BANGOR – A man convicted last week of murdering a young woman and a baby in Dexter two years ago has asked for a new trial, alleging that someone else has confessed to the murders and handed over to police the gun he used.
A 21-year-old Guilford man has come forward claiming he shot 20-year-old Mindy Gould and 21-month-old Treven Cunningham at a Dexter home on Dec. 3, 1999, and has turned over a 9 mm Taurus that he claims he used to commit the murders.
David Vantol reportedly has told the attorneys for 38-year-old Jeffrey Cookson that Cookson put him up to committing the murders and that Cookson actually dropped him off at the Church Street home and picked him up when it was done.
Now Cookson’s attorney is wondering why Vantol has not been arrested.
Though detectives have been aggressively questioning Vantol, the State Attorney General’s Office is not commenting on the latest development. The gun is being tested at the Maine crime lab.
Vantol could not be located for comment.
Meanwhile, Cookson, 38, of Dover-Foxcroft, remains in custody without bail at Penobscot County Jail and there seem to be no plans for his release.
Vantol, who until recently resided with Cookson’s brother, Roland Scott Cookson, in Guilford, was originally on the defense’s list of prospective witnesses.
Attorney William Maselli and his private investigator went to Dover-Foxcroft to interview Vantol on Wednesday, Nov. 28, two days after the start of the trial. At that time, Vantol reportedly confessed to the murders, but Maselli said he was skeptical of the story Vantol told.
The next Monday, a second interview was conducted, and Maselli said he and the investigator pressed Vantol for more information.
Vantol eventually broke down and said he was prepared to tell the truth, Maselli said.
“He basically said he couldn’t live with it anymore and that he had attempted suicide the week before the trial. On the other side of the coin, he is a man of limited education and had sort of a distorted view of what was happening at the trial. He believed that evidence was coming out at trial and that he could be convicted even if he wasn’t there [at the trial],” Maselli said.
At that point, Maselli knew that Vantol would implicate Cookson if he were put on the stand and chose not to call him to the stand out of obligation to his client.
Maselli sought legal advice about the issue, he said, to ensure that he was not under any obligation to inform the prosecution of the interview.
“We weren’t interested in having him get on the stand and tell a crazy, unbelievable story like he told us originally. The only story he told that made sense implicated my client,” Maselli said.
So on Thursday, after the jury convicted Cookson of both murders after 13 hours of deliberation, Maselli requested to see the judge, the prosecutors and detectives in chambers. The group was informed of the new information.
Detectives and private investigator John Bauer went to Vantol who turned over a gun.
“He told me Monday that the gun was in the woods, but I wasn’t there when he turned it over so I don’t know where he got it from,” Maselli said, adding, “I think this changes the complexion of the state’s case and puts this conviction into a suspicious light.”
Maselli said Vantol told him that Cookson spent a week convincing him to kill Gould. Though money was discussed it never changed hands, Maselli said.
The attorney acknowledged that, even under the best circumstances, if Vantol were being truthful his client still could be guilty of conspiracy to commit murder, a Class A crime, but noted that “Jeff never intended for that child to be killed. We never believed that Jeff would kill a child.”
Maselli now is asking for a new trial.
“[Vantol] said Jeff drove him into Dexter and that Jeff was wearing a wig. He said Jeff dropped him off at the house and that he went into the house, pulled the gun out, drove [Mindy] into the bedroom and shot her. He said he then noticed the kid and reacted and shot the kid,” Maselli said.
Maselli said he was shocked when police did not arrest Vantol right away.
“And we were very shocked when almost a week later he still had not been arrested,” Maselli said, noting that Vantol knew certain things that only the killer should have known.
Maselli feels there are a number of grounds for a new trial.
“It changes things dramatically if Jeff was not the shooter and that he did not intend for that child to be shot. That’s one issue, but there is also the gun,” he said.
The state had not recovered the alleged murder weapon before the trial and used a complicated chain of evidence to link the murder weapon to Cookson.
The state obtained information that Cookson owned a 9 mm Taurus before the shootings. The state recovered bullets from the murder scene and then found out where Cookson had bought the gun. The state also received bullets and shell casings from several previous owners of the gun and compared them to the grooves and landings on the bullets taken from the scene. Ballistics experts from the state crime lab testified that the same gun had fired all of those bullets.
The hitch now is that the 9 mm Taurus that Vantol gave to police has a different serial number than the gun allegedly sold to Cookson, the gun the state claimed was the murder weapon.
On Wednesday, Maselli anxiously awaited ballistics results from Vantol’s weapon, which is being tested at the lab.
Maselli said all of those issues need to be cleared up before Cookson is sentenced on Feb. 1.
He said it’s possible that the judge may agree to hear testimony on the motion for a new trial on the same day that sentencing is scheduled to occur.
“Then we’ll have to see what his decision is and whether or not the sentencing then needs to be delayed,” Maselli said.
Meanwhile, Maselli stressed that police have “allowed this man who claims to have killed a woman and a child to roam the streets.”