Ex-judge Michael N. Cook (right) arrives at court in East St. Louis in February with his father, Bruce.
Ex-judge Michael N. Cook (right) arrives at court in East St. Louis in February with his father, Bruce. — AP photo/Belleville News-Democrat

In a small cabin in rural Pike County surrounded by farms and woods, Michael N. Cook found his friend, a colleague on the St. Clair County bench, unconscious in the bathroom.

Joseph Christ, 49, had served as an associate judge for only 10 days when he died of a cocaine overdose on March 10, 2013.

The cabin was not only where Christ’s life ended. It was where the public unraveling of Cook’s career as a judge began — a downfall that ended with a two-year prison sentence last week.

When Cook called 911, he told the dispatcher he thought Christ fell and hit his head. The nearly 14-minute call reveals an increasingly distraught Cook pleading with the unresponsive Christ to wake up.

At one point, Cook said to the dispatcher, “I love him like a brother.”

Cook’s family-owned cabin 100 miles northwest of St. Louis sits off 157th Avenue — a dirt road marked by steep hills. First responders had trouble locating it. In the 911 recording, they ask for clarification of the home’s location.

At the behest of the dispatcher, Cook unsuccessfully tried to move the nearly 300-pound Christ out of the bathroom and onto his back in order to perform CPR.

It’s unclear where the cocaine that killed Christ came from, but Cook and Christ did buy some of the drug from then-St. Clair County probation officer James Fogarty the day before their planned trip to the cabin. Authorities couldn’t conclusively link Fogarty’s cocaine with the narcotics that killed Christ.

“I personally spoke to the medical examiner and other experts,” said U.S. Attorney Stephen R. Wigginton of the Southern District of Illinois, “and simply could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the cocaine (they bought) on Saturday killed Christ on Sunday.”

A ‘routine interview’

By the time Christ died, federal authorities were already investigating Cook for drug use. They were also looking into the possibility of public corruption — namely, fixing cases — but could never produce any evidence against Cook.

The investigation began after a defendant in a drug case said he was providing prescription pain medication to someone working inside the St. Clair County Courthouse.

“It was just a routine interview in an unrelated case,” Wigginton said, talking to reporters after Cook’s sentencing hearing.

Cook’s drug abuse — of both cocaine and heroin — stems back years and was exacerbated when his sister died in 2010, Wigginton said. What began as a corruption investigation, he added, quickly became a simple drug investigation when it became clear Cook was not misusing his judicial position.

But then Christ died at Cook’s hunting cabin.

Cook’s continued use of heroin after Christ’s death “alarmed” investigators, Wigginton said. They knew Cook bought cocaine from several dealers, but could find only one source of heroin — 34-year-old Sean McGilvery.

On May 22, Cook and McGilvery were arrested when federal and local authorities served a search warrant at McGilvery’s home in Belleville.

According to court documents, Cook was arrested as he exited McGilvery’s home. Officers watched Cook drop something on the ground, which officers recovered at the scene. It turned out to be heroin.

“The plan was to catch him with heroin on his person after purchasing it,” Wigginton said.

Cook resigned his position as a St. Clair County circuit judge shortly after his arrest and sought treatment for heroin addiction.

The investigation focused on a number of questions.

First was whether Cook had misused his public office. There wasn’t any evidence, though McGilvery had previously boasted to an associate that he had “a guy” inside the courthouse.

Upon investigation, Wigginton said, authorities believed McGilvery meant that contact was Christ, though no evidence proves Christ provided favors to McGilvery when Christ worked as a prosecutor.

Investigators also looked into the possibility that Cook paid for McGilvery’s trips to Chicago to purchase heroin.

But bank records subpoenaed following Cook’s arrest showed no indication that he was in any way financing McGilvery’s heroin business.

Hidden from his family

A week ago, retired St. Clair County associate judge James M. Radcliffe took the stand late in the morning to testify on behalf of Cook at the sentencing hearing.

He was the only witness called by defense attorney J. William Lucco, a partner at Lucco, Brown, Threlkeld & Dawson LLC in Edwardsville. He and Thomas Q. Keefe Jr. and Thomas Q. Keefe III of Keefe & Keefe P.C. in Belleville represented Cook.

Radcliffe — a former colleague of Cook’s and a recovering alcoholic — is the associate director of the Illinois Lawyers’ Assistance Program, which aims to help attorneys, judges and law students with alcohol abuse, drug dependency and mental-health issues.

