Knife edge: The strange death of Jenny Lee Cook — (Sydney Morning Herald)

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Sydney Morning Herald

Rory Callinan

On the surface, the death of Jenny Lee Cook was one of Australia’s more bizarre suicides. But the family of the victim believes in a more sinister truth.

It’s a quiet Monday night in Townsville and an ambulance radio crackles to life in the car park of the far north Queensland city’s main hospital.

It’s a Code 1A: a woman in her early 30s has suffered an apparent cardiac arrest. Lights flashing, siren on, the two paramedics on board, Robert Haydon and Chris O’Connor, accelerate through the thinning evening traffic, hoping to find the woman still alive.

The destination is a residential property in Douglas – a suburb popular with young families that sprawls along the southern banks of the Ross River, about eight kilometres from the CBD. Pulling up in front of a new residence in Sheerwater Parade, they note the outside of the property is in darkness, and unlike some triple-0 calls, nobody is waiting outside. Within moments the two men are knocking on the front door, yelling “Queensland Ambulance Service”.

A tall, thick-set, blond man, Paul Cook, a local prison guard, answers the door and says that his wife, Jenny Lee Cook, is lying out the back. Haydon thinks he looks upset, but to O’Connor, Cook appears unemotional as he ushers them through the house, out into the backyard and on to the side of the property. Here the two paramedics are confronted with a horrific sight.

It’s the body of a woman, lying on her left side on a bloodstained plywood board, with her legs folded backwards. There are spots of congealed blood on her forehead and the left side of her chest. She’s wearing shorts, runners, and a sun hat. Strangely, what looks like a section of a sheet has been wrapped around the back of her head, partly obscuring her face, and a bathrobe tie is secured around her throat.

The woman looks as if she’s been dead for some time, her outstretched arms apparently stiff from rigor mortis, but it’s the job of the two paramedics to make sure. Haydon kneels carefully alongside the body, attaches electrodes to her limbs, and finds no signs of life. But as Haydon is about to get to his feet, something very sharp presses into his back and he springs forward. Shining their torches in the direction of the object, the two paramedics are startled to see a large, bloodstained knife poking out from the wall, its handle tightly bound in string and tape and wedged firmly in the gap between the steel window frame and the concrete wall.

Haydon immediately radios the ambulance dispatcher to notify the police. He explains that the paramedics are at a likely crime scene, and the cops need to get here as soon as possible.

When the first police arrive at the scene, they find Paul Cook sitting hunched at the kitchen bench moaning. On another bench opposite are his wife’s handbag and some documents.

One of the officers asks him if his wife was on any medication and Cook obliquely says his wife had a bad back, was on antidepressants and was involved in a difficult WorkCover claim.

The reference to antidepressants suggests something was not quite right about Jenny Lee – a hint of emotional instability, perhaps – and maybe even a predisposition to suicide. “She never told me she even thought about killing herself,” Cook would later tell detectives, not even raising the possibility that she may have met with foul play.

He explains to Sergeant Kay Osborn and Constable Damien Cotter, who were tasked to interview him at the scene, that he arrived home at around 6.45pm, and was surprised to find the dog locked up on the property’s front balcony and Jenny Lee nowhere to be seen. He was relieved that she was out – things hadn’t been going well in their marriage. But then he noticed her belongings were still lying about, although her runners weren’t in their usual place. So he decided to take the dog for a walk through the scrubby bushland at the end of Sheerwater Parade.

A short time later he returned home, downed a soft drink, jumped into the shower and began to wonder where Jenny Lee was. He became much more concerned after noticing that a large knife was missing from the kitchen block. He sent his wife a text, and when there was no reply began to search outside. That’s when he came across the body. “She was cold and she was stiff and I moved her lips back and they didn’t [move],” he tells the two detectives. That’s why he didn’t attempt to do CPR, he explains.

During the course of their discussion in the kitchen and another formal interview later that night, Cook repeats his certainty that Jenny Lee killed herself – although he has no idea how she did it. “She had blood coming out of her mouth … what did she do?” he asks Detective Cotter.

Later, Cook says when he first saw her body he thought Jenny had jumped on the knife or she had overdosed. He also talks about the knife, saying, “It was so sharp, that knife, like a f…ing sword or something – I don’t know why I even bought it.”

He tells detectives that he used the knife only two or three times, later changing this to two or three times a year, the first of a series of contradictions in a long and rambling interview in which he revealed that all wasn’t exactly rosy in the Sheerwater Parade house.

