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In letters, death row inmate finds ‘family’ he never had

Lawyers detail boyhood of torture

Daniel Wayne Cook has never traveled overseas, but a British woman has played an active role in his life for the past two decades and a British anesthetic will have an active role in his scheduled execution Tuesday for the murders of two Lake Havasu men in 1987.

Among the issues Cook's legal team will raise Thursday in an Arizona Executive Clemency Board hearing is the quality of the anesthetic used in the three-drug execution mixture: sodium thiopental, which the state obtained from a London manufacturer after a shortage caused when the U.S. manufacturer ceased production.

In a strange cosmic twist of fate, England also is home to the only peace Cook has ever known: A loving "foster" family in Elizabeth McOwat, an empty-nest retired teacher living in a quiet village with her minister husband.

"My relationship with Elizabeth has many layers to it," Cook, 49, said in a written response to an interview query. "All of them in some way or another have turned into blessings for me."

"He has changed my life, really," McOwat said in an email interview. "He has made me think about what makes people behave in certain ways, which has made me far less judgmental in my thinking towards others, especially prisoners. I have become a more tolerant person. He has shown me the human side of tragedy and horror, and helped me to understand why people behave as they do."

Prosecutor would not have asked for death penalty

Even the attorney who prosecuted Cook says the stomach-churning violence, torture and murders that led to his death-row status had everything to do with how Cook was raised.

Former prosecutor Eric Larsen, now a well-known Tucson defense attorney, gave a signed statement to Cook's federal public defenders to present at his clemency hearing, saying he "would not have sought the death penalty in this case" had he known about Cook's childhood abuse, which "mirrored the circumstances surrounding the crime."

Larsen attests that Cook's lack of confidence in his assigned attorney, a bipolar alcoholic, led Cook to ask to represent himself at trial. Even though the judge denied another defendant self-representation in a capital murder trial, saying the case was too complicated for a non-lawyer, Cook was allowed to defend himself, according to Robin Konrad of the Federal Public Defender's Office, now one of Cook's attorneys.

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Cook had requested an expert to help him sort out his troubled past during the mitigation phase, in which the defense presents evidence in favor of a life sentence over death. But the judge denied the request, so Cook's childhood abuse and the post-traumatic disorder he suffered were never considered, evidence that Larsen says would have spared him from the death penalty.

Cook was convicted in the torture deaths of Carlos Froyan Cruz Ramos and Kevin Swaney at his Lake Havasu apartment. The conviction was based on the testimony of another co-worker, John Matzke, in exchange for a lighter sentence, though Matzke confessed to participating in the tortures and committing of the murders.

"At one point, (Matzke) left the apartment to buy beer," Konrad said. "He went on a beer run and returned to participate in the crime."

Yet Matzke was allowed to plead to second-degree murder if he testified against Cook. Matzke was released from prison in 2007 and lives in Tucson, Konrad said.

Some of the evidence that Konrad will present at the clemency hearing comes from experts hired to determine what led to the 1987 murders. Forensic psychologist Donna Marie Schwartz-Watts determined that Cook suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder brought on by his childhood and organic brain damage.

Beaten, tortured as a boy

"Not surprisingly, he turned to drugs at a young age," Watts determined. "Dan has several head injuries and overdosed on medications in an attempt to commit suicide."

"Because of all these factors, Dan's brain does not work properly. Indicative of this fact, Dan experienced seizures prior to being arrested for murder. Dan suffers from organic brain damage," the report states. "Every person in Dan's life who was charged with caring for him instead inflicted emotional, physical and sexual abuse," according to Watts' report. "As a small infant, Dan's father beat him and burned his penis with cigarettes.

"Dan's own mother sexually abused him," the report states. "She would beat him and then fondle him to make him feel better. The abuse continued with his step-grandfather who sexually molested Dan and his sister when they were small children. Dan was also physically abused by his grandparents, who would tie him to chairs as punishment and force him to eat his own vomit."

The torture that Cruz suffered at Cook's hands includes being tied to a chair, being burned with cigarettes and being sodomized.

"My life as a child was anything but normal," Cook told me in a letter. "It seemed that in every direction I was sent, there was darkness and pain waiting for me.

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"The abuses perpetrated on me were never far apart," he wrote. "Survival was found by living within my imagination whenever possible, dreaming of a childhood that was anything but my own. Pretending my mother was not who she was.

"I would make up these elaborate tales of what a wonderful mother I had. Things like how she saved my life once, by killing a bear while hiding me in the bushes. Or how my mother always gave me love, and hugs and birthday (parties) like none ever seen before," he wrote.

Cook's mother, who drank heavily while she was pregnant, had also been abused as a child.

"My childhood was not only as dark and abused as hers was," Cook wrote, "but she added her own touch to my childhood."

