Nearly 20 years ago, Lonoke County was rocked by multiple rape charges and alleged murder plots involving one of the county’s oldest, politically-connected families — charges with a link to perhaps the county’s most baffling multiple murder, that of a son’s killing of his family in early 1997.
Larry Cook, current candidate for Lonoke County Division 2 Circuit Judge, was prosecuting attorney in the early stages of the case against Charles A. "Jack" Walls III, in connections with the rapes of members of the Boy Scout troop he led. The prosecution of Walls drew national attention, and it is likely one of the most notorious and complex criminal cases in Lonoke County’s history.
Charles "Charlie" and Karen Knox of Lonoke, parents of the late Wade Knox, who was the first of the "John Doe" minor victims to be identified from the trial proceedings, say Cook’s conduct of the case shows he, "has no business being a judge. No business at all," they said in an April 18 interview with this newspaper.
Cook, replying to a request for a response, released a statement Monday.
"Almost 17 years ago our community was devastated because of the shocking crimes committed by Jack Walls that came to light. I was the Lonoke County Prosecuting Attorney at that time and filed two rape charges against Jack Walls while continuing to review the file for additional charges before deciding to recuse. I made that decision to allow an out-of-county attorney to take over the prosecution to ensure there would be no question of prejudice," Cook said.
But the Knoxes say Cook let social, political or professional influences of Walls’ father, the late past Circuit Judge Charles A. Walls Jr., and Jack Walls’ standing the community, shade his decisions. "I don’t know if [Cook] was scared of Mr. Walls or not, but I think that is why [Cook] didn’t go after [Walls] like he should have."
The Knoxes said they only recently learned that Cook was running for circuit judge. "I don’t keep up with those things. I would have had said something a long time ago if I knew about it," Karen Knox said.
Circuit Judges are elected in a non-partisan election held at the same time as the May 20 Preferential Primary.
Accounts show Cook had investigation information as early as the first week of August 1997; he asked to be recused Oct. 18, 1997. Earlier denying he had a conflict in the case, in his request, Cook cited the possibility of the "appearance of conflict because the prosecuting attorney and his staff have known the defendant’s father and have appeared in his court when he was the circuit/chancery judge in this district."
"[Cook] should have done that at the start of it, not wait three months. He backed out only because people were getting onto him about it," Charlie Knox said in a recent interview.
On Oct. 20, 1997, 11th Judicial District prosecuting attorney Betty Dickey was assigned as special prosecutor. By Nov. 5, Dickey had amended the original charges to a total of six rape charges, two charges of conspiracy to commit murder, and contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
At the time, Dickey said there could have been more charges; the ones filed were done for expedience, she said. Otherwise the time needed for the trial could be very long, she said. By the end of the proceedings only the rape charges remained, with the other charges nolle prossed by Dickey, again for expediency.
Walls pleaded guilty on five rape charges and no contest to the sixth. Dickey chose to nolle prosse the charges of conspiracy to commit murder saying that the "six guilty findings are enough."
Walls was levied three 40-year sentences (concurrent), and three life sentences (concurrent) in the Arkansas Department of Correction, with the life sentences to be served after the 40-year sentences.
"[Cook] should have got himself out of it right away, but he tried to cover that mess up and when he couldn’t, he tried to keep it small. But it was just too big," Charlie Knox said.
The Knoxes pointed out similar circumstances in a 1993 complaint filed against Walls at Carlisle that was dismissed. Cook had no role in that proceeding but the Knoxes said they feared "it was going to happen again."
Karen Knox said Cook’s handling of the case made her fear that, "It was going to be swept under the rug. Jack was going to just walk away."
"We were all fooled [at Carlisle]. We testified for Jack in that. He just walked away from it. But knowing what we know now, we were scared it would happen again. We saw the same things happening and Jack would walk away from this one, too," Karen Knox said.
Heath Stocks was the second minor victim to be identified. Stocks is currently serving life without parole in Arkansas Department of Correction for the January 1997 killings of his father, Joe; mother, Barbara; and sister, Heather at their rural home near Furlow.
Stocks said in court proceedings that he shot his family at Walls’ direction. That fact was later acknowledged by Dickey, who noted that indications were that not only had Walls directed the shootings, but was there to ensure it was done.
"All that mess was in the file; that’s what Betty Dickey used to hang Jack. But all Larry Cook could get was two rape charges?" Charlie Knox exclaimed.
Cook met with them twice before the October hearing, Knox said. "After the first meeting, Wade turned to me and said, ‘He’s not going to do anything,’" she recalled.
"It happened before, in Carlisle, and it was going to happen again," Knox said of a complaint lodged against Walls in 1994.
The Knoxex said that the Lonoke police investigation began in late July 1997, and that Cook knew then about Walls’ involvement.
Accounts from the time show then-Lonoke Chief of Police Charles Peckat said Cook had information connecting Walls as early as Aug. 1.
"[Cook] didn’t file anything until October, and even that was because people were pushing him," Charlie Knox said.
"But it wasn’t until [Cook] finally got out of it and [special prosecutor] Betty Dickey came in that things happened," Charlie Knox said. "But after that, it was all Betty Dickey and nobody heard about Larry Cook anymore. They didn’t hear that Larry Cook wouldn’t go after that mess."
In a response in October 1997 about charges against Walls, Cook said other charges were not pursued "due to the statute of limitations and age of the alleged victims at the time, and prosecutorial discretion."
A copy of an Oct. 17, 1997 letter from Lonoke Chief of Police Charles Peckat to then-Circuit Judge Lance Hanshaw, claims that Cook was balking on pressing charges. Peckat also said that Cook told him rape charges for one victim would not be sought because of a "gut feeling" that the "victim would steal the spotlight."
Karen Knox said that likely referred to Heath Stocks, who by then was in prison for the shootings of his family. "[Cook] told us that he wouldn’t have anything to do with Heath," she said in April.
Peckat called on Hanshaw to remove Cook from the case. "I receive phone calls daily from citizens, families and victims as to why these other charges have not been filed They have asked that Larry Cook and his office cease from having any further involvement in this case… I must agree and respectfully ask that Larry Cook and members of his office be removed form [sic] this case and a special prosecutor should be appointed," he wrote.
The Knoxes say they are not asking for answers from Cook. "We aren’t looking for explanations from him; there’s nothing he can say for us. We were there; we saw it happening. We are saying he has no place being a judge … He might be a really nice guy. Maybe he ought to just stick to being a private attorney," Charlie Knox said.
"You work for years to build back after something like this. You think you’ve got it under control. And then something like this happens," Karen Knox remarked, pausing to calm herself. Taking a deep breath, she continued, "And everything just comes back."