A prosecutor on Thursday said a 30-year-old man who was fatally shot inside a Juneau trailer park Tuesday night was murdered “execution style” by a man hired to help renovate the home.
Assistant District Attorney Amy Paige said Christopher Dean Strawn, a 32-year-old with a lengthy criminal history, shot Brandon C. Cook in the back of the head at close range for reasons unknown.
“I don’t think there’s any way that the offense can be described but an execution-style murder,” Paige told Deputy Magistrate Sharon Heidersdorf in Juneau District Court. “… The victim, as far as we can tell from the evidence so far, must have had no idea that this was coming. It appeared to be unprovoked.”
Strawn was arrested on suspicion of first-degree murder Wednesday morning. Thursday was his first court appearance, and Heidersdorf set Strawn’s bail at $1 million.
Before the hearing started, Strawn — handcuffed and seated in the courtroom wearing an orange Lemon Creek Correctional Center jumpsuit — was intent on clearing his name.
He requested out loud to make a statement to the Empire before the magistrate was seated. It’s against court rules for defendants to speak to anyone in the galley and he was shushed by the court’s judicial officer.
He pleaded not guilty during the hearing in front of the audience — which included two reporters, a photographer, two Juneau police officers, attorneys and others in the room — without prompting from the magistrate. (Judges don’t ask for pleas to be entered until arraignment. Thursday’s hearing was what’s referred to as a “felony first appearance.”)
Later in the hearing, Strawn talked loudly with his appointed attorney, public defender Eric Hedland, protesting the prosecutor’s remarks.
“I would never harm anyone,” he said, adding, “I’ve never harmed anything unless I was provoked.” Hedland reserved his bail arguments for a later date.
Among those listening to the hearing was the shooting victim’s mother, who participated telephonically from Cook’s hometown of Wewoka, Oklahoma. When asked if she would like to say anything, the mother described her son as willing to help anyone and loved by all.
Heidersdorf asked if there was anything else she would like to add. After a pause and the sound of dogs barking in the background, the mother began crying and asked, “Maybe, just why?”
A Juneau Police Department complaint filed Thursday did not shine any light on that question. A witness to the shooting, 26-year-old Tiffany Marie Albertson, described it as completely unprovoked, according to the document.
Albertson told JPD detective Dominic Branson that she was standing just a few feet away from Cook when he was shot. Cook was helping her paint the kitchen in her new trailer at the time, and she had hired Strawn to help renovate the trailer before she moved in, at the recommendation of her landlord.
Police reports do not state whether Strawn was already in the trailer or if he entered unannounced when the shooting took place around 10:30 p.m. Tuesday. ADA Paige indicated in the courtroom that Strawn had been in the trailer but then left and came back with a shotgun.
When he did come back in, Albertson and Cook were apparently not aware of any danger, police evidence indicates. Branson said Albertson was so completely surprised by it, she didn’t even see the shooting happen. She heard Strawn say something to the effect of, “Sorry to do this,” and then heard a shot.
“Albertson said she then heard a loud bang and saw Cook drop to the floor,” Branson wrote. “Behind her she saw Strawn about 10 feet away holding what she described as a short-barreled shotgun with a pistol-style grip. Strawn told her not to be worried because he wasn’t going to kill her. Albertson said she ran to the rear of the trailer and called 911, where she waited for the police to arrive.”
Police arrived within three minutes, and paramedics a minute later, but Cook was already gone. He was found by police on the kitchen floor of unit C16 in Kodzoff Acres Mobile Home Park with a gunshot wound to the back of his neck and head, Branson said in his report.
Strawn had fled the scene, but JPD’s SWAT team apprehended him at his home a few blocks away around 8:30 a.m. Wednesday morning.
‘He never saw the gun’
Cook’s family told an Oklahoma newspaper that Cook died just short of his 31st birthday and just before a return trip home in November. The family has been in contact with JPD about the police investigation.
“He never saw the gun or had no clue what was about to happen,” Don Cook, his father, told The Seminole Producer. “The police said he died instantaneously.”
