“Totally disappointed.” That’s how Rachel Cooke’s mother said she felt after authorities found nothing Friday while digging for human remains near Liberty Hill suspected to be those of her missing daughter.
Janet Cooke’s daughter, Rachel Cooke, disappeared in 2002 after she went for a jog near her Georgetown home. Janet Cooke said Friday she’s been through a few false leads with the case. Her disappointment with another one is not going to make a difference, she said.
“You just have to ride with the punches,” Cooke said. “Sooner or later, the right lead is going to come along.”
Williamson County sheriff’s officials and FBI agents spent several hours digging near the San Gabriel River on Friday morning after authorities received a tip that human remains might be found there. They called off the search at 1 p.m. after they couldn’t find anything.
Sheriff Robert Chody said authorities received a tip three weeks to a month ago that there might be a body in the area.
“The tip was only specific to the fact that there (were) possibly remains of a human in that area, and the name Rachel Cooke was brought up one time,” Chody said. “We have no evidence to indicate, other than that one tip, that Rachel Cooke was involved.”
Chody said investigators brought four cadaver dogs to the site before digging began, and all four alerted to a scent of human remains.
“Some people will say that’s not reliable, but I felt we had a duty to go and use all our resources and make sure if this is not a location — whether it’s Rachel Cooke or any other person we are trying to locate — we can check this one off the box and move on,” he said.
“I feel we owe it to the families of Williamson County and that was one of my promises when campaigning, and I am staying true to it,” he said.
Searchers toiled with shovels in a heavily wooded area at the bottom of a steep slope about 15 feet from the river.
They shoveled through dirt for hours Friday morning in a 15-by-20-foot spot. The site was behind a house in the 200 block of Chaparral Road in Liberty Hill in a neighborhood filled with mobile homes and junk-strewn yards.
Rachel Cooke, a 19-year-old student at Mesa Junior College in Southern California, was home on winter break when she went jogging alone 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 Cooke walking on Neches Trail to cool down at the end of her run around 10:30 or 11 a.m. She was about 300 yards from her home.
Chody assembled a new investigative team this year to put Cooke’s case, along with about 10 unsolved killings dating back to 1979, in their cross hairs, but he said they hadn’t been involved in the tip that led to the latest dig. The team is composed of retired investigators from across Central Texas with experience investigating homicides and other major crimes.
Since the cross-country runner who dreamed of one day starting her own fashion line vanished, tips on Rachel Cooke have continued to come in.
Then-sheriff’s Sgt. James Knutson told the American-Statesman in 2016 that he had fielded about 16 tips throughout the year, but nothing had ever turned up.
Over the years, Cooke’s parents received calls from psychics, Janet Cooke said. Robert Cooke, Rachel’s father, died in 2014.
In 2006, investigators thought they had finally pinned down the killer when convicted murderer Michael Keith Moore confessed to killing Cooke with a hammer blow to the head, then dumping her corpse into the Gulf of Mexico. Moore made a video confession from prison, where he was serving concurrent life sentences for the murder of Christina Moore in Round Rock in 2003.
But when the critical moment came to plead guilty to murder, Moore backed out of a deal he had made with prosecutors and instead pleaded not guilty.
There was no DNA evidence that linked Moore to the crime, and his confession might not have been admissible in court, then-Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley said at the time. The murder charge was dropped, but authorities vowed to continue to build a case against Moore, who won’t be eligible for parole until 2034.
Chody said Friday he had “no idea” about whether investigators were able to prove if Moore’s confession was false. Janet Cooke said Friday “the whole Michael Moore thing infuriated me and the family.”
Even though she was disappointed with what happened Friday, Janet Cooke said she was glad that another lead had come along. She said there could have been human remains at one time at the site where authorities dug Friday.
“A few years ago or a year ago there may have been something there,” Cooke said. “Some sort of cadaver. It could have gotten washed away. That river floods.”
Hopes of resolution raised and dashed in Cooke case
Jan. 10, 2002: Rachel Cooke, then 19 years old, disappears after going for a run in her parent’s Georgetown neighborhood. Cooke was a student at Mesa Junior College in Southern California, and was home visiting her family for winter break before her disappearance. Cooke was last seen by a neighbor about 10:30 a.m. on Neches Trail.
2004: Williamson County sheriff’s deputies report that a team of 10 investigators had spent nearly 1,000 hours interviewing people linked to the case.
2006: Michael Keith Moore, serving a life sentence for murdering Christina Moore in 2003, makes a false confession that he killed Cooke with a hammer, raped her and dumped her in the Gulf of Mexico near Matagorda Bay. There is no DNA evidence linking Moore to the crime, and Moore later recants and backs out of a plea agreement.
Oct. 12, 2011: Fishermen find a human skull in a cove at Russell Park. Authorities thought the skull could be related to Cooke’s case, but Texas State University anthropologists identified the skull as that of a Native American male.
2015: Sheriff’s Sgt. James Knutson reports finding a large amount of new material in the case. When the test results come back, however, he said they were “not fruitful.”
April 13, 2017: Four months after taking office, Sheriff Robert Chody assembles a new investigative team in hopes of solving Cooke’s case, along with 10 unsolved murders in the county.
Friday: Sheriff’s officials and FBI agents following up on a tip search a field near Liberty Hill. The digging was halted later in the day after investigators failed to find anything.