Former UW-Madison student Alec Cook pleaded guilty Wednesday to five felonies, including three counts of third-degree sexual assault, nearly bringing to a close a sprawling case that had been set for seven trials involving 11 alleged victims that were to have happened over the next several months.
Cook, who has spoken little in court during his numerous appearances since October 2016, when he was first charged, mostly answered yes and no to questions put to him by Circuit Judge Stephen Ehlke, and said “guilty” when asked for his pleas to the five charges of which he is now convicted.
In addition to the sexual assault charges, Cook also pleaded guilty to strangulation and stalking charges. All five convictions involve different women.
Ehlke ordered a pre-sentence investigation by the state Department of Corrections, and a sentencing hearing will take place within two to three months. At that point, it’s possible that Ehlke would hear statements from the women. There is no agreement between Cook’s lawyers and prosecutors about a sentencing recommendation or limits.
Cook, 21, of Edina, Minnesota, faces up to 10 years of combined prison and extended supervision for the third-degree sexual assault convictions, up to six years for the strangulation conviction and up to 3½ years for the stalking conviction. He remains free on $100,000 bond until his sentencing hearing.
Cook was charged in 2016 and 2017 with 23 criminal counts that included 12 counts of varying degrees of sexual assault involving six women, along with several other charges that included stalking, disorderly conduct and false imprisonment. Prosecutors had alleged that 11 women were the victims of sexual assault or harassment by Cook, with most of the incidents on or near the UW-Madison campus, in 2015 and 2016.
The remaining charges against him were dismissed, but Ehlke can consider them when he sentences Cook.
Cook was expelled from UW-Madison in June after having been suspended from school since his arrest.
In court filings, prosecutors have characterized Cook as a pick-up artist who used similar methods to entrap and have sex with as many women as possible, seeming “to enjoy their fear, discomfort and lack of consent.” Cook’s lawyers asserted that Cook had no such plan and had asked that trials involving each of his accusers be held separately.
Cook was initially charged with second- and third-degree sexual assault in October 2016, after a woman reported to police that kissing and touching between her and Cook that was initially consensual quickly turned into forced sex. From there, the number of charges against Cook grew as police heard from other women who said that Cook had stalked them, touched them inappropriately or sexually assaulted them.
Cook’s lawyers, Chris Van Wagner and Jessa Nicholson Goetz, pushed back against what they said was an unfair media frenzy against Cook, fueled, they said, by UW-Madison, police and prosecutors. Eventually, they asked to have Cook’s case tried outside Dane County, asserting that he could not get a fair trial in Madison because the publicity that the case received had been so pervasive.
The two judges hearing Cook’s cases, Stephen Ehlke and John Hyland, agreed, and the case — broken up into seven separate trials — was set for trial in Jefferson County before juries to be selected from residents there. Cook’s first trial was to have begun on Monday, and would have involved the sexual assault charges that were filed in October 2016. Other trials were scheduled for March and April. All have now been canceled.
Last month, as the first trial approached, Ehlke and Hyland also ruled that prosecutors could not use notebooks, purported to show what Cook planned for various women, that were seized from Cook’s apartment because police had exceeded the limits of what Cook’s consent to search had allowed. Last week, Ehlke denied a request for sanctions against prosecutors for what Van Wagner and Nicholson Goetz asserted were failures to turn over reports of contacts between police and alleged victims.
Specifically, Cook pleaded guilty to:
- Third-degree sexual assault for an Oct. 12, 2016, incident at Cook’s North Henry Street apartment.
- Third-degree sexual assault for a Feb. 13, 2016, assault of a woman who told police that she met Cook during a human sexuality class at UW-Madison and then began dating him. She told police that she had told Cook that she did not want to have sex with him, but he forced himself upon her while she was visiting his apartment.
- Third-degree sexual assault, which under the plea agreement was reduced from second-degree sexual assault, for a March 20, 2015, incident in which another woman told police that Cook had painfully groped her at his apartment.
- Strangulation and suffocation, for an Aug. 28, 2016, incident in which a woman told police that Cook put his hand on her throat after they had gone to his apartment.
- Stalking, for a series of incidents between Sept. 15, 2015, and Feb. 3, 2016, in which another woman told police that Cook had repeatedly followed her to the College Library on the UW-Madison campus and stared at her while she studied. The woman said that his actions stressed her so much that she considered transferring to another school.