Mt. Vernon Register-News

November 8, 2013

Ex-Ill. judge pleads guilty to heroin, gun counts


Associated Press

EAST ST. LOUIS — — A former judge at the center of a courthouse drug scandal in Illinois that included another judge's cocaine death pleaded guilty Friday to federal heroin and gun charges as part of a deal calling for him serving a year and a half in prison.

Michael Cook, 43, admitted he has been a drug addict but insisted he was sober when he told U.S. District Judge Joe Billy McDade he was pleading guilty to a misdemeanor heroin-possession charge and a felony count of having firearms while being a user of controlled substances.

McDade allowed Cook to remain free on bond pending sentencing Jan. 17, deferring acceptance of Cook's deal with prosecutors — and the 18-month sentence both sides agreed upon — until after McDade reviews a presentence evaluation detailing Cook's history with illicit drugs. Cook offered no details of that in court, saying in response to a question from McDade that "I've been treated for a drug addiction" after being charged in May.

McDade cautioned he was not bound by sentencing deal the two sides reached. The gun count is punishable by up to 10 years in prison, and the heroin charge by no more than a year of confinement.

Cook, who stepped down from his St. Clair County Circuit Court judgeship in southwestern Illinois five days after being charged, replied respectfully as McDade quizzed him about whether he understood the consequences of pleading guilty.

During Friday's 50-minute hearing, Cook dutifully answered the questions that he himself had once posed while on the other side of the bench.

"Do you know what a jury trial is?" McDade at one point asked. "Yes, your honor," responded Cook, who wore a charcoal gray suit and red tie, in stark contrast with the cutoff shorts and T-shirt with the slogan "Bad is my middle name" that he wore during his arraignment months earlier.

Cook's legal troubles surfaced after his friend Joe Christ, a former longtime St. Clair County prosecutor and newly sworn-in associate judge, died of a cocaine overdose in March while staying with Cook at the Cook family's western Illinois hunting cabin.

Cook, 43, has not been charged in the death of Christ, who was a 49-year-old father of six.

Questions about Cook's drug use have led to overturned convictions in two murder trials over which he presided between Christ's death and the time he was charged. Prosecutors in both cases contended the convictions were the result of "overwhelming" evidence and that neither man cited any specific examples of how Cook allegedly botched their trials.

In pleading guilty, Cook agreed to forfeit to the government a cache of firearms that McDade said included pistols, shotguns and rifles. McDade told Cook he also may be required to pay costs of his potential incarceration, which McDade said could be roughly $2,200 a month.

Cook became an associate circuit judge in 2007 and a circuit judge in 2010.