Nancy Cooper

Prosecution lays out its case against Brad Cooper

Posted March 9, 2011 3:38 p.m. EST
Updated March 10, 2011 12:58 p.m. EST

— Prosecutors say that the marriage of Brad and Nancy Cooper was falling apart in the months leading up to her death, with Brad Cooper admitting to an extramarital affair and cutting his wife off financially after she wanted to take their two young daughters and return to her native home of Canada.

But Nancy Cooper never made it back.

She went missing on the morning of July 12, 2008, and her partially clad, decomposing body was discovered two days later in a drainage ditch a few miles from the couple's upscale Cary home. She had been strangled.

Brad Cooper was arrested more than three months later and now stands trial in the case. If convicted, he faces life in prison.

He has said his wife went jogging and never returned home, but on Wednesday afternoon, Wake County Assistant District Attorney Amy Fitzhugh laid out a detailed account of events before and after Nancy Cooper's death that, she said, will prove otherwise. (Watch Fitzhugh's opening statement.)

"You will be convinced that Nancy Rentz Cooper never went for a run on July 12, 2008," Fitzhugh told jurors in an opening statement. "You will be convinced that Bradley Graham Cooper killed his wife and is guilty of first-degree murder."

Defense attorneys will present their opening statement Thursday morning.

The Coopers were going through a divorce, and it appeared amicable, Fitzhugh said, with the couple making plans to sell their house.

Then, she said, Brad Cooper saw a separation agreement his wife's attorney had drafted.

"Everything changed. Plans to go to Canada were canceled," Fitzhugh said. "Nancy was not free to leave anymore. She'd been keeping the passports for her and her girls in her car, locked in her car, and the defendant, he took them."

Fitzhugh said that after Nancy Cooper's friend reported her missing, Brad Cooper made statements to police investigators that were inconsistent with those he made in a sworn videotaped deposition several months later.

He also acted out of character the morning his wife disappeared, she said, doing "a lot of laundry" and cleaning floors – household chores, she said, he wasn't known for doing.

As police searched for Nancy Cooper, from July 12 to July 14, Fitzhugh said, investigators noticed things that "just don't quite make sense."

According to Fitzhugh:

  • Investigators could never find a missing teal green sundress dress that Nancy Cooper wore to a neighbor's barbecue the night before her death. Brad Cooper presented it later, saying he had washed it.
  • A pair of blue Saucony running shoes she was known to run in weren't missing from a shelf full of shoes, and there was no void on the shelf to suggest she might have been wearing another pair if she were out for a run.
  • Brad Cooper cleaned and vacuumed his car trunk, because he said he spilled gasoline in it, but there was no odor in the car.
  • His garage was clean and organized on July 12 with space to fit a car inside, but an exterminator at the house three days earlier said there were too many toys and items in it to fit a car.
  • Nancy Cooper's purse was locked inside her car, and her keys and cell phone were in the house, even though it was known that Nancy Cooper always ran with her keys so that her husband couldn't get access to important documents in her car.
  • Brad Cooper said he didn't know how to retrieve the call history on his cell phone, even though he was an expert in Voice over Internet Protocol for his job at Cisco Systems. "His job is knowing about phones," Fitzhugh said, "and he didn't know how to access his call history?"

Opening statements originally had been expected Monday, but pre-trial publicity and prospects of a four- to six-week trial made seating a jury in the case difficult. After eight days of interviews and questioning of potential jurors, a 12-member jury and three alternates were finally seated Wednesday morning.

Superior Court Judge Paul Gessner heard last-minute motions on Wednesday afternoon, including a defense motion to sequester witnesses and suppress statements that Nancy Cooper made to others prior to her death. Gessner denied both requests.

In motions Tuesday, defense attorneys challenged statements that Nancy Cooper is said to have made at the barbecue. Prosecutors maintain that her comments revealed "festering, angry" feelings that could be relevant in determining whether her husband strangled her.

Prosecutors said Tuesday that witnesses at the barbecue heard Nancy Cooper saying she "hated" her husband. She also made comments about his having an extramarital affair and that she and her husband had not had sexual intercourse for the previous two years.

Disputes over money and Brad Cooper's dismissive approach to family responsibilities, including housework and child care, were also mentioned, Wake County Assistant District Attorney Boz Zellinger said.

"As Oliver Wendell Holmes once said 'Words are the skin of the thought,'" Zellinger argued, quoting the famous attorney. "As she walked back across that street that night, the potential for conflict is highly evident."

Defense attorney Robert Trenkle said Nancy Cooper's comments to friends were not verifiable by the victim and would be more "prejudicial than probative" toward the facts in the trial.

However, Gessner ruled Tuesday in the prosecution's favor.

Trenkle asked the judge to allow a statement reportedly made by the Coopers' then-4-year-old daughter to become part of the court record.

A neighbor said the child, Bella, told her she had seen her mother on the morning of July 12 wearing dark shorts and a white T-shirt. The judge deferred his decision on the matter.