The University of Wisconsin-Madison student who was the first woman to report being sexually assaulted by fellow student Alec Cook urged a Dane County Circuit Court judge to sentence him to the maximum term of incarceration allowed by law — nearly 40 years in prison.
An initial meeting with Cook in the fall of 2016 that seemed like something out of a romantic comedy led two weeks later to a night of violent sexual assault, manhandling and strangulation, the woman told the court.
“My body became a crime scene and my life changed forever,” the woman wrote in a March 18 letter to Judge Stephen Ehlke. Diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, the woman became suicidal and was hospitalized at one point, she said.
Ehlke is scheduled to sentence Cook Thursday on five felonies brought in connection with complaints by five women involving encounters on and around the UW-Madison campus between March 2015 and October 2016. Cook pleaded guilty to the charges in February as part of a deal which included the dismissal of 16 other charges involving six additional women.
Cook, 22, faces up to 39 years, 6 months in prison and $95,000 in fines on convictions of three counts of third-degree sexual assault, one count of strangulation and suffocation and one count of stalking. He was expelled by UW-Madison.
Cook, who is from the affluent Minneapolis suburb of Edina, has been free on cash bond of $200,000 since his initial court appearance in October 2016. He has been represented by two Madison attorneys: Christopher Van Wagner and Jessa Nicholson. The complex case was shifted among several prosecutors in the Dane County District Attorney’s office before being moved to the state Attorney General’s office, where Assistant Attorney General Christopher Liegel took it up.
The emotional power of victim impact statements was demonstrated earlier this year by broadcast segments of some of the more than 150 women and girls who talked about how their lives were affected after being assaulted by former USA gymnastics and Michigan State University sports doctor Larry Nassar.
Under Wisconsin law, judges must allow such impact statements at sentencing — in court or by letter — from crime victims and anyone else who wishes to speak to the matter.
Dane County Circuit Judge Ehlke set aside the whole day for Cook’s sentencing Thursday to accommodate all who wanted to make a statement. But it was not known Monday how many victims and family members would make statements, said Shellie Gilette, a victim and witness case manager for the District Attorney’s office.
Statements were filed with the court prior to the sentencing hearing by victims or family members in the three cases in which Cook was convicted of sexual assault.
Erin Thornley-Parisi, executive director of the Dane County Rape Crisis Center, said victim impact statements can be the first time in a case when the depth and breadth of harm is made evident.
“They’re helpful for justice, by providing information to the judge that has not been provided before,” Thornley-Parisi said. Victims’ statements to this point may have been limited to answering questions. “There’s not a lot of room for expressing one’s feelings.
“I think people fail to realize that there are emotional, physical, economic, professional and family impacts — all these things can be impacted by being sexually assaulted,” she said. Victims’ statements let them speak to the changes in moods, sleep habits, worries, fears and relationships — all the parts of life affected.
“To be able to state all that is a help in the sentencing decision, and also a help in healing,” Thornley-Parisi said.
Women victimized by Cook, and their family members, told Ehlke in their letters of depression and stress so immobilizing that classes were dropped and jobs were quit. Other affected included panic attacks, sleeplessness and nightmares, and a loss of trust in human nature.
A woman who dated Cook before he attacked her in February 2016 said she felt ashamed by what happened.
“I had to find it within myself to accept that I had been selected, groomed and violated by someone I believed I should have been able to see through,” she wrote to Ehlke. “Feelings of shame and worthlessness consumed me.”
Her mother told the court that she feels the pain of Cook’s mother and father.
“I’m sure it is impossible for them to imagine that someone they love deeply could be so morally lost,” she wrote. Yet Cook is a threat to the safety and wellness of young women, she said. “The future for others in is your hands,” she told Ehlke.
The parents of a woman sexually assaulted by Cook in his apartment in March 2015 told the court they struggled for months to understand the emotional changes they saw in their daughter before she finally told them of the attack. If only she had told them what had happened earlier, “we could have helped her and she may not have felt so alone and frightened.”
“Show these brave survivors that they count, that their voices count, and that you listened,” they told Ehlke, urging him to impose the maximum sentence.
After filing the complaint that led to the first charges brought against Cook in October 2016, pursuing the criminal case and withstanding the attention and publicity around it became an ordeal, that victim said.
She was compelled to recount the story of the attack “in morbid detail to cops, detectives, victim advocates and therapists,” she wrote. “Campus was abuzz every time Cook returned for another hearing, and I avoided going online for fear of seeing the slew of news articles, comments and posts that never seemed to die down.
“A march against sexual violence including signs with Cook’s face on them marched right past my apartment window,” she recalled. “It was impossible to heal from the rape in the midst of the court case.”
Her father recounted the money and effort expended by his family in supporting his daughter and argued that even if sentenced to the maximum allowed for the counts he pled guilty to, Cook is enjoying leniency because of the plea deal that dismissed so many other counts.
He added that he is proud of his daughter for being “the first victim to muster the courage to report his crime and to survive the process of seeing justice done. She has done her duty, to herself, and to society, in the wake of this tragedy and we, her family, have supported her in that pursuit.”
A pre-sentencing investigation has been completed and filed with the court, and a sentencing memorandum from prosecutors was declared confidential Monday by Ehlke.