As a tarp-covered car possibly linked to the disappearance of Rachel Cooke 16 years ago rolled into a Williamson County facility Friday, investigators and Cooke’s mother said they were cautiously optimistic it might yield clues.
“I’m excited, but it’s tempered because I’ve been on the roller coaster ride and I’ve had to learn how to keep things in perspective,” said Janet Cooke, who spoke to reporters at the Williamson County sheriff’s impound yard.
Officials involved in the case said they consider the car’s discovery the investigation’s most significant development in years.
Investigators are hopeful the car will contain DNA evidence linked to Rachel Cooke’s disappearance. And experts not involved in the case said this week that it is possible to recover evidence from a car involved in a case from as long ago as 2002. Blood and other body fluids are very hard to get rid of if they are left in a trunk, which tends to be less contaminated by other sources of DNA than a car’s interior, said Lawrence Presley, a former chief of the FBI laboratory’s DNA analysis unit.
The white Pontiac Trans Am was recovered in the Dallas area after officials got a tip, said Williamson County Sheriff Robert Chody during a brief news conference Friday. He would not comment further.
Witnesses reported seeing a white sports car in the area where Rachel Cooke, 19, was jogging when she disappeared, the sheriff said.
“What makes this vehicle unique is also that it is a vehicle that is tied to three or four persons of interest in the Rachel Cooke case,” he said.
Chody said the car was a “significant piece of evidence” but also said it was “one piece of evidence that may or may not break the case.”
He declined to discuss further details about how authorities found the car, including whether it was in a hidden location when they found it.
“This is the first part of the investigation where we actually have a piece of tangible evidence,” Williamson County District Attorney Shawn Dick said at the news conference. He said he was confident that the sheriff’s office and the FBI would discover evidence in the car if there was evidence to be found.
“DNA evidence degrades over time,” Dick said. “I have concerns about what the contamination could be, and that’s why I’m leaving it to the experts.”
Both Chody and Dick said investigators also are pursuing other leads in the case.
Rachel Cooke’s disappearance has long frustrated detectives who have spent years searching for any evidence.
Cooke was a student at Mesa Junior College in Southern California but was home on winter break when she went jogging alone on Jan. 10, 2002, in her parents’ neighborhood in the North Lake subdivision northwest of Georgetown. The last person to see her was a neighbor, who saw her walking on Neches Trail to cool down at the end of her run.
Witnesses reported seeing a white sports car traveling on Navajo Trail and turning south on Neches Trail that day, about 100 yards from Cooke’s home.
Her disappearance drew national attention and her picture was distributed in flyers throughout Central Texas. In 2004, the sheriff’s office put together a team of 10 investigators who spent 1,000 hours interviewing people in connection with the case.
Last year, Chody created a new cold case unit after taking office to investigate Cooke’s case and about 10 unsolved killings dating back to 1979.
Janet Cooke has remained an outspoken advocate in her missing daughter’s case. Rachel Cooke’s father, Robert Cooke, died in 2014.
Janet Cooke said Friday that she wanted to do a “happy dance” and “check out the car” when she heard investigators had found it, but that she also knew she had to keep her distance from the vehicle to let authorities do their job.
“I’m sure they are going to search every molecule of that vehicle, and I hope somewhere on that vehicle is something they can use,” she said.
Chody said Friday he didn’t know how long the analysis of the car was going to take.
A few minutes after Friday morning’s news conference, FBI investigators clad in white protective suits were removing a protective tarp from the car, which had been rolled into a garage.
Chody and Janet Cooke watched them while standing outside the garage with their arms around each other.