Paul tells the interviewing detectives that while they “never fought”, Jenny Lee would have “a sook” about her chronic back problems “hundreds of times” and would “crack the shits” and be “a moody bitch”. Only the night before, he explains, he’d arrived home to find Jenny Lee sitting on the toilet in the bathroom crying. Ignoring her tears, he asked where his earbuds were, put them on, went to bed and fell asleep.

He admits that he’d set off for work that morning barely speaking to her, and later that day told a colleague that his marriage was over. Asked about his movements, Cook tells police that he left his job as a prison guard at Townsville Correctional Centre about midday to pay a bill at a computer shop for repairs to his laptop, then returned to the jail about 12.30pm. Strangely, the credit card payment receipt in his wallet shows the bill was paid at 12.23pm – giving him the almost impossible task of travelling the eight or so kilometres back to the jail, negotiating a number of intersections and traffic lights, by 12.30pm. He also tells police that he had sent an email to the shop, but the shop has no record of receiving any such email that day.

Within 20 hours of arriving at the scene on that steamy January night, the police decide that Jenny Lee (a woman who hated needles and blood and had a big enough stash of pain medication to overdose if she wanted to) had – without leaving behind any note -blindfolded herself, tied a belt around her neck, put a sheet over the top of her head and deliberately thrust her body on to the knife before slumping to the ground and bleeding to death.

Jenny Lee’s parents, Lorraine and Terry Pullen. Photo: Debrah Novak

Less than two days after the death, the Sheerwater Parade house is cleared of being a crime scene and Cook is allowed access to potentially important evidentiary exhibits such as the plywood board, still lying in the backyard. There is no dusting for fingerprints on the knife, no DNA test of the board, no search of the house for traces of the string or tape used to wedge the knife into the wall and no follow-through on Cook’s alibi.

Jenny Lee’s death is deemed non-suspicious, a clear case of suicide. But if it’s a suicide, it’s clearly one of the most extraordinary to have ever occurred in Australia: the Queensland suicide register and the National Coronial Information System have no record of female suicide by self-impalement.

Shortly after her death, Cook cashed in Jenny Lee’s WorkCover settlement and superannuation, which along with the sale of the Sheerwater Parade house, amounted to about $800,000.

It will take four years of unwavering determination by Jenny Lee’s parents, Lorraine and Terry Pullen, to have an inquest held into their daughter’s bizarre and tragic death. The inquest will also query a suspected affair between him and an attractive female prison guard (although both claimed this commenced after Jenny Lee’s death). Mainly, though, the inquest will reveal startling omissions in the police investigation into Jenny Lee’s death, and the destruction of a key piece of evidence – the bloody knife – before the coroner could properly investigate.

On the day Jenny Lee died – January 19, 2009 – Lorraine rang her daughter a couple of times, but she didn’t pick up. Just before 9pm, Jenny Lee’s dad, Terry, phoned Lorraine with the terrible news and Lorraine rushed to Townsville.

So many things just didn’t add up for Lorraine. For starters, she couldn’t believe that Jenny Lee didn’t leave a suicide note. “I don’t believe she would have gone without saying goodbye. She always wrote notes and letters,” she says. Nor did Lorraine buy the scenario of her daughter impaling herself. “Jenny Lee would run from a needle. She was frightened of sharp things.”

Jenny Lee was the type who would have left directions about who was to look after the dog, insists Lorraine, and who would get what. “We had an extremely close relationship and I don’t believe she would go without telling me or asking for help.”

After Lorraine arrived at the house, Cook took her outside and showed her where Jenny Lee had died. (“He said he didn’t want any ghosts in the house,” adds Lorraine.) She recalls Cook saying something about Jenny Lee putting on her running shoes so she wouldn’t slip when she ran onto the knife, she says, but Cook would later deny ever making such as statement.

Then there was the presence of one of Cook’s female work colleagues. The woman dropped by five days after the death to clean Jenny Lee’s car, which had to be returned to James Cook University (JCU), where she worked as a water nutrient analyst. “Call it a woman’s instinct but I knew they were close,” Lorraine said after she saw the woman with Cook in the kitchen.

Lorraine says that both she and her husband have been in a personal hell trying to unravel what happened to their daughter. “I lie awake at night and it just goes round and round in my head. For 18 months afterwards I had this pain in the chest, like someone had stabbed me. I’m so frustrated and angry. If it had been [a police officer’s] daughter, things would have been done properly. We don’t think Jenny Lee would be capable of doing something like this.”

