Don Cook was ready to run.
It was 41 degrees and raining as the sky was quickly growing darker Friday evening, not exactly ideal conditions to run three miles. Don shrugged his shoulders. This wasn’t that bad. Nothing was going to keep him from doing this.
His son Brandon, who moved from his hometown of Wewoka, Oklahoma, to Juneau in 2006, would make this same 3-mile bike ride from his home in Lemon Creek to his job at Safeway almost every day. Sometimes Brandon would call home during that bike ride.
“He didn’t want to be alone,” Brandon’s mother Amanda Cook said. “That’s the main thing. He never wanted to be riding alone.”
Even without his parents physically there, Brandon took them with him as he rode those three miles. As Don, an avid runner, finally ran those miles Friday, Brandon wasn’t alongside him.
This time, two years to the day after Brandon’s death, it was Don’s turn to take Brandon with him.
A window into his life
Brandon Cook had hardly spent time away from his parents when he decided to move 3,000 miles away.
When Brandon had an internship in Oklahoma City, his parents would drive the hour and 15 minutes to see him three times a week, Don said. When Cook earned a scholarship to Oklahoma State University in Stillwater (nearly two hours away from Wewoka), his parents again drove to see him multiple times per week.
While he was at Oklahoma State, Brandon started talking with Samantha Sharclane, a young woman who lived in Juneau. They met online, and quickly grew enamored with each other. When Brandon told his parents that he wanted to move to Alaska to be with her, his parents were shocked. When he boarded the plane in 2006, they were beside themselves.
“He disappeared into the airport, and me and my wife, we cried halfway home,” Don remembered. “He’d never been away from us before and we missed him so much and we were worried about him.”
Don and Amanda soon realized that they didn’t need to be worried. Brandon quickly made friends and found a support base in Juneau.
“I’m glad he did come up here,” Don said. “He met so many friends, co-workers and everybody loved him up here.”
Cook lived in Juneau for nine years, working at both Safeway and at the Juneau International Airport. For years, he made that same 3-mile bike ride from his house to the grocery store. On the phone, he’d describe the people he’d pass along the way. Amanda specifically remembered a conversation with him where he had to swerve around a small child wearing a backpack. There was another well-traveled story of Brandon going on a run one day and coming a little too close for comfort with a porcupine.
Don’s Saturdays were spent watching Oklahoma State football games while on the phone with Brandon. Don’s hand would fall asleep sometimes because he’d be holding his phone up to his ear so long.
The phone calls gave Don and Amanda a window into Brandon’s life, helping them picture his new home. They couldn’t picture it for themselves, because they never made it up to Juneau when Brandon lived there. When they finally made it, Brandon wasn’t there to be their tour guide.
A dark day
The worst day of Don Cook’s life was his 57th birthday.
It was Oct. 21, 2015, and Don went to work at the Muscogee Creek Nation Casino. Midway through the day, three police officers came into the casino and spoke with the manager.
The manager came over to Don and said he had something to tell him but didn’t have the heart to say it. He directed him over to the officers instead.
The officers explained to Don that Brandon had been shot and killed the previous night in Juneau. He was 30 years old.
He had been helping a friend, Tiffany Albertson (now Johnson), work on her trailer at the Kodzoff Acres Mobile Home Park when he was shot in the head with a shotgun. There weren’t many details other than that at the time.
Don felt like someone had punched him in the stomach. No more phone calls during football games. No more stories about porcupines. He felt totally powerless.
Grief was the initial reaction, Don said, not anger.
“The first thing, when we found out he died, it didn’t matter to me who did it and why they did it,” Don said. “My son was dead. Then after that gets by you a little bit, you say, ‘Well, justice needs to be served for Brandon.’”
A silent stare
Don and Amanda flew to Juneau last weekend with justice on their minds.
It was almost two years to the day from when Brandon had died, and they flew in just in time for the final week of the murder trial. Christopher Strawn, a handyman hired to help out with Albertson’s trailer, was the accused killer.
The original trial ended in a mistrial, much to Don and Amanda’s chagrin. They felt confident, based on what Albertson had told them and the court, that Strawn did it. They wanted to see a jury agree with them.
Their first day back in the courtroom was this past Monday, when Assistant District Attorney Amy Paige wrapped up her prosecution of Strawn. Wearing a black Creek Casino windbreaker and sitting in the front courtroom just feet away from the man he knew killed his son, Don rested his head between his thumb and forefinger and silently cried.
His sobs were brief, though. The few times that his emotions overcame him throughout the week, he would only allow himself to cry for 30 seconds or so. Then he’d wipe his eyes and refocus.
Strawn was defending himself in the case, but often sought advice from criminal defense attorney Nicholas Polasky. During a break at around 11:15 a.m. Monday, Strawn was quietly speaking with Polasky.
