BANGOR – A man who confessed to lawyers and police that he killed a young woman and a small child in Dexter two years ago took the stand Friday and said he didn’t do it and that Jeffrey Cookson, the convicted killer, offered him money to last a lifetime in exchange for the confession.
The tragic case that rocked the small central Maine town in December 1999 took a bizarre turn last December when just moments after a jury convicted 38-year-old Cookson of Dover-Foxcroft for the murders, Cookson’s attorney informed officials that another man had confessed to the killings and offered up the murder weapon.
Now Cookson is requesting a new trial, and hearings on that motion got under way Friday in Penobscot County Superior Court in Bangor. The hearing lasted into the early afternoon and testimony will continue on Feb. 21.
Meanwhile, Cookson’s sentencing, which had been scheduled for Friday, has been postponed indefinitely.
Cookson was arrested weeks after the double shooting deaths of 21-month-old Treven Cunningham and 20-year-old Mindy Gould who was baby-sitting the child. Cookson and Gould were estranged and Gould recently had obtained a protection from abuse order against him.
He has been incarcerated without bail since his arrest. On Dec. 6, 2001, after 13 hours of deliberation, a jury convicted him of both killings.
Before family members and prosecutors could catch their breath, Cookson’s attorney, William Maselli, announced that 21-year-old David Vantol admitted that he committed the murders. Vantol was able to produce the murder weapon, which until then had not been found.
But on Friday morning, in front of a full courtroom, Vantol, formerly of Guilford and now of Bangor, said he didn’t do it.
A young man with a lifelong history of mental illness and a limited education, Vantol said that Cookson summoned him to the Penobscot County Jail on Nov. 4, 2001, weeks before the trial was to begin, and began plotting Vantol’s confession.
Vantol said Cookson shared details of the homicides with him, telling Vantol where he went before and after the shootings, the layout of the home where the murders occurred and in which room they occurred.
Investigators acknowledged on the witness stand Friday that Vantol knew exactly where the gun was – beneath a rock on the lawn of a home at the intersection of Wharf Road and Sebec Shores Road in Guilford – and knew other crucial details of the crime and crime scene.
Prosecutors believe Cookson provided those details to Vantol. The defense suggested Friday that Vantol was not mentally capable of retaining all of the details that Cookson would have had to provide and then regurgitate those to investigators so accurately.
A private investigator working for Maselli testified Friday that Maselli’s office notified him on Nov. 7 that Vantol was claiming responsibility for the crimes. The investigator said Cookson had informed the attorney about Vantol’s confession, which came three days after records show Vantol visited Cookson at the jail.
Maselli’s office did not get to meet with Vantol, however, until the trial was under way. Vantol told them that he had killed the woman and child in self-defense because Gould had tried to kill him.
As the trial progressed, Cookson summoned Vantol back to the jail and told him Maselli was not buying the self-defense theory and that they needed a new plan, Vantol testified Friday.
He said Cookson told him to testify before the jury that Vantol did the shootings at Cookson’s direction.
“He told me that if I did this that he would get me a lawyer and that I would get off and that I would only spend a little time in jail or a mental institution,” Vantol testified.
He said Cookson promised to retain the services of well-known Portland attorney Daniel Lilley to represent him.
“Do you even know who Dan Lilley is?” inquired Assistant Attorney General Lisa Marchese.
“I have no idea,” Vantol replied.
Maselli, however, is arguing that Vantol is backpedaling on the confession because he fears going to prison for life. He questioned why Cookson would tell Vantol to tell a jury that Cookson put him up to committing the murders.
“That makes no sense and defies logic,” Maselli said.
Vantol never testified because Maselli chose not to put him on the stand. Instead, Maselli waited for the verdict and announced Vantol’s confession.
On Friday, Maselli admitted into evidence several taped interviews that police conducted with Vantol. On the tapes, Vantol repeatedly admits to the killings and provides much detail about events leading up to and after the murders.
Though he easily located the gun under the rock in the dark of night for detectives and provided accurate details of the killings, police testified Friday that they never believed he was involved.
“It just didn’t feel right,” said Maine State Police Detective David Preble.
“So you just chose to let this guy go who confessed to killing two people and who turned over the murder weapon?” asked Maselli.
“Yes, sir,” said Preble. “…We did not believe he did it, despite the statements, despite the murder weapon. … I did not feel the emotion from him or myself that this was a legitimate confession.”
Maselli is focusing in part on statements Vantol made during conversations with Maselli’s office and with police that Cookson wore a wig on the morning of the murders. Vantol claimed that Cookson wore the wig, drove him into Dexter, dropped him at the house and that Vantol then went in and killed Gould and Treven Cunningham.
On the stand Friday, Vantol said he had made up the story about the wig.
But investigators acknowledged Friday that as they were questioning Vantol in the weeks after the trial, Vantol provided them with clothes from a junked car on property owned by Cookson’s brother, Scott Cookson. Vantol said they were clothes he wore when he committed the murders. He also gave police a wig.
Investigators testified that they had not tested the clothing or the wig for blood or gunpowder residue.
It also came out through testimony Friday that Vantol was given a polygraph test to see whether he was telling the truth when he said he committed the murders. He failed the test.