It’s been more than 20 months since little Buddy Cook was found dead in his home, a 4-year-old boy whose short life was filled with torment and pain.
Angel and David Cook, Buddy’s adoptive parents, were initially charged in his death, accused of neglecting and starving the boy.
Child Protective Services took their other children — including Buddy’s biological sister and six of their own. The Cooks said they became pariahs in a community where they had lived for much of their lives.
A rock was thrown through a window of their small rustic home. The words “Child Killers” were scrawled in red paint across their front door.
“I can’t tell you what it feels like to be accused of murdering a child that you tried to save,” Angel Cook said.
Last December, as new evidence and witnesses emerged, the Johnson County district attorney’s office dismissed the charges. The children were returned to the Cooks in April.
“We wanted to look at as many things as possible because we wanted to be absolutely sure about what we were doing,” said Matt Smid, a Johnson County prosecutor. “Our job as prosecutors is to seek justice and not convictions. There was too much doubt to take it to a jury.”
But the fallout from the case lingers.
The Cooks allege that some of their children were abused and neglected while in foster care and that CPS did little to address the problems after being alerted.
“I told them the whole time that they were wrong, but they just kept on pushing it and pushing it because they did not want to be wrong,” Angel Cook said. “A social worker told me that I killed my son and that she was taking our seven other children. They did not want to believe anything I had to say.”
The Cooks took their complaints to state lawmakers, asking that the foster-care providers be reprimanded for allowing the abuse, that the couple’s reputation be restored and that they be reimbursed for legal expenses incurred because of criminal charges that should have never been filed.
“We want to make sure that the CPS workers are held accountable when they knowingly leave children in abusive foster homes,” said Angel Cook, who, along with two of her children, testified before the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission this summer. “And to see that this never, ever happens to another Texas family.”
A CPS official said that all allegations reported while the children were in foster care were investigated and that no wrongdoing was found.
“There are no open investigations and CPS is not currently involved with the family in any way,” spokeswoman Marissa Gonzales said in an email to the Star-Telegram.
Buddy’s difficult life
The Cooks adopted Buddy and his little sister, Mary Jane, in May 2012 from their biological mother, Amanda Kay Lunsford, David Cook’s sister. The two children had lived with the Cooks since 2010.
Angel Cook said Lunsford had been on the run from authorities, her mind cloaked in a methamphetamine-induced haze as she traveled from state to state to state.
“CPS investigated us, gave us a safety plan and said if we ever let their mother anywhere near Buddy or his sister, they would take all our children away,” Angel Cook said.
On Buddy’s first night at their home, Angel Cook said, she took off his clothes to give him a bath and saw that his body was covered in scars, scabs, cuts and bruises. The Cooks took Buddy to a local hospital and then to Cook Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth because his injuries were so severe, Angel Cook said.
“That night we took him to the hospital was the best decision I ever made,” David Cook said. “But it was the hardest thing I ever experienced.”
An examination indicated that Buddy suffered from anal warts, Angel Cook said. The Cooks said that they called Lunsford to find out how he contracted anal warts and that she told them he might have been sexually abused by several men while they lived in Albuquerque.
A child-abuse case against Lunsford in Albuquerque, which was closed because Buddy had shown no signs of physical abuse, was reopened in September 2010 after Buddy was examined at Cook Children’s.
The examination also revealed that Buddy had diaper rash, an infected area around his left big toe, bruising, scarring, bug bites, scratches and handprints, all consistent with abuse and neglect, the affidavit said.
Angel Cook produced notarized statements signed by Lunsford, including one in which Lunsford acknowledged that she used drugs and alcohol and suffered from a mental disorder that kept her from providing a safe home. She said her children would be better off with Angel Cook.
“Buddy has a problem with crying all the time and so it would make me drink and I would hit him,” Lunsford told Angel Cook, according to the affidavit. Lunsford would hit Buddy every day, according to the affidavit. Lunsford would smoke marijuana with her boyfriends while Buddy was in the room or lock him in his room while she was drinking, the affidavit said.
“Amanda said the only way to keep Buddy from crying was to give him Motrin or Nyquil,” the affidavit said. “She said she used three bottles in a two-month period.”
When Angel Cook asked Lunsford who sexually molested Buddy, she replied that “it could have been multiple boyfriends,” the affidavit said. “Amanda stated she left Buddy numerous times alone with different guys when she went out to gamble and drink.”
Lunsford was eventually charged with eight counts of abandonment or abuse of a child in New Mexico, according to court records. Those charges were dismissed on May 23, 2011, after Lunsford was found incompetent to stand trial or enter a plea, court records show.
Buddy’s sister, now 4, does not remember the neglect she suffered early in her life, Angel Cook said.