Almost everybody had left the courtroom to use the bathroom or stretch their legs. At the back of the room, three bystanders made small talk about what they were going to wear for Halloween. Don was also there, silently. He stood just next to his seat, his hands folded at his waist and looking at Strawn.
Don wanted Strawn to look him in the eye.
He took every chance he could to stare Strawn down, whether it was during a break or at the end of the day as Strawn walked from the courtroom to the elevator. It was always the same pose, with his hands folded at his waist.
Don didn’t speak and hardly even blinked. His tears come whenever he thinks too much about Brandon, Don said later, but his face turned to stone whenever he looked at Strawn.
Strawn never met his gaze.
The courtroom was silent at 4 p.m. this past Wednesday. The jury had reached a verdict in just three and a half hours, and Strawn sat alone in his seat awaiting his fate.
Don and Amanda sat in their same spot, the front row just behind Paige. Amanda wore a black Under Armour t-shirt over a long-sleeved black shirt. Don wore the same black windbreaker he’d worn every day, along with faded jeans and brown boots.
The courtroom remained mostly silent as the verdicts were read. Strawn was guilty on all counts, including first-degree murder. The only sound from the row of family and friends was a swishing as Don removed his windbreaker and the shirt he had underneath. Under that was a white T-shirt that had a picture of Brandon on it and the words, “In Memory of Brandon Cook” underneath the photo.
Don was ecstatic, and knew that somewhere, Brandon was too. Don and Amanda have been wanting to organize a 5K race in Brandon’s honor back in Oklahoma, but have wanted the trial to finish before moving on to organizing it. They hope to have it ready for this coming Memorial Day, and to have it raise money to create a scholarship in Brandon’s name to send someone from his high school to college.
Brandon’s family and friends waited until they were outside the courtroom to celebrate, embracing each other and wiping away tears. Tiffany Johnson, who also wore a shirt with Brandon’s face on it, turned to Don.
“You can do that run now,” she said.
Don smiled and started rotating his upper body, stretching his back.
“I’m ready,” he said.
Looking over his shoulder
Don began his run at 5:01 p.m. Friday in a parking lot at the corner of Renninger Street and Glacier Highway, just across from the old Walmart building.
He wore that same black windbreaker, as well as gray tennis shoes, gray Oklahoma State sweatpants and a camouflage cap with an image of a deer on it.
Underneath his windbreaker was a brand-new black shirt. On the left breast, just over his heart, was green lettering that read, “Justice,” and below that, “10.18.17.” Blue headphones poked out from under the shirt, and Don was situating the earbuds in his ears as he prepared to get started. The headphones ran down to a green iPod Shuffle. It was Brandon’s.
Don wanted to listen to Brandon’s music as he ran, and the sounds of Nickelback and Shinedown filled his ears as he jogged up the sidewalk of Glacier Highway. As he reached the bike path along Egan Drive just past Fred Meyer, another sound struck Don.
“I kept thinking, ‘There’s got to be a bicycle behind me.’ I turned around, look over my shoulder, and there’s nobody behind me at all,” he said after the run, laughing. “I kept turning every so often, thinking someone was riding up on me on a bicycle. Then I started thinking, ‘That’s gotta be Brandon behind me.’”
He finished the run in just under 45 minutes. He was sweaty and wet from the rain, but said he thought the weather conditions were perfect.
“Even in the rain and the snow, he’d ride it,” Don said. “So it felt good to run it in the bad weather.”
A small party was waiting for him at Safeway, including Amanda, Johnson and Johnson’s sister-in-law Brittany. They stood in the floral department, buying balloons to release outside in Brandon’s honor.
A few friends of Brandon’s arrived as the clock ticked toward 6 p.m. Sharclane also showed up, even though she and Brandon had broken up before his death. For the most part, they’re laughing, sharing the story about Brandon being scared of the porcupine and about him eating food that was much too spicy and regretting it.
Many of them wrote messages on their balloons before releasing them. Brittany and Tiffany both wrote lengthy, personal messages. Amanda kept hers simple, writing “Justice Served!” on a red balloon and the names of two of Brandon’s nephews on another one.
Don said a quick prayer, and then everyone released their balloons. They drifted to the northwest, where the sun had just set.
As had happened in the trial, Don began to cry, quietly. He kneeled on his right knee, with his left arm perched on his left knee. His forehead rested between his thumb and forefinger, just as it had during that Monday in court.
Then he popped up quickly, wiping his eyes and refocusing. He tried to locate the balloons again, but they were now out of sight, including the two that he had released. His messages on the balloons, like Amanda’s, had been simple.
One, a green-colored balloon, said “Love you, Brandon -Dad.” The other, a purple balloon, carried just three words.
“See you again.”
• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at 523-2271 or firstname.lastname@example.org.