Gathered on the sidewalk outside Safeway, friends and co-workers remembered Brandon C. Cook as someone with a big smile and an even bigger heart, known for always helping others.
A transplant to Alaska himself from Oklahoma, Cook went out of his way to be friendly, especially to new employees at the grocery store.
“I remember when I started at Starbucks, he was the first person to really make me feel welcome,” Rochell Harmon, a barista at the Mendenhall Valley store, said into a microphone while sniffing back tears.
“I think it was my second day, he walked up and said, ‘Hey, are you new to Safeway?’ or ‘Hey, are you new to Juneau?’” another employee named Andrew said.
Cook, 30, was fatally shot inside a Juneau trailer park last week as he helped a friend paint the kitchen in her newly acquired trailer in Kodzoff Acres Mobile Home Park. The Juneau Police Department described the shooting as unprovoked and unforeseen. The man accused of shooting him, Christopher Dean Strawn, 32, was arrested for first-degree murder the following day and is being held at Lemon Creek Correctional Center on $1 million bail.
Safeway Store Director Dawn Wheeler organized the ceremony and balloon release Monday to honor Cook. About 50 people showed up, some of whom took turns speaking and sharing stories with the crowd. Cook’s mother listened to the ceremony by phone from Cook’s hometown of Wewoka, Oklahoma.
“No one is supposed to die the way he did, when he did,” Wheeler said. “It’s not supposed to happen.”
Since he didn’t have any blood relatives in Juneau, Cook’s co-workers — both past and present — became like a family to him. At the time of his death, Cook worked in the Safeway’s produce section and also at the Alaska Airlines ramp at the Juneau International Airport. He’s held a number of retail jobs in the community since he moved to the capital city almost a decade ago.
“He was a great guy,” said Eddie Rabino, 29, who said he met Cook almost 10 years ago when they worked at Foodland IGA together.
“We worked right side-by-side together,” Josh Reed, Safeway’s produce manager and Cook’s boss for the past four months, said. “He was serious about his job, and he wanted to do a good job. Opinions meant everything to him, and if you had something to say about the department, he wanted to listen.”
The focus of Safeway’s ceremony was solely on the shooting victim Cook, but there was underlying tension — the suspected shooter, Strawn, also worked at Safeway as a nighttime janitor. Many of those in attendance worked with Strawn at one time, and emotions ran high when asked about him.
“I hope he rots in jail, I really do,” Heather Abrams, a 19 year old who works at the Safeway deli, said of Strawn.
“All he was was interested in himself and his drugs,” Aileen Sanchez, 31, a close friend of Cook’s who works in Safeway’s liquor department said. She described Cook and Strawn as different as night and day.
“He was really spiraling out of control,” she continued. “He’s the blackest of black souls, and Brandon was just the purest, brightest — they were just opposites.”
Technically, Strawn was never employed by Safeway, according to company spokeswoman Sara Osborne out of Washington. He likely worked for a contractor who worked for Safeway, she said Friday. “… He was never employed by the store or the company.”
It’s not yet entirely clear whether Cook and Strawn crossed paths at Safeway. A police complaint states they knew each other through the landlord of Cook’s friend. The landlord recommended that Tiffany Marie Albertson hire Strawn to help with her new trailer’s renovations.
Prosecutors said Cook was helping Albertson in the trailer the night of Oct. 20 when Strawn left the trailer, returned with a shotgun and shot Cook in the head from behind. Assistant District Attorney Amy Paige said in the courtroom that there was no way else to describe it but as an “execution style” murder.
The witness to the shooting, Albertson, spoke at Monday’s ceremony at Safeway, but didn’t speak to what she saw or heard that night. She thanked the crowd for showing up and said she wanted to keep supporting Cook’s family. After the shooting, Albertson created a GoFundMe account, which has raised $2,850 to help Cook’s family with funeral costs. The funeral is scheduled to take place Wednesday at a funeral home in Oklahoma.
“He’ll forever be in my heart,” Albertson said, describing Cook as an older brother to her.
Albertson isn’t the only one who created a fundraising account to raise money in connection to the case. Strawn’s sister, Felicia Baker, created a FundRazr account, called “Good Man Wrongly Accused,” seeking money to pay for an private attorney for Strawn, rather than a public defender the Juneau court appointed to him.
“We believe wholeheartedly in our brothers innocence and hope you will join us in the effort to vindicate him from all charges,” Baker’s description of the account reads online. “We would just like him to have a real opportunity to prove his innocence using a strong legal defense.”
Strawn’s girlfriend, Julia Lanz, 43, shared the link to the fundraiser to a couple popular Juneau Facebook pages, which caused an uproar online among commentors.
“Get the —- out,” one person wrote. “Nobody in their right mind is going to help you.”
“Wrongly accused?!” someone else chimed in. “How is that possible it was only him and another woman in that house when this guy was shot in the head.”
In a phone interview Friday, Lanz said she strongly believes her boyfriend is innocent. She confirmed he was a drug user — prosecutors signaled as much in the courtroom last week, but said the evidence is still pending — but Lanz said he had been trying to “clean up his act” recently because he has a son and is expecting a child with Lanz in June.
“I would like to let everyone know that he’s not a monster,” she said.
Lanz used to work at the Juneau Safeway as well. She said she quit in September 2014, and Strawn quit a month or two after her.
At the store on Monday afternoon, a few of people in the crowd released a handful of purple balloons into the air in Cook’s memory. They floated above the store as people craned their necks to watch.
“Love you!” one person called out loud.
Wheeler said she thought a balloon release seemed like a fitting tribute to Cook, saying it represents “a good spirit going up.” Safeways across Alaska followed suit, and stores from Anchorage to Nome released balloons in Cook’s honor. Alaska Airlines released balloons in Cook’s honor on Monday, too.
“All I can hope is that something good comes out of this, that there’s some sort of closure for everyone, like there’s some sort of peace and happiness we can find,” Wheeler said. “So we thought with a balloon memorial release, it would be a way of basically a good spirit going up, and it just keeps rising the way it should.”