“She seems to have escaped all the abuse that Buddy endured,” Angel Cook said. “The doctors are monitoring her for autism, but other than that, she seems like a normal, healthy little girl.”
‘Slowly he changed’
Buddy, however, was proving to be a case study in child abuse.
He would hide in the closet. He kept a butter knife under his pillow. He picked at scars until they bled, causing the Cooks to tape gloves or socks around his hands so that he would not hurt himself. He struggled to laugh. He sometimes ate his own feces, Angel Cook said.
According to an affidavit that a CPS worker wrote in support of removing the Cooks’ children, Bonnie Taylor, who had been friends with the Cooks for seven years, said Buddy hit himself, hit his head against the wall and picked at himself “just out of the blue.”
Taylor said Buddy would be confined to a high chair for three or four hours at a time in an effort to get him to eat, according to the affidavit.
“Buddy wanted you to hit him because he thought that was love. That was what he wanted,” Taylor said to the CPS worker, who signed the affidavit.
A counselor said that if the family continued to love him, Buddy would get better. And before he died, Buddy did get better, Angel Cook said.
“We’d line up our children every night, and they would hug him and tell him that they loved him,” Angel Cook said. “Slowly he changed. He started laughing and began behaving more like a normal child.”
The Cooks said they took Buddy to the doctor as soon as he started living with them and returned for monthly visits because he was not gaining weight. For 14 months, Buddy weighed 27 pounds, but the doctors insisted he would gain weight.
The family supplemented his diet with nutritional drinks until Buddy reached 32 pounds, Angel Cook said.
In March 2013, Angel Cook said, she and two of her children got a stomach bug.
When Buddy became ill the day before he died, she believed that he had contracted the same bug, Angel Cook said. The plan was to take him to the doctor the next day, Angel Cook said. Buddy ate, took a bath and went to bed.
When he awoke the next morning, March 22, 2013, Buddy said his stomach still hurt.
Angel Cook said Buddy and three of her other children stayed home sick that day. After she returned from taking her other kids to school, Angel Cook said, she heard a noise in Buddy’s room. When she entered, he was staring into space.
“When I went in his room, it was not like he was looking at us. He was looking past us,” Angel Cook said.
She said she could not hear Buddy breathing. When she could not find a pulse, she called 911.
“My son’s not waking up,” Angel Cook told the dispatcher, her voice shaking.
The 911 dispatcher talked Angel Cook through doing CPR, which she struggled with, until paramedics arrived.
“I took him out to the ambulance,” Angel Cook said. “I kept asking how he was, and they would not let me go out there. Then a police officer walked up and told me Buddy was dead.”
‘I had nothing to hide’
Angel Cook said a CPS worker and Cleburne police Detective Kelly Summey immediately began investigating.
The Cooks offered to show them Buddy’s medical records and explain the scars, but Summey wanted permission to search the house, Angel Cook said.
“I signed it,” Angel Cook said. “I had nothing to hide.”
According to Summey, police gathered information at the residence indicating that the child had an ongoing medical condition.
Four hours after Buddy was pronounced dead, CPS officials began interviewing the Cook children, asking about their doctor visits, their eating habits and the methods of punishment used by the Cooks, according to an affidavit in support of removal. Three more days passed before Buddy was buried.
Five minutes after Buddy’s funeral ended, four CPS workers took the Cooks’ children away to be placed in foster care, the parents said.
“I could tell the children were upset,” said Bettie Cradduck, a longtime family friend who attended the funeral. “They [the CPS workers] just said, ‘It’s time to go’ and started loading them in the cars.”
The Tarrant County medical examiner’s office ruled that Buddy’s death was a homicide, with starvation listed as the cause, a ruling that still stands even though the pathologist who did the autopsy later changed his mind.
By May 2013, the parents were arrested and faced injury-to-a-child charges, a first-degree felony that carries a maximum of life in prison. According to affidavits filed by CPS, the child appeared to have died from dehydration and malnutrition, and the parents did not seek medical attention.
Cleburne police said Buddy appeared to be “skin and bones.” He weighed 31 pounds, about 6 pounds below average for a child his age.
Charles Payne, their pastor at Calvary Baptist Church of Cleburne, said the child-abuse accusations split the community, with some people believing the Cooks and others believing the authorities.
On March 29, 2013, a week after Buddy died, David Cook reported that a rock had been thrown through their front window.
In July, the Cooks told police that their lives had been threatened on Facebook and that someone had spray-painted “Child Killers” in red on both sides of the front door and had thrown eggs at the door.
Police took pictures of the vandalism and the smashed eggshells on the front steps of the residence. Angel Cook also said someone had forced her off the road, according to a police report.
