By Ben Olson
Editor’s note: As a brief respite from our tales of Old Sandpoint and its fight to curb prostitution after the turn of the century, this week we’ll revisit an unsolved murder that occurred 25 years ago this week; the brutal slaying of former BGH nurse Jodi Cooper.
Information was gathered with assistance from Bonner County History Museum, and, since this is still an open investigation, all statements about this true crime are alleged and based on prior statements, as well as news articles from the Bonner County Daily Bee, the Handle and the Spokesman-Review.
I was in fifth grade the year Jodi Cooper was murdered. The gruesome killing hit especially close to home because my mother was one of Jodi’s friends. They both worked at Bonner General Hospital (BGH) and we would often drive to their home in Careywood to visit on warm summer days. Of Jodi, I recall a smiling, cheerful woman who made you feel comfortable and warm. I remember playing computer games with her sons, Jeremy and Kenny, and getting stung by a bee in the yard one afternoon.
These innocent childhood memories were shattered the day we heard Jodi had been killed. Here’s what happened:
It was leap year: February 29, 1992. Around 2 a.m., Bonner County Sheriff’s deputies responded to a 911 call and found Jodi Lyn Cooper, 35, hacked to death in the upstairs bedroom of her Careywood home. Pete Crockett, her 41-year-old common law husband, was in bed next to Jodi during the attack, but survived and was able to escape to a neighbor’s house with his 8-year-old son Kenny to call for help.
Of the attack, Crockett remembered very little other than a “vague, nightmarish image” of his assailant. Crockett was struck in the head and stabbed in the back. According to his statements, he remembers discovering that the telephone lines had been yanked from the wall, so he followed his son to a neighbor’s house 200 yards away to seek help.
Sheriff’s deputies then reported finding Jodi Cooper’s son, Jeremy Cooper, 17, walking along a dirt road leading to his home. The boy claimed he had been dropped off by a friend.
Investigators found more than 20 wounds on Jodi Cooper’s body. At first it was claimed the injuries were from an ax or hatchet, but further investigation determined the wounds came from a knife-like object with a thinner blade. Cooper had a number of wounds all over her head, arms and torso. Injuries on her hands indicated she may have tried to protect herself during the attack; the hands were nearly severed, as was her head.
No weapons were found after the attack.
Jeremy Cooper was apprehended shortly after the murder and later formally charged with first-degree murder and attempted murder. Detectives found inconsistencies with his alibi and later found evidence of a bloody fingerprint on a doorknob in the Cooper home. The print belonged to Jeremy Cooper.
Later, two nickel-sized spots of blood were found on Jeremy Cooper’s pants as well as a spot on his glasses.
The arrest sent shockwaves through the community, as well as through the halls of Sandpoint High School where Cooper attended. Cooper was generally described as “quiet.”
Justin Iverson remembers the reaction at SHS the day everyone heard about the murder.
“It was a complete shock,” he said. “It was one of the parts of high school I remember specifically. There was silence in the hallways between classes, and the teachers were willing to engage and talk with all the students about it. I think they handled that really well.”
Iverson was a year behind Cooper in school, and remembers the murder suspect: “He was very friendly, actually. I had a couple of classes with him. I hate to say he was ‘quiet and kept to himself,’ you know, but he was easygoing.”
For Iverson, the Cooper murder was right up there with the standoff at Ruby Ridge as vivid memories of that school year.
“Ruby Ridge happened later that fall,” he said. “That was a little different, though; more removed. This was personal. It involved someone who walked down the hallways in school. I think mostly it was the gruesome nature of the crime that was the most shocking element.”
Jodi Cooper was highly regarded by most who knew her. She was formerly a night nursing supervisor for BGH, where she had been employed for ten years.
“She was a dear, dear friend of mine,” said Val Olson, a co-worker and friend. “She was one of those kind of people that was so generous.”
Olson said Cooper was an advocate for women’s rights, was passionate about the environment and politics and was a well-liked person.
“She would sometimes joke that she wanted to be the first female president of the United States,” said Olson. “She was one of those people that was going to go places.”
“Everyone was really shocked that that would even happen in Sandpoint and to someone as wonderful as Jodi was,” said Bonner General Health CEO Sheryl Rickard. “It didn’t make any sense to anyone.”
Rickard remembers Jodi Cooper as a consummate professional.
“She was willing to jump in and do whatever she was needed to do,” said Rickard. “She really was a dedicated nurse.”
Nita Allard worked alongside Jodi Cooper, who left “a lasting impression” on her.
“She was an assertive, independent, strong woman who was inspiring,” wrote Allard. “Jodi was a life-long learner and pursued furthering her education.”
