Originally created 10/06/01

Parents look for answers in son's death



AIKEN - On Friday, the parents of a slain University of South Carolina Aiken student visited the dirt road where he was found dead a year ago this weekend.

Jason Cook, who was 18 when he died, is remembered by family and friends as a clean-cut church-goer and former high school basketball star in West Columbia.

But newly reviewed information about the slain college freshman indicates he might have gotten caught up with the wrong crowd.

Documents from a preliminary hearing in March indicate Mr. Cook might have had previous dealings with the man authorities say killed him - Tonnie Nathaniel Baldwin.

Witnesses told police Mr. Cook had partied with Mr. Baldwin and perhaps incurred some unpaid debts before his death.

If the information is true, it was activity unknown to his family and uncharacteristic of their son, Robert and Diane Cook said.

The Cooks traveled to Aiken on Friday to visit the spot where their son was found by a school bus driver in the early hours of Oct. 6, 2000.

Mr. Cook said he and his wife returned to the site of their son's death because they needed "to put a foot" on the dirt off Horseshoe Bend Road north of Aiken where Jason was found.

"It is very difficult for us to make it real," Mr. Cook said. "It is very hard for me to handle."

There is a lot the Cooks don't know about how their son died. He was shot once in the upper torso with a handgun. His parents say it could have been a carjacking, a random act of violence.

A few hours before his body was discovered, police found the car the student was driving - his father's 1993 Dodge - burned on Arbutus Hill Road, about four miles away from his body.

In January, Aiken County sheriff's investigators arrested Mr. Baldwin in connection with the killing. He has been in the Aiken County Detention Center since his October 2000 arrest on an alleged summer crime spree.

One of those crimes might be the unsolved slaying of 17-year-old Jessica Carpenter, who was found dead in her Crosland Park home Aug. 4, 2000, authorities said.

Although Capt. Tom Galardi of the Aiken Department of Public Safety said investigators have ruled no one out in that case, fingerprints and semen found in the Carpenter house do not match Mr. Baldwin's.

In Mr. Cook's death, one of the state's witnesses, Shashia Oliphant, told police Mr. Cook partied with her, Mr. Baldwin and others at her manufactured home on Sequoia Street sometime in early October 2000, according to transcripts of a preliminary hearing in Mr. Baldwin's case held in March.

She also told police it was her car that she, Mr. Baldwin and Ivory Kirkland Jr. used to take Mr. Cook to shoot him. Ms. Oliphant told police she saw Mr. Baldwin shoot Mr. Cook, according to court records.

Mr. Kirkland originally was charged with murder but now faces only robbery charges.

Even with the possible motive of robbery, court records show prosecutors have forensic evidence connecting Mr. Baldwin to the shooting.

He was arrested in October 2000 at the Royal Inn on a charge of armed robbery. He had a 9 mm handgun with him, the transcripts state.

But despite that evidence, Assistant Solicitor Bill Weeks said he doesn't expect Mr. Baldwin to be tried for Mr. Cook's death any time soon.

The numerous charges Mr. Baldwin faces are slowing the process, he said.

Whatever the motive for the killing and despite the revelations from Ms. Oliphant, the Cooks say their son was too good a person to get mixed up in something criminal.

"He was far from being mixed up in the wrong crowd as far as the east is from the west," Mr. Cook said. "That was not his style."

Reach Matthew Boedy at (803) 648-1395 or mboedy@augusta.com.