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.”
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.
On Fri. July 10, between the hours of 11:30 p.m. and midnight, Cook escaped his maximum-security cell of the hospital.
Police were informed of the apparent escape and created roadblocks on Highway 2, Highway 53 east and Highway 12 towards Stettler as Cook was known for stealing vehicles.
Not too long after the daring escape, RCMP officers lining a strip of Highway 12 in Nevis came upon a vehicle.
An officer attempted to approach it as it slowed down but the vehicle suddenly lurched into action, darting in between two cop cars.
The car crashed after flying a fair distance in the air when it did not make a turn properly.
Police were apprehensive as the person behind the wheel, most likely Cook, could be armed.
They waited until morning light where the vehicle was found empty.
Cook had disappeared.
Four choppers were deployed over the area and roadblocks were strengthened.
Word was sent that the Nevis Hall had been broken into on Saturday morning. Back in the day, these halls were supplied with dry goods.
Clues led police to believe the felon was heading to Alix but the search was temporarily stopped due to darkness.
Monday morning, a call came in claiming the Alix garage had been broken into overnight and a 1957 Monarch was stolen.
Those in the community who remember Cook’s escape felt on edge as he could possibly return to conduct more crime.
The radio and newspapers were constantly giving updates on possible whereabouts.
Children were kept indoors.
Homes and vehicles were left unlocked as to avoid any trouble.
Stettler and area had become a shell of its former self.
“Food was even left on the table,” chuckled MacNaughton.
“Cook was out and hysteria would not be at all an exaggeration of what this town and a big chunk of Alberta turned into,” added Fischer.
Every other person seemed to be a military or RCMP official as they flooded the small town.
Finally, a solid lead from Richard Schultz, a resident near Bashaw, closed in on Cook’s whereabouts.
Two more sightings confirmed he was heading towards Bashaw.
Norman Dufvah called RCMP to notify them of a man matching Cook’s description was hiding behind his pig barn.
Once they arrived, they called out for Cook saying ‘the jig is up’.
He surfaced and was found to be completely exhausted after spending 84 hours on the run.
“He had no weapons, no shirt, carrying two coats and was wearing women’s boots with a jug of water and a black floppy hat,” described Fischer.
“He collapsed where they arrested him on the spot.”
The runaway was taken to the Bashaw detachment’s cell which is still in place today in the existing fire hall.
Defence lawyer MacNaughton called in some big players including Giffard Main to help with the case as he was still quite fresh at the time.
Cook was under cross-examination for three days.
In the end, the jury did not take long to make a decision.
Within 30 minutes they determined a guilty verdict and sentenced him to hang.
MacNaughton noted in a follow-up interview with the ECA Review that most criminals on death row turn towards religion.
Cook was no exception, creating a deep poem that outlined his innocence.
The striking end of the poem has inspired the name for a play at the Bashaw Theatre named ‘End of the Rope’ which was conducted in the early 2000s.
“I’ve heard of justice, but where can it be. I looked in the dictionary, Behold! There it is to see. When I sent for my lawyer he just shook his head. Justice will only come long after you’re dead. So people of the world take note. It’s murder when the innocent die at the end of the rope.”
At about two minutes after midnight on November 15, 1960, Robert Raymond Cook was hanged.