'It was like a chess game': Sheriff says secrecy key to investigation of judge's cocaine death

News-DemocratJune 29, 2013 

A red plastic vial of cocaine dropped out of the victim's clothing and onto the stainless steel autopsy table.

Its abrupt discovery instantly interrupted the grim procedure. The deceased was an associate circuit court judge, 49-year-old Joe Christ, father of six children and newly appointed to the bench in St. Clair County.

Dr. Amanda Youmans glanced at Paul Petty, the Pike County sheriff and coroner, who took the vial and placed it in an evidence bag. When the autopsy was completed, he asked Youmans to keep quiet about the discovery and to make sure her staff didn't talk about it either.

"I had to gain control," Petty said during an interview at his office in Pittsfield, Ill., "I knew secrecy would be key to my investigation."

Christ had died the day before at a remote Pike County hunting cabin. His friend and colleague, St. Clair County Circuit Judge Mike Cook, 43, discovered the body on a bathroom floor of the cabin and called the sheriff's 911 dispatcher at 6:18 p.m. on March 10.

Within 48 hours of the autopsy, the 45-year-old sheriff, who once trained dolphins to hunt underwater explosives for the Navy, was sitting across from Cook at a restaurant in Hardin in Calhoun County, 40 miles south of Pittsfield. Petty said he wanted to meet with the judge on neutral ground, to get a read on what Cook knew. There were just the two of them. Cook had driven 75 miles. It was around noon.

"He seemed like a nice guy. ... It was a very general conversation," Petty said about the lunch meeting. "Cook was affected by Joe's death. His loss was legitimate and heartfelt."

Petty said he is prohibited because of an ongoing federal investigation from talking specifically about what he and Cook said to each other during that meeting about Christ's death.

"I got what I wanted. Meaning, I got a read," he said of the one-hour conversation that ended with the men shaking hands. However, Petty said he made no mention of the vial that had dropped from Christ's clothing as the autopsy started.

On that Wednesday afternoon at the restaurant in Hardin, Petty said he didn't suspect that the cordial judge sitting across the table could be addicted to drugs. He said his primary concern, which wasn't discussed at the lunch, was to determine who he could rely on in St. Clair County among the police and in the courthouse to help him with his investigation.

"I had to keep our information in a tight circle. Everybody talks and we just couldn't have that."

Who was Joe Christ?

Petty turned to investigating Christ's background. He talked to family members and friends. He discovered that Christ was a longtime former prosecutor who graduated from a Michigan law school in 1993 and joined the St. Clair County state's attorney's office a few years later. Christ's family runs a well-known asphalt business in Lebanon.

Christ had five daughters and a son. His wife, Tari, helped run a family side business, ANJ Communications, which involved cleaning phone booths for private companies. Christ made $68,000 as a prosecutor but briefly enjoyed a hefty pay increase for the short time he was a judge when his salary went to $171,762.

Christ was a large man, more than 280 pounds and 6-foot-3. He was described as always polite and a hard worker. There had been a large police escort to Christ's funeral procession when it left St. Francis de Sales Roman Catholic Church in St. Louis, where he had regularly attended Mass that was often said in traditional Latin.

If there was a dark side to Christ, something that might answer why a sitting judge would risk his family and career to snort cocaine, it wasn't immediately evident to Petty.

After his death, only a single person contacted by the BND spoke about Christ on the record. Others who talked did so anonymously and had only positive things to say about him.

"He had a very spiritual side," said his friend, Belleville attorney Carmen Durso, who often represented clients who were being prosecuted by Christ. Durso said Christ asked him once to come to St. Francis de Sales, a massive, cathedral-like structure.

"He told me I would like it because it was very spiritual," Durso said.

"I never got mad at Joe Christ. When I asked him something on behalf of a client he would consider it or he might say, 'Carmen, you know I can't do that.' ... He had genuine compassion for people. ... This (cocaine use) was shocking."

The only hint that Christ might have had a reckless side was his penchant for riding a motorcycle, even though he didn't have a required motorcycle endorsement on his license, according to the secretary of state's office. He did obtain a motorcycle learner's permit in 2008, the records show, but let it expire after a year without getting the required license.

Officials at the courthouse identified the bike as a white Honda Goldwing. This type of motorcycle is registered to a member of Christ's immediate family.