While the witness, Albertson, may not have known Strawn before being introduced through her landlord, Cook did know him. The suspected shooter and victim were acquaintances and had at one point, if not presently, both worked at the Safeway in Juneau, JPD spokeswoman Erann Kalwara confirmed.
The Safeway store manager told the Empire on Thursday that she could not comment but that Safeway will be hosting a balloon release memorial in Cook’s honor at 2 p.m. Monday.
Where’s the weapon?
JPD has still not said whether they have found the murder weapon. In repeated inquiries since Wednesday, spokeswoman Kalwara has consistently said she doesn’t know its status or whether it’s in evidence.
A group of Juneau Police Department officers and Alaska State Troopers were seen searching the woods near Kodzoff Acres Mobile Home Park on Thursday — and even wading in Duck Creek, which runs behind the trailer park.
Sgt. Matthew Hightower, an Alaska State Trooper in Juneau, confirmed his agency was assisting JPD but could not say in what capacity.
“We’re not releasing anything because it’s their case,” he said referring to JPD.
In an email to the Empire at about 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Kalwara said she didn’t have any updates about the weapon.
“I do not have any updates for you on the weapon and I don’t know what the troopers were doing,” she said.
ADA Paige requested Strawn be held behind bars on $1 million bail during Thursday’s court hearing, citing “tremendous” concerns for community safety given the alleged offense. Another reason was because of Strawn’s criminal history.
Page told the deputy magistrate that Strawn has at least a dozen criminal convictions that date back to 2002, which “run the gamut from theft in the fourth degree to criminal trespass to disorderly conduct, DUI, failure to stop at the direction of a peace officer, (and) reckless endangerment.”
Among those, Paige said, is a 2006 conviction for first-degree vehicle theft. She noted that past offense in particular because unlike the others, it’s a felony. That means if Strawn is convicted of murder, prosecutors could potentially ask for more than the minimum possible prison sentence. (For first-degree murder, that minimum is 20 years; the maximum is 99 years.)
Those past convictions do not appear in the state of Alaska’s free public court database system, called CourtView Justice Systems, or CourtView for short. As the Empire reported earlier, CourtView shows Strawn as only having two prior misdemeanor convictions: one in 2010 for resisting a Juneau police officer and another in 2013 for violating a domestic violence protective order. CourtView shows that a woman took out two protective orders out against Strawn, once in 2013 and another in 2014. Strawn has several other cases on CourtView, but some of those were either dismissed by prosecutors while others were civil cases or non-criminal cases, such as for speeding or not carrying proof of insurance.
In a phone interview, ADA Paige said she does not know why Strawn’s past criminal convictions do not show up on CourtView. She said she looked up Strawn’s criminal history on the Alaska Public Safety Information Network (APSIN), the database run by the State of Alaska Department of Public Safety that is only available to state law enforcement agencies, prosecutors and DPS employees.
“I can’t speak for CourtView,” Paige said, adding that APSIN a more reliable source of information.
In addition to the bail amount, Paige requested that if released from jail he be released to a third-party custodian, not have contact with Albertson and another person who was only referred to by his or her initials, and he not be allowed to possess firearms or controlled substances.
Paige signalled that drugs may have been involved in the case on Strawn’s part but she did not elaborate. JPD has not yet said whether drugs or alcohol was involved.
Legally, what’s next?
Deputy Magistrate Heidersdorf granted all the state’s bail requests and set the next court hearing for Friday, Oct. 30, at 3:30 p.m. That hearing will be vacated if an indictment is issued before then. (Defendants facing felony charges have a right to have a grand jury hear his or her case to see if the state has sufficient evidence to proceed.)
The Juneau District Attorney’s Office usually convenes grand juries on Fridays. Since the District Attorney and two ADAs are out of a town at a prosecutors conference, the grand jury in this case would likely meet the morning of Oct. 30.
After that, Strawn would be arraigned and a trial date set.