Nothing but the Truth

updated 05/18/1998 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/18/1998 01:00AM

A veteran of nearly 30 years in the Federal Bureau of Investigation, John Cook is the sort of tough, no-nonsense G-man who takes pride in putting criminals away. But when he was called last March to testify in the trial of a man accused of a double murder in McDonough, Ga., Cook felt only apprehension and a crushing sadness. "As I walked up to the witness stand, I consciously thought about the final walk an inmate takes going to the electric chair," recalls Cook, 55. "And I said, 'This is the final walk, right here.' "

The suffocating emotions he felt were understandable, given the fact that it was his own son, 24-year-old Andrew Cook, against whom he was about to testify—and whose life hung in the balance. The crime Andrew was accused of committing seemed as puzzlingly senseless as it was brutal. In the early morning hours of Jan. 3, 1995, campers at Lake Juliette, about 10 miles north of Macon, discovered the bodies of Michele Cartagena, 19, and her boyfriend, Grant Hendrick-son, 22, students at nearby Mercer University. Hendrickson was slumped behind the wheel of Michele's car; Cartagena, her skirt hiked up, had been dragged some 40 feet away. Both had been shot to death. The campers told police they had heard gunfire around midnight but hadn't bothered to investigate. The only clues were 17 shell casings recovered at the scene—which were found to have come from an AR-15 assault rifie and a 9-mm Ruger handgun—and a bit of saliva discovered on Cartagena's thigh, which police assumed came from the killer. The campers also reported seeing a Honda CRX drive off after the shooting. The victims' backgrounds offered no motive for the killings. "There was just nothing against them," says prosecutor Tommy K. Floyd. "By all accounts, they were just great kids."

Despite the physical evidence and an intensive investigation, the case went unsolved for nearly two years. Then, in October 1996, Randy Upton, 40, a newly appointed special agent with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, asked to be assigned to the case. Upton, who had recently retired from the Army, had known Michele Cartagena's father, Lt. Col. Luis Cartagena, while both were stationed at Fort Benning, and he was determined to solve the crime. His first move was to visit Arvin's, the biggest gun dealer in Macon, where he compiled a list of 108 people who had purchased AR-5s over the past 12 years. He then began the laborious process of tracking down each and every one of them to request a saliva sample. But Upton got lucky. Using an FBI-GBI profile of the killer, he prioritized the list, and the fifth name that came up belonged to Andy Cook, who was living in a trailer just outside Macon. When Upton telephoned him in November 1996 to set up a meeting, the agent's suspicions were immediately aroused. "Andy became extremely defensive," says another investigator, and claimed he no longer had the gun. Upton told him that he wanted to meet and take a DNA sample, but Cook succeeded in putting him off until after the Thanksgiving holiday.

Andy's father, John Cook, an FBI agent specializing in white-collar crime, learned from his other son, David, that the GBI wanted to talk with Andy. John assumed Andy had gotten himself in some sort of minor financial trouble. The youngest of four children—in addition to brother David, 25, a railroad conductor, he has two sisters, Debbie Pope, 32, a dental hygienist, and Sharon Potter, 30, a bakery worker—Andy seemed to be having the hardest time getting established. After John and his first wife, Sandra Sewell, split up in 1982, Andy had lived first with his dad, then with his mother. "He was always a quiet, shy kid," says John. "He never got into trouble." When he graduated from high school, he went to work at a local disposable-diaper factory.

Within days of his initial conversation with Andy, Upton had confirmed two other crucial facts: that the suspect had also owned a Ruger handgun and that he had driven a Honda CRX. What's more, Andy had recently abandoned his job and his home. It was then that Upton decided to ask John Cook's help in tracking down his son. Without going into details, Upton told him it was in connection with the Lake Juliette killings, which left Cook feeling disturbed but not alarmed. Says Cook: "I still thought, 'This is an elimination thing, just running down leads that peter out, there's nothing to them.' "

John agreed to try to find Andy. On Dec. 4, he called his beeper numerous times. Finally, at 11 p.m., his son called back. John asked about the Lake Juliette killings. "I said, 'Do you know who shot them?' He said, 'Yes.' And then I asked the question that, in retrospect, I probably wish I'd never asked: 'Did you shoot them?' Andy said, 'Yes.' " John begged his son to turn himself in, but Andy refused. When he hung up, John was in a state of shock. "That was the toughest moment of my life," he says. "I just was totally numb." The next day, Andy was spotted and arrested in the woods not far from where he had been living. He was taken to the Monroe County jail, where John had gone to tell Sheriff John Cary Bittick of Andy's confession. Both father and son broke down in tears as John asked why he had done it. "They were just there," Andy explained. "I pulled in and I shot them." He could give no reason other than to suggest that he had been motivated by some irresistible urge. "It wasn't me, Daddy," he said. "It was somebody else."

John hoped that his son would be able to plea-bargain a life-without-parole sentence. But given the viciousness of the crime, prosecutors decided to seek the death penalty—and they informed John that he would be called to testify against his son. They believed that defense lawyers might be able to muddy the physical evidence—even the DNA that linked Andy to the crime—but there would be no getting around a flat-out confession to his father. Though sick at heart, John knew he had no choice but to testify for the prosecution, even if it meant helping send his son to the electric chair. Says John: "When I raised my hand 30 years ago and said, 'I do solemnly swear I'll protect the Constitution against all enemies,' I didn't realize the magnitude of it."

John was the final witness in the three-day trial, and his testimony had the prosecution's intended effect. The jury took less than an hour and a half to convict Andy of two counts of first-degree murder. During the sentencing phase, John argued passionately that his son's life should be spared. "The prosecution has painted him as being a heinous monster," John told the court. "But I see him as a little boy, and there is a spark of goodness in him." Nevertheless the judge sentenced Andy to death.

John is still deeply distraught over his son's deed and has yet to resolve the inner conflict caused by testifying against Andy. In order to spare the bureau and his colleagues any embarrassment related to the March trial, he left the FBI in January, just shy of his 30-year retirement mark. Andy is now on death row at the state prison in Jackson, pending an appeal. If there is any saving grace, it is that he does not blame his father. At one point, John relates, Andy phoned him after a hearing last September and asked if he was okay. "That wasn't what I was expecting to hear," says John. "Then he said, 'You did good, Daddy. You did the right thing; I'm proud of you.' Then he said, 'I love you.' And I said, 'Andy, I love you.' "

Bill Hewitt
Don Sider in Macon

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