Alberta’s final execution revisited

R.C.M.P. officers guarding Robert Raymond Cook in a Bashaw detachment cell block, 1959. The cell can still be found in the current Bashaw Fire Hall with information on the famous case. Image courtesy of the Provincial Archives of Alberta
Written by Submitted

What initially started as an intimate evening gathering at the Stettler Public Library quickly gained steam as the community showed a vast interest in the ‘sensational’ story leading to the final execution in Alberta 60 years later.

Retired judge and defence lawyer Dave MacNaughton and Stettler Town Councillor Malcolm Fischer discussed the last official hanging in Alberta in front of a crowd of 374 people on Tues. Jan. 29 in the Hub of the Stettler Recreation Centre (SRC).

MacNaughton, the defence lawyer who represented Robert Raymond Cook in 1959 and 1960, was convinced he blocked the horrific event out of his memory while Fischer provided his viewpoint and detailed story leading to the decision of the hanging.

“It is such a sensational story,” began Fischer.

With the storyline of a Hollywood film, a local vandal known to police for petty theft became the centre of a seven family member massacre within the sleepy town of Stettler, Alta. in 1959.

Cook was born in Hanna, Alta. in 1937 and was the only son of his father’s first marriage.

His mother passed away suddenly during a routine operation at the Hanna hospital.

Fischer mentioned, “It was common in Hanna to see a vehicle driving without a driver because he could hotwire the cars from the age of 10.”

Headshots of Robert Raymond Cook. ECA Review/Submitted

When Robert was 12, his father married his school teacher, Daisy Mae Gaspar, thus the move to Stettler.

From the age of 14 when his crime sprees started until the time of arrest at age 22, 94 per cent of that time was spent behind bars in various penitentiaries for stealing vehicles.

Cook was in the Saskatchewan Penitentiary in Prince Albert serving a three year sentence when the Queen came to visit.

Approximately 100 prisoners were released on the queen’s amnesty with Cook being one of them.

Many described him as calm and incapable of what he was charged and executed for.

“There was no violence in his record. He was a pleasant person [but] a constant liar,” described MacNaughton.

“People thought he was the next Elvis Presley he was that good lookin’” said Fischer.

Fast forward to the day after the murder, well before anyone knew of what had happened, Cook was spotted driving a flashy white 1959 Chevrolet impala convertible with red leather interior.

For a town of 3,600 at the time the vehicle was hard to miss for Const. Allan Braeden.

Cook was asked to go to the police station after Sergeant Thomas Roach received a call from a dealership in Edmonton stating they had incomplete paperwork filled out by a man named Raymond Cook.

Cook told the sergeant that he provided his father $4,100 in cash to pay for the move to British Columbia to start a garage business.

In return, his father gave him the family station wagon which he traded in Edmonton for the new convertible.

After some questioning by the sergeant, Cook was charged with conducting business under false pretences and put under arrest until his story could be proved by family.

“The most problematic and significant character trait Cook displayed was his disregard for the truth and in many cases, the law,” said Fischer.

Cook was often described as a compulsive liar which MacNaughton confirmed after his multiple encounters with the young man.

He called MacNaughton who recently moved from Saskatchewan with his wife and children.

Sgt. Roach and a couple of officers visited the Cook home a mere two blocks away from the station and found nothing unusual other than children’s running shoes left behind and bed covers removed.

The next morning, after a phone call to staff Sgt. David Beeching out of Red Deer, a team of investigators descended on the seemingly normal home and separate garage on 52 Street.

Const. George Sproule was first to spot tiny dried blood stains on the television screen.

The master bedroom was in disarray with many articles of clothing strewn over the bed.

An officer lifted some of the clothing to discover a large, damp bloodstain in the centre then the bent double-barrel of a shotgun.

The butt end of the gun was missing.

After lifting the mattress, another officer found some light blue trousers and a blue suit coat spotted with blood as well as a red necktie and a torn white shirt.

With the burning question of where the bodies were, investigators moved to the garage.

In it, large heavy pieces of cardboard lined the floor to avoid oil stains when working on vehicles.

They slowly removed each piece from the ground which revealed the unmistakable stench of decaying bodies.

The infamous grease pit was where the bodies of all seven family members were found including Raymond Cook, Daisy Cook and their children: Gerald, 9, Patrick, 8, Christopher, 6, Kathy, 4 and Linda, 3.

Tires and rims were laid on top of the bodies in the five foot deep grease pit.

Robert Cook was sent to the Ponoka Mental Institution for a physiatrics evaluation to determine if he was mentally fit to stand trial after breaking down during his charge reading.