The Good People of Culpeper
Fifty-four-year-old Patricia Cook was shot to death on February 9 just outside a church parking lot in Culpeper, Virginia. The first two rounds, fired at point-blank range, tore into Cook’s face and arm. Another round, fired as Cook was driving away from the shooter, entered her brain. A fourth round severed her spine and veered into her heart, killing her. A telephone pole brought her Jeep Wrangler to a halt.
Patricia Cook had been parked in front of Epiphany Catholic School for a long time and refused to leave. The school called the police. A Culpeper police officer confronted Cook. Cook rolled up the officer’s arm in her window and punched the gas. The officer did what he had to do to stop the vehicle and save his own life.
He was a goner. No choice. He had to kill her. Her rap-sheet reflected her danger to society:
Cook was a 54-year-old homemaker and Methodist Sunday school teacher who hadn’t received so much as a speeding ticket since the 1970s. She enjoyed quilting and cooking for her congregation at Culpeper United Methodist Church.
Pure evil. In a small town like Culpeper (Pop. 16,000), a killing is big news. It lasted for about two weeks in the Culpeper Times, then died. It was limited to rehashing the official version of the killing, which didn't sit well with some locals.
Local residents flooded the comment boards of the Star-Exponent*. Under the guise of anonymity, they defended "Pat" Cook, and called for an investigation into the Culpeper Police Department. “Two weeks after the shooting, [the publication] stopped that,” [Former elementary school teacher, 56-year-old James] Jennings says of the message boards. “It deleted all the existing comments and all the existing discussion on that.” The paper relaunched with Facebook commenting, requiring people to identify themselves. At that point, the message boards for the small-town paper went silent. “I think people were afraid to speak up,” Jennings says, adding, “there are a couple of bullies in town.”
So local news was sanitized, and local residents silenced. Even though witnesses disputed the police version of events, they were easily ignored. Who you going to believe, a hero cop or people who back a dead woman?
But Jennings wasn't done yet.
Jennings created the Facebook page “Justice for Patricia Cook” on April 23. The About section reads, “Please consider joining our community, encouraging justice for the unarmed 54 year old woman who was shot by a Culpeper Police Officer, under questionable circumstances.” Beneath that description are the following questions: “What if it was your wife? What if it was your mother, sister, daughter? Would you be willing to sit quietly and say nothing? What if you pulled the trigger? Wouldn't you want to see justice?”
Regional media, including the Washington Post, picked up the story, and miraculously, the Fauqier County special prosecutor convened a grand jury.
Yesterday, one ex-cop's world crashed:
Former Culpeper Town Police Officer Daniel Harmon-Wright was found guilty Tuesday on three charges — including voluntary manslaughter — in the shooting death of a woman in the parking lot of a Catholic school last year.
Most of the time, both the posts at SJ and the comments are negative, enough so that they might make people feel hopeless. James Jennings refused to be hopeless, to give up. He didn't bomb the police station or scream wild-eyed threats; he persisted in demanding accountability, and rallied other, like-minded locals, to his cause.
The good people of Culpeper prevailed, and a cop who killed a resident was convicted. Don't give up hope, and don't quit. We may not win much, but if we don't persist, we will never win.