RALEIGH, N.C. — A convicted felon charged in five unsolved murders in Wake County confessed to committing the crimes, sources tell WRAL, but authorities withheld details.
Amid heavy security, Samuel James Cooper, 30, of 2300 Creech Road, made his first appearance in court Tuesday afternoon. He was quiet, said very little and showed no emotion as the judge read the charges against him, appointed an attorney for him and denied him bond.
His next court date is scheduled for Dec. 18.
Meanwhile Tuesday, Raleigh police also charged a woman, identified as Regina Nicole Swan, in connection with two armed robberies last month at a Bojangles’ restaurant and Food Lion — heists to which authorities said they believe Cooper might be linked.
Swan was in the Wake County Jail Tuesday evening under a $250,000 bond and was scheduled to make her first court appearance Wednesday.
As of Tuesday night, Cooper, had not been charged in those robberies. Sources told WRAL that he is also a suspect in a series of robberies across the Raleigh area.
Raleigh police and Wake County sheriff's investigators said evidence and investigative information collected before and after Cooper's arrest last week in connection with a Garner bank robbery led to the charges in the homicides, which occurred from May 2006 to last month.
Most of the slayings involved robberies, authorities said.
"I don't ever remember us charging anyone with five homicides before," Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby said. "And the particularly interesting (thing) is, these are all charged on five dates as opposed to one event."
Wake County sheriff's investigators say Cooper shot and killed Ossama "Sam" Haj-Hussein, 43, inside the In & Out Food Mart on Creech Road on May 12, 2006.(Read what a criminal profiler has to say about Cooper.)
On June 3, 2006, Raleigh police found LeRoy Jernigan, 41, of Clayton, dead inside Circus Restaurant on Wake Forest Road in Raleigh, where he worked as a cleaning contractor.
This year, on April 27, Timothy David Barnwell, 34, died at WakeMed after police found him outside his second-story apartment at Windsor Falls Apartments. Police say his ankles and wrists were bound and that he jumped off his apartment's balcony to escape and might have tried to crawl away before he was shot multiple times.
And last month, a homeless man, Ricky High, 48, was shot and killed near St. Augustine's College; another man was injured. Two days later, on Oct. 14, Tariq Hussain, 52, was found dead inside Bobby's Grocery on Garner Road.
"These murders violently took victims from their families and friends," Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison and Maj. Ken Mathias, of the Raleigh Police Department, said in a joint news release issued Tuesday.
"The fact that they occurred is as deeply saddening as it is irrevocable, but we are grateful for the relentless, cooperative work of many people that brought this suspect to justice."
Willoughby and Harrison credited "a lot of good police work and a little bit of luck" for Cooper's being charged.
"When something like this does break, it means a lot that we've all worked together," Harrison said. "We've shared this information, and boom – all of a sudden, there it is."
Authorities said they did not anticipate making further comments about the case or how investigators linked Cooper to the homicides because of "the magnitude and complexity of the cases and because of the ongoing investigation of each of them."
More Charges for Cooper?
Garner police arrested Cooper on Nov. 21 after he allegedly robbed a Bank of America at 547 Benson Road and led police on a brief chase before running inside a Domino's Pizza distribution center, where his mother works. (Read more about the man who helped police find Cooper.)
He was there for nearly an hour before he surrendered and was charged with robbery with a dangerous weapon and felony speeding to elude arrest
That was the latest in a series of alleged crimes over the last six weeks.
In addition to the October deaths of High and Hussain, Cooper also faces charges in connection to a home invasion and shooting in Reidsville on Nov. 4 and is a suspect in another shooting case in Rockingham County three weeks earlier, authorities there said.
According to court records, Cooper has a criminal record dating from 1993 in Wake County. It includes 10 arrests, 19 charges, including assault on a police officer, escape from prison, robbery, assault on a female, drug charges and larceny.
In 1999, Cooper was one of three inmates who overpowered a guard and escaped from custody while on a Wake County inmate work crew. He was apprehended a few days later.
At that time, he was serving a 20-year sentence for armed robbery, assault and drug charges.
Having served 12 years with at least 20 infractions, he was released from prison in February 2006 for good behavior, three months before Haj-Hussein's death.
Department of Correction spokesman Keith Acree said the release was under sentencing guidelines in place prior to Cooper's conviction.
Before Cooper's arrest last week, friends of Barnwell said they had no reason to believe his slaying homicide was anything but random.
"There was no indication, ever, that this might be connected with any other murder at all," said Rev. Diane Corlett, pastor of The Church of the Nativity in Raleigh, where Barnwell attended.
Authorities had publicly announced earlier this year that Jernigan's and Haj-Hussein's deaths might have been connected, but there was no other indication that any of the others were related.
Arrest Brings New Chapter for Victims' Families
Family members of some of the murder victims said they were informed on Monday that Cooper had been identified as a suspect and would be formally charged Tuesday.
"I feel a bit relieved, but I think his arrest is good for the community at-large as well," said Hussain's son, Khurram Tariq. "Because you know someone who is dangerous has been taken off the streets. So, we all feel a bit secure."
"The news brings closure to the family. It's very helpful," he said Tuesday, adding that he hopes the suspect, if convicted, never gets out of prison again.
"We have a great peace of mind knowing he's off the streets," Jernigan's sister, Chasity Jernigan, said.
She said she and her family waited 17 months for a break in the case. Since that time, they worked to keep the case in the public eye, hosting a carnival and concert and distributing fliers to generate new leads.
Jernigan's older brother, John Jernigan, said, however, the news of Cooper's arrest did not feel the void like he had hoped.
"Now, we have to deal with the next chapter – the court trials, and how he did it, and why he did it – that stirs up more emotions," he said. "The pain is still there."
Partly, they said, because of Cooper's extensive criminal record.
"If he was put in prison and stayed there like he should have been, my family and these other families would not be going through what we're going through right now," Chasity Jernigan said.