The 29-year-old had met Cook more than 10 years earlier, while she was studying at James Cook University. At the time the pretty redhead had been in the midst of fulfilling her ambition of becoming a marine biologist and was enrolled at the university’s well-regarded marine sciences program. She had moved to Townsville from her family farm near Macksville, a small NSW coastal town midway between Sydney and Brisbane with a population of about 3000.

Jenny Lee’s childhood had been that of a carefree country kid running wild on her parents’ banana farm, riding dirt bikes around the hills and galloping her horse along the area’s unspoiled beaches, says Lorraine, a retired theatre nurse who still lives on the farm with Terry. “She was a very bright, active girl – she wouldn’t sit on your knee for long,” recalls Lorraine. “When she and her sister were little and they were naughty they would run and climb up the mango tree. I couldn’t get them and they would stay there till I started laughing.”

From an early age the ocean fascinated Jenny Lee, and at age 15 she was already writing to university professors for advice about how to become a marine biologist. In 1998 she gained entry to JCU and moved to Townsville to study. Like many of the young students, she partied in a nightclub scene overflowing with young single men from the nearby military base, Lavarack Barracks – one of the largest garrisons in the country. One night, in a nightclub called The Playpen, the 19-year-old met a handsome young soldier, Paul Cook. The couple were soon dating and within six months Cook proposed.

The wedding was held on Magnetic Island, off Townsville, on November 8, 1998. The video shows a handsome couple – Cook, looking like a tall, solid, Amish farmer with his blond thatch of hair and moustache-less beard, stands about 15 centimetres taller than Jenny Lee, whose curly red hair and white dress conjure up images of a mediaeval princess.

At first, friends recall, they seemed like a devoted couple who did everything together: grocery shopping, cooking, hiking and camping around the rainforests of north Queensland. But things changed in 2007. While attempting to lug heavy buckets of water samples back to a lab at James Cook University for analysis, Jenny Lee seriously injured her back. Over the space of nearly 18 months she underwent two operations that left her virtually immobile and cut off from most of her work friends while she slowly recovered. She put in a WorkCover claim, which led her to see a psychologist, which in turn led to her taking anti-depressants and major pain medication.

Cook, meantime, had left the army and started working as a prison guard at the Townsville Correctional Centre, a jail about 12 kilometres west of the city. As a workplace, it seemed to foster controversial personal relationships. “The prisoners were nice – it was the workers you had to worry about,” says one guard who worked with Cook at the sprawling jail, which has a farm, a high-security men’s jail and a women’s prison.

The guard, who asked not to be named, told Good Weekend that the sex scandals that occurred there were on a scale that “you wouldn’t believe”, with warders often quitting over allegations they were having inappropriate contact with each other, or with prisoners. As recently as last year, the jail’s hot-house staff relationships were still making headlines in local papers, including manager Andrew Pike quitting after allegations were published alleging he’d had an affair with a junior female clerk who also worked in his office – a scenario exposed by posts from the woman’s jilted boyfriend on Facebook.

Whether Jenny Lee knew about this workplace environment it’s hard to say, but she certainly had concerns about a tall, striking-looking female guard in her late 20s who was regularly rostered on to work with Cook. “Jenny confronted Paul, who denied there was anything between them,” says a friend of the couple, who, like others Good Weekend spoke to, did not want to be identified.

In the months leading up to her death, Jenny Lee had never given any indication to her family of problems in the marriage other than a brief conversation with her father in which she implied that sexual intimacy with Cook was difficult because of her back injury.

Towards the end of 2008, friends recalled her enthusiasm about returning to work at JCU on reduced duties. Her doctors thought her depression, brought on by her chronic back problems, was in remission and that she was not a suicide risk (she had previously admitted to thoughts of “cutting herself” in the depths of her despair after her second operation, one doctor would later claim). The couple also moved into their dream home in Sheerwater Parade in November – a new, two-storey, brick-veneer home with four bedrooms, only a couple of minutes’ walk from the river. Life was starting to look up again.

The first sign of trouble on January 19 at the Cooks’ home was a barking dog. Trying to sleep in the house across the road was Janice Cavanagh, recuperating from shoulder surgery, and the noise was keeping her awake.

