Sixty years ago this month, a 23-year-old Stettler man was put to death for killing seven members of his own family.
Robert Raymond Cook was the last man hanged in Alberta for what was considered the worst mass murder in provincial history.
He went to the gallows on Nov. 14, 1960, for fatally shooting his father, Raymond. But he was also accused of killing his stepmother Daisy, and his five half brothers and half sisters.
The young Cook refused to plead insanity, always maintaining his innocence of the grisly crimes.
And, to this day, many Stettler residents question whether justice was served in the case.
Brenda Kossowan is too young to have known Cook or his doomed family. But the Stettler native has spoken to many older residents over the years who believe he wasn’t guilty of the killings — including her late Aunt Joan.
“She was always defending his innocence,” recalled Kossowan.
Cook, a young mechanic, had been in and out of jail for various petty crimes. But he was described by his contemporaries as being full of fun and charm: “He was a popular guy,” said Kossowan.
A Stettler truck driver once told her about partying with Cook in his younger days. At some point during the revelry, the man and his buddies held Cook by the ankles, dangling him out of a hotel window.
“Now, whenever I pass the Stettler Hotel, I think of him being hung by the ankles from the second storey,” said Kossowan.
Cook had been well known to local police, having served three previous jail terms for non-violent offences.
In fact, 24 hours before his family’s bodies were discovered, Cook was busted in Edmonton for obtaining goods under false pretenses.
Robert Cook (Raymond’s son by his first marriage) had come under suspicion for trading the family’s station wagon for a convertible by using his father’s identification papers.
This prompted police investigators to enter the Cook family home on June 28, 1959, to try to talk to Raymond.
They noticed blood-splattered walls and then found the bodies of Raymond, Daisy, and their five children in the grease pit of their garage. The adults had been shot, the children, bludgeoned.
The first-born son was quickly arrested for the murders of his relatives — although only officially charged with his father’s killing to speed up the trial process.
Cook was sent to the Ponoka mental hospital for evaluation and denied permission to attend his relatives’ funerals. Cook mysteriously escaped from the hospital’s security unit.
The ensuing manhunt — including two police car chases, one ending in a dramatic smash up — made headlines across the country.
Many central Albertans were terrified that a mass murderer would show up on their doorsteps. A collective sigh of relief was released when Cook was caught by police several days later, hiding at a Bashaw pig farm.
It came out during Cook’s two trials — one held at the old courthouse in Red Deer — that he had not gotten along with his stepmother.
While he claimed he was breaking into an Edmonton dry cleaner at the time his family was being murdered, and could not have committed the killings, the jury did not buy his alibi.
Cook was convicted on circumstantial evidence in his original trial, and again on appeal.
He never stopped claiming his innocence, right up to his execution at the Fort Saskatchewan Provincial Jail.
Cook even wrote a poem as a last-minute plea. The first stanza begins: “I sit here in my death cell, I know not why,” and ends with, why am “I sentenced to the noose, while my family’s killer is on the loose?”
The horrific murders have fuelled books over the years and at least one play — The End of the Rope, staged in Bashaw a decade ago.
But the question persists: Was Cook guilty of killing his family members?
Edmonton filmmaker Rick Smallwood spent two years researching the case and put forward the theory that Cook probably did kill his family — while in an “altered state.”
Months before the murders, Cook had been clubbed on the head with a lead pipe by another inmate while serving time for break-and-enter and car theft.
A personality shift was noticed; Cook was later described as being more quick tempered.
“If a severe concussion scrambled his brain… he might have gone homicidal,” Smallwood told the Advocate in 2015.
Although the filmmaker had supported capital punishment, this case changed his mind.
Mistakes can be made in the justice system, but death is final, stated Smallwood.
“I would hope that we, as a society, would be above that.”