Mothers of women who died from heroin blame Cook: 'If (he'd) been doing his job ...'

News-DemocratJune 22, 2013 

— Chris Keel nervously prepared herself for the moment she had been dreading for weeks. A friend who was driving turned off Illinois 157 and headed up the bluff.

Their destination lay less than a mile away -- the house where Keel's 20-year-old daughter Jennifer Herling died of a heroin overdose.

Keel said she had often thought of going there. She said she thought that it would be an emotional balm, like going to the scene of a deadly highway accident, where family members might leave a cross and flowers. But she had held back until this day.

She remembered the single red rose placed in Jennifer's clasped hands as she lay in her casket. Jennifer died Sept. 29 at 20 Kassing Drive. Six months earlier, Jessica Williams also died of a heroin overdose at this same house on the bluff. She was 30. The two had been friends.

Now it was February. Keel said she didn't know why exactly she wanted to make the trip or what she expected to see or learn. She said she had no idea that this modest home, now boarded up and vacant, would eventually be linked to an explosive federal investigation and the arrest of her daughter's former judge on charges of possessing the very same, overwhelmingly addictive drug that had killed her Jennifer. She just had to do it, Keel said. Family members including Jennifer's cousin, then 9-year-old Cierra Vanderford, rode with her.

Then, as they traveled up the hill, something strange happened; a seemingly small event, as unpredictable as a shooting star, that would nevertheless transform these few minutes into family lore. All agreed it was eerie.

They were listening to a compact disc of music played at Jennifer's funeral when a familiar song came on. But not just any song. It was "Stairway To Heaven," the British rock group Led Zeppelin's 1971 masterpiece, said to be the musical farewell at the funerals of thousands of young women who meet untimely deaths.

The song began and Cierra felt uneasy.

"There's a lady who knows all that glitters is gold.

"And she's buying a stairway to heaven."

As the car neared a turn in the road shaded by stately oak trees, the song kept getting louder and louder. No one touched the volume. Was Jennifer trying to speak to her in some way?

"My first thought was 'wow!"' said Cierra. "Is Jen in the car with us?"

None of them knew that guitarist Jimmy Page and vocalist Robert Plant recorded the music and lyrics in such a way that they would get louder and louder until the song's end.

Ginny Thomason, Jessica Williams' mother, also made the same emotional journey. It was about two weeks ago when she said she and her husband Michael drove by the same house, slowing down but not stopping.

"I didn't want to set foot on any part of that place," she said. "I looked and then I just wanted to be away from it."

Thomason went through added anguish. While prosecutors say they have proof her daughter Jessica died at 20 Kassing Drive, her remains were not found until two weeks later in Washington Park.

"They just dumped my daughter," she said.

Keel said her daughter Jennifer knew the dangers but kept using heroin, which she began using when she was 16. Her mother was desperate to help her, even if it meant keeping her jail.

Keel said she pleaded with Circuit Judge Mike Cook. During an interview at her State Park Place home, Keel couldn't remember if it was at a hearing in St. Clair County Court in March or April of last year when, court records show, her daughter was in court again before Cook for violating probation on a heroin possession charge.

"Put her away now, or I'm going to have to bury my kid," Keel said she told Cook when her daughter was brought before him. But Jennifer was released each time, a routine occurrence for addicts who appeared before Cook and other judges, especially in drug court where treatment is emphasized instead of incarceration.

"He was all sweaty. It looked like he was out all night. He was all hunched over. It wasn't what we expected to see," Keel said about Cook's appearance.

Keel said she was stunned when she learned months later that Cook had been arrested outside a Belleville home and charged by federal agents with heroin possession and weapons charges.

"We never thought he might be a heroin addict," she said.

Cook, 43, who pleaded not guilty and was released, in now is drug rehab in Minnesota. He resigned his judgeship.

During an anti-drug rally last weekend at Public Square in Belleville, Keel and Thomason were asked if they had any sympathy for Cook.

"No," Keel shouted immediately.

"Absolutely not," Thomason said.

Both women said they were angered that Cook lectured drugs users in court and sent some to jail and prison, and was then himself arrested on charges of possessing the drug.

"There is just no excuse for that," Keel said.

On that February day, at a turn in the road under tall oaks, Keel and her family members arrived at 20 Kassing Drive. The house's windows were boarded up.

"It looked evil. Pure evil to me," she said. "I could feel it." They made a videotape and quickly left.

Neighbor Glenn Choate, 61, said this house, which, according to state and federal court documents, is the likely source of the heroin sold to Jennifer and Jessica, was at many times a madhouse where drugs appeared to be sold openly.