The barking got worse around lunchtime when the animal began making what Cavanagh would call a “crying” sound that seemed to go on for hours. She got up and thought: “Should I go over and see if it’s caught somewhere?” But because she didn’t know the Cooks, who had only moved into the new home two months before, she decided to stay put. The barking stopped around 4.30pm. About two hours later, around 6.45pm, another neighbour saw Cook drive up and chatted to him before he went inside.

These and other statements were made to coronial investigators for an inquest that was held late last year. The statements highlighted questions and contradictions in Paul Cook’s account of events on the day of his wife’s death, and shortcomings in the initial investigation. For instance, Cook told police that his movements could be easily confirmed by the jail’s CCTV cameras. But detectives never checked, and in any case, renovations were being undertaken at the jail at the time and the cameras at the entry and exit gates weren’t working. Jail logbooks, which had Cook entering the jail at 7.30 on the morning of his wife’s death and leaving at 12.49pm, were also incomplete, with no record of him re-entering the prison that day.

Maderline Ronan, another prison employee who was rostered on with Cook that day, described him in her statement to the inquest as “very quiet” and didn’t know where he was between 11am and 1.30pm. Later in the afternoon, Cook told her he had a headache and finished up early, around 5.30pm. This raised questions about where he had been until 6.45pm, when he arrived home, as the drive between the jail and Sheerwater Parade is about 15 minutes. (Jenny Lee was suspected of dying some time between 8am and 2pm, according to the autopsy.)

Cook’s statements to police indicate he was increasingly frustrated by his wife’s pessimism and depression, such as on the night before her death, when he ignored her sadness and crying and went to bed early with his earbuds in. But his later account to WorkCover was radically different: “That night in bed she cried as she told me of her pain and her concerns about her work future, which had been reinforced at the functional capacity evaluation. I hugged her till she fell asleep,” he said.

Asked at the inquest about the contradiction, he painted a strange picture. He said he had both hugged Jenny Lee and ignored her and then they both fell asleep sharing his headphones and listening to a Phil Collins song he hated.

At the subsequent inquest, Cook calmly gave evidence for nearly three-quarters of a day, without legal representation. He denied having any role in Jenny Lee’s death. Coroner Jane Bentley would later describe him as being “deliberately untruthful” in his evidence, adding that it was likely he had given different representation for the purposes of his WorkCover claim.

Cook claimed that his relationship with the unidentified work colleague prior to Jenny Lee’s death had been strictly professional, with the romance only starting a couple of months afterwards. It began with kiss in a pool at a barbecue after a few drinks and evolved into a relationship with sexual events but not intercourse, he said. Asked how many times he would have phoned or texted this woman before Jenny’s death, he said he would be surprised if it was more than five times. But when confronted with records that showed 52 calls or texts he said: “Obviously I was talking to her a lot more than I’m remembering, but we didn’t have any relationship before that other than friends”.

In her statement, fellow worker Maderline Ronan alleged she’d seen Facebook photographs of Cook socialising at drinks functions with this woman prior to Jenny Lee’s death. Bizarrely, eight months after the death, the same woman was at the centre of a violent row when she was caught by her former de facto “canoodling”, as the Townsville Bulletin headlines put it, in a prison van with a fellow guard. (The woman, whose name was suppressed in the inquest, made a statement to coronial investigators and did not appear at the inquest. After being asked for comment by Good Weekend she said, “I’ve heard about your Paul Cook stuff and I’ve got nothing to say.”)

Coroner Bentley’s findings, handed down in November last year, were damning of the police’s failure to properly investigate and the failure to follow procedures such as failing to retain the knife. But she delivered an “open finding” into Jenny Lee’s death, saying she was unable to determine whether the Townsville woman’s death was suicide or murder.

Sheerwater parade, Townsville, has changed little since Jenny Lee’s death. The homes are still well kept, with dazzlingly clean driveways and manicured lawns lushly greened by the tropical weather. Most residents have largely forgotten the dreadful tragedy that occurred in their sleepy patch of surburbia.

Those who do remember the couple have nothing bad to say about Paul Cook, with one describing him as a “gentle giant”. (Cook, after initially offering to answer any questions supplied by Good Weekend, later withdrew his co-operation, saying in an email, “I’m not going to comment, sorry.”

In the meantime, Jenny Lee’s parents have not given up the quest to find out what happened to their daughter. Lorraine has just been in Townsville once again, walking in her daughter’s footsteps on the streets of Douglas, in the city centre, and at James Cook University, showing photographs of Jenny Lee and Cook to locals. “It might make somebody remember what they saw,” she says.