Local News

Slaying focus of Cooper custody hearing; judge delays ruling

Posted October 16, 2008 10:50 a.m. EDT
Updated October 21, 2008 9:14 a.m. EDT

— A judge says she needs more time to review evidence, including Web chats and a seven-hour taped deposition, in the legal dispute over who will have custody of the two young daughters of Brad Cooper and his slain wife, Nancy.

More than a dozen witnesses testified Thursday in an eight-hour hearing before Judge Debra Sasser in Wake County District Court, including Nancy Cooper's family, some of the couple's friends, two psychologists and a woman who says she saw Nancy Cooper jogging the morning she disappeared.

Brad Cooper, who has come under scrutiny in his wife's death but is not accused, did not testify.

"I find it incredulous that Brad Cooper didn't take the stand," said Alice Stubbs, an attorney representing Nancy Cooper's parents, Garry and Donna Rentz, and twin sister, Krista Lister. "You need to hear from the father. We didn't hear from a single relative. I don't get it."

Bella, 4, and Katie, 2, have been under Lister's care in Canada since Sasser awarded emergency custody to her and her parents in July, two days after Nancy Cooper was found strangled in an undeveloped subdivision three miles from her Cary home.

The Rentzes and Lister claim Brad Cooper is an unfit parent who was emotionally abusive to and financially controlling of his wife in the months before her death.

They testified they believe he was involved in her slaying and that he should not be allowed to care for the couple's two young daughters.

"I feel like Brad has murdered my sister, and I deem it extremely inappropriate for the girls to be around him," Lister said.

She also testified about her concerns for her sister's safety during a visit to Cary in March. Other witnesses testified how Nancy Cooper told them that her husband's behavior had become controlling.

"Brad and Nancy's marriage was increasingly tense," testified Jessica Adam, the friend who reported her missing on July 12. "My understanding is that he had taken control of the finances, and she was extremely limited in her movements."

Another friend of Nancy Cooper's testified that the power and control issues prompted her to call Interact of Wake County, a nonprofit agency that helps victims of domestic violence.

But Brad Cooper's attorney, Deborah Sandlin, said the plaintiffs failed to meet the burden of showing that her client acted in violation of his parental rights.

Although several witnesses testified about the Coopers' troubled marriage – affairs by both, financial problems, heated arguments and how the couple was separating – no one said they ever saw Brad Cooper be physically violent with his wife.

"You don't have any information that Brad was violent toward Nancy?" Sandlin asked Nancy Cooper's father.

"No," Garry Rentz said.

Police have not named any suspects in Nancy Cooper's death, and Brad Cooper has maintained that he is innocent, that he last saw his wife the morning of July 12 before she went jogging and that when she never returned, he went looking for her.

But with the allegations that he was somehow involved and with police seeming to focus on him in their investigation, the issue is central to who will temporarily care for the girls.

Stubbs and attorney Wade Smith argued they have "substantial evidence" that he did kill his wife and that he will be charged with murder.

"The (Wake County District Attorney) Colon Willoughby train is coming," Smith said. "It may not be next year. It could be two years. But it's coming."

Also at issue during Thursday's hearing was Brad Cooper's mental health. The Rentzes and Lister claim that he is mentally unstable, that he tried to commit suicide when he was younger and that he threatened to kill himself earlier this year.

Dr. Jonathan Gould, a psychologist who testified on Brad Cooper's behalf, found him to be normal with no significant anger issues – but said when confronted with emotionally powerful experiences, he tends to withdraw.

"He's not a guy that is typically anger-based," Gould said. "But under current circumstances, he's feeling very frustrated."

Dr. James Hilkey, a forensic psychologist for the Rentzes and Lister, testified that he found Brad Cooper to be narcissistic and arrogant with anxiety and anger issues.

"He can keep it in check, but when it does manifest itself, it is usually directed at family members," Hilkey said. "My opinion is that this is a longstanding anger that has been with him for a fair amount of time."

Also testifying Thursday was Rosemary Zednick, a woman who says she was walking her dog on July 12 when she saw Nancy Cooper jogging. The two made eye contact and spoke, she said.

"I saw that gal," Zednick said, adding that she contacted Cary police up to nine times but never heard from investigators.

"All I said to the police was 'I don't want Nancy Grace on my doorstep,'" she said.

Zednick said that after three months of not hearing from  detectives, she went to Brad Cooper's attorneys, who sent an investigator to interview her.

Witnesses also testified to Brad Cooper's character as a father. Mike Hiller, who was supposed to play tennis with him on July 12 said Bella and Katie love their dad and seem normal.

"I never saw him do anything bad to the kids or anything inappropriate to the kids," he said.

During closing arguments, Sandlin admitted her client was not there for the children all the time due to work but said he was a good father.

”I have not heard any evidence that Mr. Cooper had anything to do with his wife’s death," she said. "These children need to be with their father. These children have an attachment to their father."

Sasser could rule as early as Monday.

During a motions hearing last month, Sasser said that if no one were charged in murder case prior to her ruling, she would have to consider the allegations in her decision, a critical factor in deciding whether the children would be safe.

"The elephant that sits in the room is that if there is evidence that Mr. Cooper is in any way responsible for his wife's death, that's certainly relevant in the custody case," she has said.