For 14 years, police suspected Stephen Cooke in the death of his girlfriend, a theory stoked by the lucrative life insurance payout he received after her death. It wasn't until hours before another man's trial that police say they finally got what they needed to charge him.
Baltimore County police said Friday they had charged Cooke, 43, with ordering a hit on 24-year-old Heidi Bernadzikowski at their Dundalk townhouse. The man accused of killing her told investigators that Cooke paid him and another man to carry out the crime.
Alexander Charles Bennett was to be tried on murder charges this week. He was charged two years ago after police said they linked him to the killing through DNA evidence. His trial was postponed when he agreed to implicate Cooke in the case, according to charging documents.
By Friday, Cooke was in court on murder charges. Assistant State's Attorney Jennifer Schiffer called him "a contract killer" as she argued successfully that he remain held without bail.
"We have been seeking justice in this case for a long time," Baltimore County police Chief James W. Johnson said.
Police say Cooke arranged the killing, paying two other men to carry out the crime so he could collect a $700,000 insurance policy he bought for Bernadzikowski months before her death.
Cooke's lawyer said Friday in court that his client didn't know the insurance policy was finalized and that he stood to benefit when Bernadzikowski died.
Her family eventually sued him over the payout, accusing him of complicity in her death, and he agreed in a settlement to pay them a large portion of the proceeds.
Police suspected early on that Cooke conspired to kill Bernadzikowski. She was found strangled and with her throat slit on April 20, 2000, at the Codd Avenue townhouse she shared with Cooke.
Police charged Bennett, 34, of Colorado, in January 2012 after they said they had linked him to the crime through DNA.
Bennett's public defender did not respond to a request for comment.
According to charging documents, Cooke paid Bennett and Grant A. Lewis, also of Colorado, to kill Bernadzikowski. Cooke had emailed Lewis, the document said, asking to have his girlfriend killed in exchange for money. Bennett allegedly agreed to fly to Baltimore to meet Cooke.
Lewis also was arrested this week and charged with murder conspiracy. He remains held without bail and did not have an attorney listed in online court records.
Police spokeswoman Elise Armacost declined to say how Cooke met the two men. She said there are no other suspects in the case.
Cooke had visited a State Farm agent months before Bernadzikowski's death, taking out a $700,000 policy for her and naming himself as the primary beneficiary. He also took out a $900,000 policy for himself, naming her as the beneficiary.
Bennett told police that Cooke had agreed to give a portion of the payout to him and Lewis after Bernadzikowski's death, according to the charging documents.
Once in Baltimore, Bennett spoke almost daily with Lewis, who remained in Colorado but would coordinate meetings with Cooke — "the client," charging documents said.
Bernadzikowski began to feel concerned for her safety after a stranger, posing as a "Block Watch Organizer" attempted to enter her home, the documents said. Cooke also allegedly told her about marks on the basement door that appeared to be from someone trying to break in. The couple changed their locks the day before her death.
On the day of the killing, charging documents said, Lewis told Bennett that Cooke had left a key in the back basement stairwell of the house.
Bennett told police that Cooke dropped Bernadzikowski off at the home. Bennett was waiting by the door, the documents said, and he attacked her as soon as she entered. He choked her, then "cut her throat to make sure she was dead," police said.
Police later found Bernadzikowski propped against the wall on the living room floor, as Cooke sat rocking her, his clothes covered in blood.
Cooke appeared at his bail review hearing Friday via a district courtroom video monitor, sitting at a bare table with his hands in his lap. He wore a light-yellow jumpsuit. Four of his family members sat directly in front of the monitor, including one woman who dabbed at her tears.
Cooke's attorney, Craig M. Gendler, had argued for his release, saying his client has ties to the community, and is not a flight risk. He noted that while he's in the midst of bankruptcy proceedings, Cooke is employed and has a child at home.
Gendler added that Cooke's family has evidence that the insurance policy "was not properly in place" at the time of Bernadzikowski's death.
Gendler and the family members declined to comment further after the hearing. A woman who answered the phone at Cooke's Pasadena address declined to comment.
Judge Philip N. Tirabassi, denied Cooke's request but said he would reconsider the issue of bail if his defense produces something that "changes the complexion" of the case.
Cooke had maintained his innocence, and said after Bennett's arrest that he was still being pursued by police. He told The Baltimore Sun in 2012 that investigators "pulled a real number on me — harassing me and harassing my family members."
"I was absolutely so certain that they weren't even looking for anyone else," he said at the time.
During the bail review hearing, Tirabassi noted the tenacity of homicide detective Gary Childs, saying "he's like a tiger" pursuing "a piece of meat."
In 2004, Bernadzikowski's family sued Cooke, trying to keep him from receiving any of the insurance money under what is termed the "slayer's rule," which bars anyone who intentionally causes the death of an insured person from collecting the policy's benefits.
Cooke eventually agreed to give them about $575,000 from the life insurance payment.
Bernadzikowski's parents, who live in Delaware, did not respond to a request for comment.