During his testimony, Radcliffe said he “was not surprised” to hear that Cook didn’t seek out treatment prior to his arrest.

“Michael was a polysubstance user,” Radcliffe said, referring to an addict who uses more than one drug. “In my experience, those folks don’t reach out for help.”

If the disease of addiction doesn’t kill the user first, Radcliffe went on to say, there is usually only two ways an addict will actively seek treatment — hitting “rock bottom” or through a friends-and-family intervention.

It never helps when the user has a law license, either.

“Lawyers are even less likely to reach out for treatment,” Radcliffe said. “We’re trained to be analytical, and we’re trained to argue.”

Seeking help may be even more difficult for judges because they lead a “more insular life” than attorneys, he said.

In Cook’s case, his exemplary performance may have deterred him from seeking treatment for drug abuse, Radcliffe said, because he may have thought he was able to keep his habit under control or even refused to believe he had a problem.

“It was never made apparent to me that he had a problem,” Radcliffe said of the brief time he and Cook were colleagues. “No one ever questioned Mike’s performance as a judge.”

Radcliffe told the judge he believes the day Cook was arrested was the day he hit his lowest point.

“He’s a solid man who is sick,” he said. “His denial was being fed through his performance.”

In his own line of questioning, U.S. District Judge Joe B. McDade found it hard to believe that a man such as Cook would be able to hide his addiction from those closest to him. But even prosecutors were hard-pressed to find anyone who knew about Cook’s habit prior to his arrest.

In fact, Wigginton said the only person who was previously aware of Cook’s heroin use was McGilvery, who initially refused to disclose details about Cook to investigators.

“Our investigation indicated various individuals from whom he kept his addiction extremely secret,” Wigginton said during the sentencing hearing. “James Fogarty (the probation officer) was completely surprised that Cook was using heroin.”

The sentence

Cook pleaded guilty to misdemeanor possession of heroin and the felony charge of being an addict of a controlled substance while in possession of a firearm.

McDade, who serves in the Central District of Illinois and is based in Peoria, was assigned to the case after all Southern District judges recused themselves.

At the end of the nearly three-hour sentencing hearing March 26, the elder Keefe turned and gave Cook’s family the thumbs-up. It was a positive sign after a prior hearing in February when McDade threw out a negotiated plea agreement for Cook to spend 18 months in prison.

McDade viewed the negotiated sentence as inadequate for the nature of the offenses and instructed both parties to come up with a better agreement.

Others charged in connection with the Cook investigation received much harsher prison sentences — including Fogarty and McGilvery, who received five and 10 years, respectively.

Cook was appointed to the bench as an associate judge in 2007 and was appointed as a circuit judge in 2010. He won election to a six-year term later that year. During his time on the bench, he presided over St. Clair County’s drug court.

Wigginton noted the “hypocrisy of a drug-addicted judge presiding over drug court” during the sentencing hearing.

After the first plea deal was rejected, Cook agreed to plea guilty but accept whatever sentence McDade handed down. He sentenced Cook to two years in prison.

“When judges fall from grace, they can be expected to land a little harder than the rest,” the soft-spoken McDade said in his remarks before handing down the sentence.

Wigginton called it a “fair and just sentence. I think any time you recommend three times the guidelines and you’re able to achieve that, you’ve done your job correctly.”

Cook’s sentence is actually four times what was recommended by federal guidelines in the pre-sentencing report submitted to the judge. The guidelines recommended up to six months in jail for the heroin possession charge and up to one year for the weapons charge.

McDade ordered Cook to pay $10,000 in fines and personally cover the cost of his incarceration —- $65,583. He will also have to spend three years under federal supervision after his release.

Under the agreement rejected by McDade in February, Cook had waived his right to appeal. But he is free to appeal the sentence McDade imposed.

Cook is expected to surrender himself to the Federal Bureau of Prisons on or before May 28.

Though McDade recommended Cook be placed in a federal prison camp located as close to his family as possible, it hasn’t yet been decided where he will go.

At the sentencing hearing, Cook said he will serve his sentence “with gratitude.”

He also offered an apology that he said isn’t enough to make amends for the challenge his removal from office caused the court system.

His cases had to be reassigned, and it took 12 weeks to replace him on the bench. Additionally, defendants in two of his cases received new trials because the state’s attorney’s office failed to notify them of the criminal charges Cook faced.

“This has been a day I’ve dreaded and looked forward to,” Cook told McDade at the sentencing hearing.

“I know I’ve embarrassed the bar association, the bench and, worst of all, I hurt my family.”