The Fairview Heights Police Department has responded to dozens of various complaints regarding the house during the last five years, Choate said. Police would not immediately respond to a question about the number of complaints in the past five years.

"I'd be trying to sleep and these guys showed up at 3 a.m. blowing the horn of a Cadillac right outside my bedroom window ... They had four dogs guarding the house. People would show up at all hours," he said.

One night, police called Choate and told him to get out of the house or get down on the floor. There was a murder suspect next door and special officers were going to make an arrest.

"A SWAT guy comes out of the woods in camo," Choate said. After the man was in custody, Choate went outside and put out his American flag. "I wanted them to know that I was with them (the police)."

The house always seemed to be buzzing with activity, with a "carousel of inhabitants," Choate said. Homeowner, Deborah A. Perkins, 65, and her son, Douglas Oliver, 47 always seemed to be around.

Perkins and Oliver have been charged in state court with the felonious concealment of a body in the drug induced death of Jessica Williams.

A search warrant states that a visitor at the house witnessed Perkins and Oliver place Williams' body in the passenger seat of their car and drive off. Perkins and Oliver also have been charged in federal court with possession of more than two pounds of heroin with intent to distribute. Both have pleaded not guilty and remain in custody.

It was publicity surrounding the separate arrests of Cook and his family friend Sean McGilvery, 34, on May 22, who was charged in federal court with intent to distribute heroin, that caused Keel's further astonishment.

Like many throughout Southern Illinois who learned that a drug court judge was accused of using drugs, Keel said she was "absolutely shocked" that 20 Kassing Drive was linked to the overall investigation in court papers linking a large heroin purchase to McGilvery, Perkins and Oliver.

These documents allege that McGilvery, a friend of Cook who lived at the Belleville house where the former judge was arrested, had been in the heroin business with Perkins and Oliver.

A federal court document at U.S. District Court in East St. Louis, states that McGilvery contributed $20,000 toward Perkins' purchase of $50,000 worth of heroin in Chicago. McGilvery pleaded not guilty and remains in custody.

Details of the heroin purchase shows that it lacked sophistication. Perkins simply rode a bus to Chicago to buy the heroin, the documents state. Federal agents were waiting when she was picked up in a car at a St. Louis bus stop.

They had little trouble tracking her to East St. Louis, where she allegedly dropped off more than two-thirds of the heroin to a dealer, while keeping the rest and returning to Kassing Drive where she and her son were soon arrested.

Keel remembers that her daughter Jennifer, who she said had gotten off drugs and had regained weight and hope, met Oliver last year when he showed up at her State Park Place home. She said she had no idea he was more than twice her daughter's age.

One day, Oliver and Jennifer rode off on a Moped and Keel said that when her daughter soon returned she knew she had bought drugs.

"Her hand was cupped like this," she said, holding up her closed hand. "I automatically knew she bought dope. She was trying to hide it."

When Jessica Williams' photo showed up in March of last year on a television news show as a missing person, Keel said she had asked her daughter, "Do you know her?"

"She told me 'yeah, that's my friend.' I never thought they would both die of heroin and at the same place. I never imagined that."

At the home where her daughter died, Keel said seeing the modest house didn't provide any answers, only revulsion. She said she had been shaken by the rock song that had seemed to speak directly to her.

"It was so weird when we rode up there. We didn't know what to think. We didn't know why that song was getting louder the closer we got."

Since her daughter's death, she has had large posters made of Jennifer. There's one that shows an attractive, smiling young woman. And another showing Jennifer on a telephone talking to her mother through the visiting room's Plexiglas at the St. Clair County Jail. Keel said she snapped it with her cellphone.

The posters are large enough for passing motorists to recognize at a glance. Keel regularly attends demonstrations with members of other families who lost loved ones to heroin and other drugs. She can sometimes be seen standing with her posters near the fountain at Public Square in Belleville. She was at the rally with Thomason.

"If Judge Cook had been doing his job, I might not have lost my daughter," she said abruptly during the interview at her home. She said that the memory of her daughter keeps her more than willing to hold up the posters of Jennifer and to never to forget that song that had gotten louder and louder. Especially, she said, these lines that seem to offer hope:

"And it's whispered that soon, if we all call the tune,

Then the piper will lead us to reason.

And a new day will dawn for those who stand long,

And the forests will echo with laughter."

Contact George Pawlaczyk at gpawlaczyk@bnd.com or 239-2625. Contact reporter Beth Hundsdorfer at bhundsdorfer@bnd.com and 239-2570

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