Police could find no suspects in any of the incidents, and the cases were listed as inactive, according to reports. Police said there were no witnesses or leads in any of the cases.
‘Too much doubt’
The Cooks struggled to make sense of what was happening. Angel Cook said she was no longer allowed to volunteer at the school her children had attended. David Cook worked two jobs to pay the mounting legal bills, which the Cooks said grew to $200,000.
With their children in foster care, stories of abuse and neglect began to filter back to the parents during weekly visits with the children, Angel Cook said.
Bryan “told me he would run away, and I told him to stay put so I would know where to find him,” David Cook said. “I told him to stay put and we would handle it.”
Prosecutors, meanwhile, had interviewed witnesses who suggested that the Cooks were not guilty. Buddy had always been unhealthy, according to witnesses.
Some witnesses interviewed by the district attorney’s office said that the Cooks would try to give Buddy food and that he would throw it against the wall, said Smid, the assistant district attorney in Johnson County.
Other witnesses said nothing looked out of the ordinary at the Cooks’ small red brick house less than a week before Buddy died, Smid said.
Smid said Lloyd White, a former pathologist with the Tarrant County medical examiner’s office who did the initial autopsy, changed his mind about Buddy’s death, saying he no longer believed it was a homicide.
Smid said White pointed out that Buddy had food in his stomach and was hydrated.
While the medical examiner’s office stood by the homicide ruling, White told Smid that the manner of death was undetermined.
“All of that would have raised doubt for a jury,” Smid said.
In December 2013, the injury-to-a-child charges were dropped, according to the prosecutor.
In April, the seven children were returned to the Cooks. But the damage to some of them had already been done, Angel Cook said.
Testifying in Austin
This summer, Angel Cook and her two oldest sons read statements into the record during their testimony before the Sunset Advisory Commission, which reviews the work of state agencies.
One son swallowed screws while in foster care, Angel Cook said. A daughter with breathing problems was placed with members of a foster family who smoked, which made her sick, Angel Cook said.
Her son Bryan told lawmakers that he and his two brothers were sent to a foster home where 14 other children lived. The brothers were locked in a room with alarms that went off when they tried to leave to go to the bathroom, Bryan said.
“My little brother had to pee in his pants at night,” Bryan said.
The children were told that if they talked to anyone outside the house about what was going on, they would be punished, Bryan said. He told lawmakers that he and his older brother were subjected to unwanted touching by an older boy.
“The social worker told me that my parents did not love me and did not want me back,” Bryan said. “I told her to let me go home and that she was lying about my parents. We were placed in a room where an 18-year-old boy began touching my brother’s private parts. What gives a social worker the right to lie?”
The oldest son, Justin, who was 12 at the time and is now 14, said that even if lawmakers act in their behalf, nothing will erase the memories of the physical and sexual abuse he experienced. Angel Cook said her sons reported at least 50 incidents of abuse, all of which were characterized as horseplay by CPS investigators.
“My CASA [Court Appointed Special Advocate], my social worker, the judge did nothing to protect me,” Justin told lawmakers. “My many outcries for help to my social worker went overlooked. No one has been held accountable.”
During the hearing, Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, the Sunset Advisory Commission chairwoman, said it’s the commission’s job to address the problems raised by the Cooks.
“It was heart-wrenching testimony, and we asked the agency to directly address the concerns that were raised,” Nelson said in an emailed statement to the Star-Telegram.
In a letter written to Randy Odom, executive vice president of the Texas Baptist Home for Children, the organization that operates the foster homes where the Cook children were placed, the Department of Family and Protective Services said the allegations of inappropriate behavior had been evaluated and addressed.
The department found no deficiencies but recommended that the foster parents who cared for two of Cook’s sons increase supervision and not allow the children to have any unsupervised contact with one another. The letter, which CPS provided to the Star-Telegram, also said the foster parents may need additional training in supervision.
Eddie Marsh, president of the Texas Baptist Home for Children, said that if state investigators found any of its employees guilty of treating children inappropriately, that employee would be dismissed immediately.
Patrick Barkman, an attorney who represented the Cooks as they tried to regain their children, said the state’s investigation was a sham.
“The investigation consisted of talking to the CPS worker and the foster-care family,” Barkman said. “They both said nothing happened so nothing happened. That was the sum total of their investigation. I don’t know of any CPS investigation against a family that would be handled that way.”
Barkman also said that although the parents have been cleared of criminal wrongdoing, the damage is done.
“There are still black marks against them,” Barkman said. “They’ve received death threats. People are still shooting off their mouths online. And there is no place for these parents to go to get their good name back.
“And we may never know what really killed Buddy.”
Mitch Mitchell, 817-390-7752