An unlikely friendship

It would seem highly unlikely, then, that Cook would ever attempt a relationship with a woman offering maternal friendship.

McOwat, a former secondary school teacher with an interest in social justice, was moved by the documentary "14 Days in May," about the last two weeks in the life of executed Mississippi inmate Edward Earl Johnson.

"I would recommend it to anyone," McOwat said. "Just make sure you get hold of the full version, and not the version shown in America." McOwat soon heard about Lifelines, which encourages people to write to U.S. death row inmates. "I was so outraged and horrified at what I had seen (in '14 Days')," McOwat wrote. "It was against everything human – all that I had been taught to believe in. And I felt that writing was something positive that I could do."

McOwat's letter landed in the hands of another Arizona death row inmate, Darrick Gerlaugh (who was executed in 1999). Gerlaugh "had decided that he did not want to write to someone overseas," Cook wrote. "So I wrote to Elizabeth."

The two began a cautious correspondence at first, sharing guarded details of their lives.

"He asked about boundaries pretty early on," McOwat wrote, "in a very mature way, so we sorted those out, and then the friendship went from there."

"I noticed early on that Elizabeth was not a 'Lookie Lou,'" Cook wrote, "a person who writes to death-row prisoners just to see what life is like on death row, quickly losing interest and stops writing."

Lifelines requires members to make a lifetime commitment to prison correspondents.

"Elizabeth gave me her word that she would not leave and would stay with me for as long as I wanted or needed her to be in my life," Cook wrote. "That was a huge promise to make and keep, when given to a stranger that you know nothing about. But, here we are, some 20 years later, and not only is Elizabeth still beside me, but she is still needed."

It took time for Cook to trust McOwat enough to accept a humble present, stamps, from her. "Gifts in my past usually meant that I would soon be required to do something I neither liked doing or wanted to do," Cook said.

Another death-row inmate suggested Cook might be offending McOwat by refusing her offers.

"So, on a leap of faith, I accepted her gift," Cook wrote, "and guess what? Nothing was required of me, good, bad or indifferent."

Eventually, driven by guilt of lying to her, Cook trusted McOwat enough to discuss his childhood.

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"She was not angry with me," Cook wrote, "which surprised the heck out of me, as usually a lie was greeted with hate and violence.

"I was being introduced to a new kind of interaction with people," Cook wrote. "I was learning that it was OK to trust some people a little bit."

McOwat began offering to host a birthday party for Cook, in absentia, at her home.

"I cried a bit," Cook admitted. "We have grown from being simply pen pals, to good friends, from good friends into bestest friends," Cook wrote. "Then we became 'The Chosen Ones.'"

"He told me he knew he had his own birth mother, but he also told me that I showed him the qualities that he would have wanted in a mother," McOwat wrote, "and said that if he had been able to choose a mother, he would have chosen someone like me. So I became his chosen mom! And Dan became our chosen Daniel."

Harrowing visit

When McOwat had the opportunity to travel to Arizona with friends, Cook agreed to a visit, which took place in a visiting cell separated by glass in the Arizona State Prison Complex in Florence.

"It was absolutely harrowing," said McOwat, who had nightmares preceding the visit.

"(But) when I saw Dan, it was all OK, because we just chatted like old friends," McOwat said. "We imagined that we were sitting out in the park on the grass and tried to put the prison somewhere else. I was searched and checked, but it was all done very politely on the whole. It was a bit like being on an alien planet. I could not believe what was happening or where I was."

More visits would follow, with McOwat's husband, John. During the most recent visit, in December, the long-time, long-distance friends realized they had one more thing to do: Say goodbye, face-to-face. Cook doesn't want the McOwats to witness his execution.

The thought of Cook's execution is "surreal and unbelievable" to his "chosen mom."

"I am thinking about all that Dan and I have shared, with John and my family, and trying to focus on all that is positive," McOwat wrote. "I am thinking of those people who will be there for him at the end, and thanking them for their compassion and concern.

"If he is able to phone me at the end, then I shall be here and waiting," McOwat wrote. "The next day, if the worst comes to the worst, I shall go out to our beautiful moors, over towards the sea, and just walk in peace and quiet."

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"In the time that I have known Elizabeth and John," Cook wrote, "they have introduced me to another person: Myself. And even though there are times when I find that I do not like myself, I concentrate on the kind and loving words that Elizabeth and John use to describe who they see in me, and their words can almost always cause me to lay down my arms, and find enough peace within."

A.J. Flick is an experienced criminal justice reporter, author of a book to be published next year on notorious Arizona crimes and a member of the steering committee for the Coalition of Arizonans to Abolish the Death Penalty.

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Mar 30, 2011, 8:09 pm
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Terrific story.

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Arizona Dep't of Corrections

Daniel Wayne Cook, Inmate 069007, is scheduled to be put to death Tuesday after 23 years on death row.