TOLEDO, Ohio — One of two brothers who admitted stalking, raping and killing young women during a string of eight murders in the 1980s is close to walking out of prison.
Nathaniel Cook confessed to three murders with his older brother, the ringleader who's serving two life sentences, but he has a good chance of being freed after serving 20 years.
The victims' families and prosecutors agreed to a plea deal nearly two decades ago that called for Nathaniel Cook's eventual release this year in exchange for the brothers' confessions.
The confessions gave the families answers they long sought, but now they're hoping there's some way to block his release.
A Lucas County judge is holding a hearing Thursday to begin deciding whether to uphold the agreement and grant his release, while requiring him to register as a sex offender.
"It's hard to think about it," said Mitch Balonek, whose 21-year-old sister, Stacey, was among the last victims killed by Anthony Cook in 1981. "I can't imagine anyone else, anywhere else getting out after being involved in those types of crimes."
His family didn't know who killed his sister and her boyfriend until Anthony Cook admitted to police that he had abducted the couple, raped Stacey and beat them to death with a baseball bat.
Nathaniel Cook, now 59, wasn't involved in either of those deaths, according to the brothers.
The pair told detectives that Nathaniel Cook's role in the murders began in 1980 when he shot their first victim and then took part in the next two killings. But for unexplained reasons Nathaniel Cook said he never killed again while his brother killed five more people before he was arrested in 1981 and sentenced to life in prison.
Nathaniel Cook later said the two never discussed the other killings and he tried to forget what they had done.
"He had to know that was his brother's work when he heard about those other murders and didn't say anything or do anything," Balonek said. "He doesn't deserve to be out."
The question before the judge is whether there's any other choice. Rejecting his release would likely lead to a court fight because of the signed agreement in 2000.
Cook's attorneys said in court documents filed ahead of Thursday's hearing that the plea deal clearly spells out that the court is bound to order his release after he serves 20 years. They also cited a handful of court cases that have dealt with how plea agreements are carried out, including an Ohio Supreme Court decision that says rules of contract law are generally applied to plea agreements.
County Prosecutor Julia Bates said she can't go back on the deal because "if my word isn't my word then nobody is ever going to trust the prosecutor in the future ever again."
"But I didn't say I would agree to it, support it or recommend it. I said I wouldn't oppose it," she said.
Still, she doesn't regret the decision, especially when she thinks about how the relatives held hands and clapped when the brothers were sentenced.
About a month ago she gathered the families of Nathaniel Cook's victims so they wouldn't be blindsided by the possibility of his release. A therapy dog was in the room.
"It was pretty awful," Bates said. "These people are still in a lot of pain."
Sharon Backes-Wright, the mother of the youngest victim, said there's no reason why her 12-year-old daughter's killer should be released.
"They used Dawn as a plea bargaining chip," she said. "I'm sure Dawn pleaded for her life and now they expect the same considerations."
Investigators long had suspected the Cook brothers were involved in the killings, but lacked evidence. In 1998, they finally tied them to one of the shooting deaths and rapes using blood samples and DNA evidence.
The brothers offered to confess in exchange for a chance of parole for Nathaniel Cook. They told of how they preyed on women walking alone and young couples in parked cars, raping the women before killing them.
It wasn't an easy choice for the families or prosecutors to accept the deal, but those involved said the case against the brothers in the decades-old killing wasn't a sure thing. And the death penalty or even a life sentence without parole weren't on the table because Ohio didn't have those options when the killings occurred.
Anthony Cook's confession to all eight killings in the early 1980s included admitting to the death of a ninth person, a woman he raped and shot in the 1970s. Nathaniel Cook admitted to three killings, but only pleaded guilty to kidnapping and attempted murder and was sentenced to serve another 18 years.
Investigators kept trying to connect the brothers who worked as truck drivers to other unsolved slayings, figuring that if they could convict Nathaniel Cook in another case he'd never be paroled.
Detectives worked with the FBI on a half-dozen solid possibilities, said Frank Stiles, a retired investigator who spent decades pursuing the brothers.
"We always thought within 20 years we could come up with something," Stiles said. "But it didn't happen, and now those 20 years are up."
John Seewer, The Associated Press