The last man to be hanged in Alberta probably shouldn’t have been, said the maker of the new documentary, The Grease Pit.
It’s not that Robert Raymond Cook was innocent of the worst mass-murder in Alberta’s history when the bodies of seven relatives were found in the grease pit of the family Stettler garage in 1959. “I think he probably did do it,” said Edmonton filmmaker Rick Smallwood.
But after two years of researching the Central Alberta crime case that’s been polarizing public opinion for more than half a century, Smallwood believes Cook’s death sentence could have been commuted to life in prison on mental health grounds.
“It’s certainly changed my view of capital punishment,” said Smallwood, who interviewed long-time Stettler residents, as well as an investigating police officer and one of Cook’s defence lawyers for his documentary.
He noted Cook’s affable nature was always the sticking point for people who doubted he could have shot his father Raymond and stepmother Daisy with a double-barrel shotgun, and bludgeoned to death his five half-brothers and sisters.
While he was a petty criminal and chronic liar, “he was never known to be violent.”
But several months before the killings, Cook was clubbed over the head with a lead pipe by another inmate while in jail for break and enter and car theft. This resulted in a severe concussion.
Prisoners who knew him reported a personality change after the incident, added Smallwood. “They said he became fidgety and lost his temper easily… If a severe concussion scrambled his brain, when he did snap, he might have gone homicidal.”
The documentarian also noted that Cook had no memory of the killings. He refused to claim temporary insanity, as his lawyers advised to possibly avoid the death penalty, because he insisted he never committed the crimes. Although he turned to religion and had discussions with two ministers, he went to the scaffold proclaiming his innocence.
To Smallwood, this suggests Cook could have been in an altered mental state — if he was guilty.
Some Albertans whom he spoke to for the film have their doubts about the circumstantial case that made sensational headlines in newspapers of the day, including the Advocate.
Widespread public panic ensued after Cook escaped from the Ponoka mental hospital on July 11, 1959, after being denied permission to attend the funerals of his family members. Cook was eventually found, after a province-wide manhunt, hiding at a Bashaw pig farm.
It took two trials and just under 16 months for him to be convicted of murder.
Most people Smallwood interviewed felt Cook was “probably” guilty. But former Red Deer RCMP officer George Sproule, who helped with the murder investigation, told Smallwood he was sure they got the right man, “otherwise, he said he wouldn’t be able to sleep at night.”
Although Cook was hanged on Nov. 15, 1960 at the Fort Saskatchewan jail, speculation lingered about another person’s involvement. A blood-splattered white shirt with the name ‘Ross’ written inside was found stuffed under a bloody mattress in the house, along with Cook’s prison suit. And police could never link the double-barrelled murder weapon to Cook, said Smallwood.
At the same time, the young man had appeared very guilty, joyriding in a convertible he had obtained by trading in his dad’s station wagon. He also had his father’s identification on him — which led police to the discovery of the bodies.
Smallwood filmed four hours of footage, but edited it down to just over two-and-a-half hours on a DVD that he will provide to the Alberta Archives. It’s also available to the public from www.robertcook.ca.
The amateur filmmaker, who’s made previous documentaries on the Hillcrest mine disaster and the Alberta Oil Kings hockey team, said he’s always been fascinated by Alberta’s history — particularly the Stettler murders.
“I remember my grandmother talking about it… and I think people should know our stories.”
While he’d been a death penalty supporter before researching the Cook case, he is no longer.
Although Smallwood believes in stiffer sentences for major crimes, he questions the morality of state-sanctioned executions, saying “I would hope that as a society we are above that.”