Federal judge recuses himself from controversial Cook case; what's next?

News-DemocratAugust 29, 2013 

Booking photo of former St. Clair County Circuit Judge Michael Cook of Belleville.

WASHINGTON CO. SHERIFF'S DEPT. — Washington Co. Sheriff's Dept.

— The federal drug case against former St. Clair County Circuit Judge Michael Cook will be heard by a judge from outside the jurisdiction of the Southern District of Illinois.

U.S. District Court Judge William Stiehl, a Republican, on Wednesday removed himself from the controversial case where Cook, a Democrat, is charged with a misdemeanor for allegedly possessing heroin and a felony count of being a heroin user while in possession of a firearm. He has admitted in court to being addicted to heroin and was released on bond without being required to put up any cash after he agreed to attend an out-of-state treatment center. Cook has pleaded not guilty and faces trial scheduled to begin Oct. 1.

The case was temporarily reassigned to Chief Judge David Herndon, also a Democrat. He said on Thursday that after informally polling the other judges in the Southern District, he determined, "They all would recuse themselves."

Herndon said he did not know why Stiehl removed himself from the case. Stiehl could not be reached for comment. A federal judge is not required to state why he recuses himself.

Herndon said he has written a letter to Frank Easterbrook, chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago and the chief judge for the federal 7th Circuit in Illinois, to reassign a federal judge to the case from outside the Southern District.

"I have absolutely no idea who he will assign," Herndon said and added that a replacement judge would be appointed solely to hear the case against Cook. The proceedings would still be held in East St. Louis, he said.

U.S. Attorney Stephen Wigginton, who attended the court proceedings against Cook, declined to comment on Stiehl's recusal.

Cook, 43, discovered the body of fellow Judge Joseph Christ in March, who was found dead from cocaine toxicity on the bathroom floor of a Pike County hunting camp owned by Cook's father, Bruce Cook, a prominent lawyer active in St. Clair County politics.

In May, Michael Cook was arrested by federal agents outside a house in Belleville that was then the home of Sean McGilvery, a friend of the former judge. McGilvery has been charged with possession of heroin with intent to distribute and remains in federal custody.

Former St. Clair County probation officer James Fogarty has been charged with possession to distribute cocaine and, according to a federal court document, stated to a federal agent that he sold cocaine to Michael Cook and Christ shortly before the trip to the hunting camp.

Contact reporter George Pawlaczyk at gpawlaczyk@bnd.com or 618-239-2625.

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