Cook owns a 2009 Harley-Davidson and has a motorcycle endorsement. James Fogarty, a former St. Clair County probation officer who has pleaded not guilty in the case, has an endorsement on his license that allows him to legally operate a Ducati motorcycle.

According to an FBI agent's statement filed in federal court, Fogarty said he sold $280 worth of cocaine to Christ and Cook shortly before the two judges made a trip on March 9 to the hunting cabin owned by Cook's father, prominent Belleville attorney Bruce Cook. Christ was declared dead the next day, a Sunday.

A second meeting

Just a little more than two months after the exploratory lunch meeting in Hardin, Cook would be arrested in Belleville by federal agents and charged with misdemeanor possession of heroin and felony possession of a firearm. Cook pleaded not guilty and is in a drug rehabilitation center. He has resigned his judgeship.

During the time between Christ's death and Cook's arrest, Petty continued to keep secret the vial of cocaine found during the autopsy. He said he knew he had to try to investigate further.

Two days after the first lunch with Cook in Hardin, and just hours after Christ's funeral, Petty arrived in Belleville with a deputy and called Cook. He hadn't told the judge he was coming. However, Cook agreed to a second meeting at a local restaurant. It lasted about an hour and a half, Petty said.

Again, Petty said he could not comment specifically about what was said.

"We concluded our meeting and I knew that he knew that drugs were involved," he said.

At this point, Petty said no one outside himself, the pathologist's staff and his deputy knew about the vial of cocaine. And he still hadn't received an official cause of death from the autopsy. That came a few weeks later -- Christ had died of cocaine toxicity.

In the meantime, Petty received calls from the media, including the News-Democrat. He assured reporters that nothing had been found at the hunting camp to indicate that Christ's death was due to anything but natural causes.

Petty, who later apologized for misleading reporters, said secrecy had been necessary.

In a story about Christ's death, noting that the cause of death was not immediately available, St. Clair County State's Attorney Brendan Kelly said, "Joe fought for the people. He prosecuted thousands of cases and helped so many families achieve some measure of justice and peace."

Enter the FBI

When he finally received the toxicology report, Petty said he still sat tight and did not reveal that information. Before he showed his hand, he said he wanted assurances that the whole sad episode would be properly investigated, especially if evidence turned up that there was continuing drug use among public officials.

A few days later, Petty received a call from a police officer on loan to the FBI asking for a meeting to talk about Joe Christ's death. Petty said he responded that an FBI agent should call him directly, which happened a few days later.

As with the meeting with Cook, Petty said he wanted to meet outside his county on neutral ground. This turned out to be at a roadside picnic table near Pearl in Calhoun County.

At first, Petty said it was a standoff. The two agents wouldn't reveal what they knew; neither would Petty.

"It was like a chess game," he said. "Each entity of law enforcement had their own information that when combined could be important to the other. ... I wanted to be assured that the investigation would be handled properly and would not just be a fishing expedition to discredit someone's life."

But the meeting appeared to be headed toward a frustrating impasse. Then, the agents excused themselves and held a short conversation out of Petty's earshot. When they returned to the picnic table, the agents agreed to share what they knew of a far-reaching investigation. Petty agreed to tell what he knew.

Two hours later, the meeting ended with Petty feeling that the entire investigation soon would go forward.

"When we left the table it was apparent that this investigation was about more than just Joe Christ's death," he said.

As the weeks went by, Petty, with the approval of federal investigators, publicly released the autopsy report that confirmed that Christ died of cocaine toxicity.

Finally, on May 22, Petty said he was in Belleville wrapping up some loose ends of his own investigation, when he heard on his police radio that federal agents had arrested Cook outside a house in the city, the home of a 34-year-old man who would soon be charged with intent to distribute heroin. It was bittersweet news, Petty said.

"It was a disappointment knowing it was happening to a member of the judicial system," he said, "but we are all human and we are all susceptible to the addictions of life."

Editor’s Note: Former St. Clair County Judge Michael Cook was presiding over a murder trial on March 13, the day Pike County Sheriff Paul Petty said Cook met him in Hardin at about noon for lunch. Petty had asked Cook to meet with him to discuss the death of Cook’s fellow judge Joe Christ. The verdict in the murder trial came in at 6:10 p.m. and was received in court by Cook.

Contact reporter George Pawlaczyk at gpawlaczyk@bnd.com or 618-239-2625. Contact reporter Beth Hundsdorfer at bhundsdorfer@bnd.com or 618-239-2570.

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