James Cook’s last day as Trinidad’s police chief was Wednesday, and he says he has Henderson Count District Attorney Donna Bennett to blame for it.

Cook resigned his position as Trinidad’s chief this month, effective Dec. 12, citing a letter he received from Bennett in February. In the letter, Bennett informs Cook her office will no longer accept cases in which he is the sole witness “in the interest of justice.”

“I base this on our previous experiences with you,” Bennett writes in the letter, dated Feb. 26, 2007. “The aforementioned includes taking drugs to and collecting drugs from the lab.”

Bennett goes on to say in the letter that, for any felony case, Cook can contact the Henderson County Sheriff’s Department or the office of the Texas Rangers for assistance.

When asked to explain her reasons for sending the letter, Bennett said Wednesday, “That’s something between me and James Cook, and I’m not going to talk about it any further.”

Cook — who said he has taken a job as a police sergeant in Jasper, located in deep East Texas about 50 miles from the Louisiana border — called Bennett’s actions an “unsubstantiated personal act of oppression.”

He also said Bennett’s mention of his handling of drug evidence insinuates he is a drug user. When asked if he has ever had a drug problem while serving as a certified peace officer, Cook said, “Never. There’s never been a question.”

Bennett sent a similar letter to Cook when he served as police chief in Log Cabin several years ago, as well.

Trinidad Mayor Chris Quinn said he is serving as the head of the police department while the city searches for a new chief. The city employs three officers and one chief, although that number is down to two officers because of the vacancy left by Cook and an open position on the patrol staff, Quinn said.

Quinn, who supports Cook, said it was unfortunate Trinidad lost its police chief because of what he called “petty differences.”

“James Cook is the best officer and chief this side of the Mississippi,” Quinn said. “On integrity alone, he stands head and shoulders above the rest. I hate to lose him.”

Cook said he continued to file felony cases since receiving the February letter. Those cases, he said, have all been no-billed, or rejected, by the Henderson County grand jury.

“Let’s just face it — I can’t do my citizens any good if I can’t get felonies prosecuted,” Cook said. “I think these were unnecessary steps taken by (Bennett’s) office. I personally feel like my rights were violated.”

In a letter sent to the Athens Review late last week, Cook accused Bennett’s office of carrying out a personal vendetta against him. He cited an investigation carried out against him for allegedly beating a suspect while he served as an Athens Police Department investigator and his own investigation into prescription drug abuse by former Henderson County Sheriff’s narcotics investigator Bryan Nutt.

Cook — who was never charged in connection with the alleged beating — said he did not have a problem with the District Attorney’s Office until he filed the case against Nutt. Nutt remains incarcerated on those charges.

Nutt’s father, longtime Henderson County lawman Ray Nutt, was an investigator in Bennett’s office at the time the case against his son was filed and questioned a witness in connection with the beating investigation.

“I had no vendetta against James Cook,” Ray Nutt said Friday. “James Cook was doing his job just like I was doing mine when I interviewed that guy (as part of the beating investigation).”

Following precedent

The move by Bennett, opting to not accept a case from a police officer in her jurisdiction, has precedent.

Rob Kepple, executive director of the Texas District and County Attorneys Association in Austin, said he could not speak specifically about the matter between Bennett and Cook. Generally speaking, however, he said such a move by a prosecutor “comes down to credibility.”

“It’s not unprecedented,” Kepple said. “A prosecutor has the right to put an officer on notice. ... These things can happen, and it’s happened before.”

Kepple said he took a similar action during his time as a prosecutor in Harris County.

Such an action was more recently taken by Rusk County District Attorney Michael Jimerson. In May, according to published reports, Jimerson’s office began reviewing cases involving three officers who were accused of civil rights violations. Two of the officers at the center of the probe eventually resigned.

As the probe continued, Jimerson sent a letter to defense attorneys in that area stating any cases in which the officers in question were involved would be dismissed.

More than one letter

Cook said he was disappointed to leave Trinidad, and for that matter, Henderson County, where he said he’s lived since 1974.

He expressed frustration that his reputation, he said, has been unnecessarily tarnished. Cook references two more letters sent to him by Bennett, but in September of this year — seven months after the letter stating she would no longer accept his cases.

In those letters, Bennett informs Cook that an investigator from the Texas Attorney General’s Office was scheduled to meet with him. The investigator, Cook says, was in the county to determine if a fair trial could be had in the case of Randall Wayne Mays, who is accused of fatally shooting two Henderson County Sheriff’s officers in May.

Bennett says in that letter, dated Sept. 21, 2007: “I appreciate you taking him around to meet with 5 or 6 different individuals in reference to trying the (Mays) case in Henderson County.”

“If I had credibility and integrity issues, then why did she make the request?” Cook wrote in his letter to the Review last week. “Couldn’t the mere connection be detrimental to the Mays case? Shouldn’t the AG’s Office be concerned about my involvement?”

Bennett said she is not permitted to speak about any matter involving the Mays case. A gag order prohibiting attorneys to speak about the case has been issued by 392nd District Judge Carter Tarrance.

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