the young men by dangling his handcuffs from his index finger. On one occasion, Red smiled at Shaun and said, “Paschall says ‘hello’. For some reason, he really hates you.”
Shaun answered in kind. “Tell Paschall to fuck off,” he said.
DA Paschall had an unusually compelling reason for hating Shaun. Since the mid-1990s, the DA had been estranged from his daughter, Amy. As a teenager, she hated the way her father talked about her Black friends. She hated the way he rounded up dozens of young Black men and women. Which is why she spoke freely with the ACLU attorneys about the Megress affair. Amy became addicted to street drugs long before Shaun went to prison in 1998, and was still strung out when he got out of prison. Cooks didn’t just supply her needs, most of the men and women in social circle were using too.
Looking back with the eyes of experience, Shaun doesn’t blame Paschall for hating him. Now that he has two daughters of his own that he is rarely able to see, he identifies with the DA’s pain.
The harassment from law enforcement eventually got so extreme that Shaun moved his meager belongings to Temple, Texas. Temple was located in Bell County about an hour due west of Hearne and Robertson County. The local cops didn’t know him and generally left him alone. This left Shaun free to party in the clubs with his friends and meet new people.
But there was a big problem. To get from Hearne to Temple (as this map indicates) it is necessary to pass through Milam County. And, because many of his customers lived in Hearne, Shaun had to make this trip on a regular basis.
Street hustling didn’t just place young men like Shaun in a dangerous relationship with law enforcement, it also exposed them to random bursts of violence. Most drug deals were pretty straight forward, but things could go south in a heartbeat. Several of Shaun’s family members died violently. You didn’t have to be “in the life” to catch a bullet; you just had to live in the wrong neighborhood.
In October of 2008, Shaun’s best friend, Chandell Lewis, was gunned down in the course of a late-night drug deal. A second man, Harry Monson, also died in the incident, an innocent victim of a stray bullet.
Cooks knew that if he didn’t get off the streets, he would either be killed or land back in prison. He cast around for alternatives, but he couldn’t imagine how he could make anything like the money the drug trade brought in. He wasn’t wealthy, by any means, but he could eat at restaurants, buy the clothes he wanted, and, most importantly, help support his mother and his children. Unsure, how to extricate himself from the streets, Shaun stuck with what he knew.
The consequences were far more catastrophic than he could have imagined. Although he is ashamed of his former way of life, he has a hard time imagining a better scenario. The story unfolded with the inevitability of a Greek tragedy. “There’s no beauty in stupidity,” Shaun told me in his most recent letter, “and there’s no victory in blame.”
As we have seen, John Paschall eventually got his revenge. First, he hired an informant to stow drugs in Cooks’ car in February of 2009. Then (I have concluded) Paschall arranged for a Milam County sheriff’s deputy who once worked for the Hearne PD, to stop Cooks’ car as he drove from Temple to Hearne late one December night. We will eventually revisit those incidents. But first, we need to take a closer look at Chris White, the lawman who insists Cooks tried to kill him on December 20,2009. White isn’t a loose cannon like Red Crowell and Shawn Sayers. And he isn’t a narcissistic psychopath like John Paschall. He’s as straight-arrow as they come. He’s churchgoing family man. But, as we will see in the next segment, that doesn’t mean he’s credible.