In fact, Cooper had made a career change before she was killed. She’d taken a position as a nursing instructor at North Idaho College, hoping to train the next generation of nurses.
A flood of new information came out during the preliminary hearing a month after the murder. Then-Bonner County Prosecutor Phil Robinson exhibited a fiberglass model of the suspected murder weapon, allegedly made by Jeremy Cooper’s friend Jason Dattel. A bloody imprint of the murder weapon was found on a blouse in the Cooper house, and it looked extremely similar to Dattel’s hand-made machete.
Dattel claimed on the stand the model was an exact replica of the knife he had made; it had a 24-inch blade with two half-inch teeth near the sharp tip and several bottle opener-type hooks on the back of the blade near the handle, which was wrapped in green cord. Dattel testified that he noticed the knife was missing from his truck the week following the murder.
Another person of interest was one of Jeremy Cooper and Jason Dattel’s friends, Cory Stark. Cooper was alleged to have been with Stark earlier that day, and Dattel the evening nefore the killing.
The evidence seemed overwhelmingly against Cooper at first, but slowly, the prosecution’s case began to erode. Lab tests of the various DNA collected on the scene came back inconclusive.
The bloody fingerprint on the doorknob wasn’t visible to the naked eye, and could have been as many as two years old when found. The blood was also determined to be Jeremy Cooper’s, not belonging to either victim. Also, the blood found on his glasses did not match either the murder victim or Cooper’s step-dad, and could have come from an animal.
After eight months in county jail, Cooper was released on bond awaiting trial later that year. The evidence was largely circumstantial and the prosecutor didn’t have enough evidence to continue holding Cooper.
Later in the year, Cooper’s attorneys filed for a dismissal, claiming that their client’s rights had been violated. Attorneys Bruce Green and Dan Featherstone claimed that the prosecutor didn’t have enough evidence to bring the case to trial and investigators should have been out looking for other suspects. Friends and neighbors had already mounted a defense fund, claiming that Cooper was innocent of the charges against him. Members of the community had begun to doubt the prosecutor’s case.
“Except for the blood it was one of the cleanest crime scenes I’ve seen,” former Bonner County Sheriff Det. John Valdez told the Spokesman-Review in 1995. “The prosecutor said let’s back off and fight another day and I think that was the right thing to do.”
To this day, the murder remains unsolved, but, according to Bonner County Sheriff’s detective sergeant Gary Johnson, it is far from a cold case.
“We’re still actively working on that [case],” said Johnson, who has been with BCSO for 26 years. “It’s not cold, not inactive. As you can imagine though, with everybody spread to the four corners of the planet, it’s tough to made any headway.”
Johnson said it’s tricky trying to solve a case that involves asking people to relate memories that go back 25 years.
“A lot of those people are now either gone or their memory is very sketchy,” he said. “We’re essentially trying to find that missing link to get things rolling again. What I’m trying to do is keep everybody going on it, at least for the next generation when I’m gone.”
Johnson said the Sheriff’s Office is still conducting interviews with people and going through evidence.
One aspect of the case that may be an obstacle is the aging evidence.
“This evidence was collected 25 years ago, then it was moved and re-moved [during office relocations],” said Johnson. “It has aged. I wouldn’t say it was mishandled though. The technology that we can use on it now wasn’t even available in the ‘90s. DNA capabilities in the ‘90s went from virtually non-existent to what we have today.”
Current Bonner County Prosecutor Louis Marshall echoed Johnson’s comments that this case was very much still being investigated.
“That case is of particular interest to me,” said Marshall. “I really hope we can solve that case and do it in the next couple years. We’re pursuing leads.”
Marshall confirmed that a month before Jeremy Cooper’s murder trial began in 1992, a lab report came back that threw a wrench in the case: the blood on Cooper’s glasses didn’t match either victim, the blood on Cooper’s pants didn’t match either victim, and was most likely animal blood, and the bloody fingerprint was found to contain Jeremy Cooper’s blood, not the blood of either victim.
“Of course, Mr. Cooper is still a person of interest, as well as [Jason] Dattel and [Cory] Stark,” said Marshall. “In my opinion, it’s 100-percent viable to pursue a case, even after 25 years, and if anyone has any info, feel free to contact me.”
Despite the growing distance between the murder and the present, Johnson agreed that there is still hope the murderer will be brought to justice: “All it takes is one lucky move and we’re on.”
If you have any information about the murder of Jodi Cooper, no matter how small, please contact the Bonner County Sheriff’s Office at (208) 263-8417.