A vehicle impounded by the Williamson County Sheriff is tied to three or four persons of interest in the case of Rachel Cooke, the 19-year-old who went missing in 2002.
Cooke went for her usual four-mile run one morning while visiting her parents’ house in Georgetown. She was never seen again. Witnesses at the time said they saw a white passenger sports car in the area.
Sheriff Robert Chody said a Pontiac Trans Am matching that description was found in Dallas. He said the vehicle is believed to be linked to three or four people of interest. It will be carefully searched by FBI agents looking for DNA evidence.
“I’m not a DNA expert, but if there’s evidence in this vehicle, we feel confident it could still be good,” Chody said, adding the car was found after someone provided a tip to law enforcement after a past media event.
Williamson County District Attorney Shawn Dick said while the county is working several leads, the car, being the only tangible piece of evidence in the investigation, is creating a renewed hope in the case. However, he says there are still concerns.
“Obviously, evidence degrades over time,” Dick said. “There’s concerns you have about what contamination could be included, and, so, that’s why we leave it to the experts to kind of go through and process and figure out where the science takes us.”
Forensic expert and former director of Forensic Science at the Austin Police Department Mark Gillespie agrees that, while possible, finding usable DNA in the car could be somewhat challenging.
“Time doesn’t become a factor, unless you’re talking about the environment,” Gillespie said, explaining that after 16 years of sitting in Texas weather, heat and cold could degrade DNA inside of the car.
However, Gillespie says other pieces of evidence, such as fibers, soil particles and even plant matter, could be helpful in gaining answers in the case as well. He also said a thorough search could even find fingerprints still in place from more than half of a decade ago.
“It may reveal fingerprints that have been there for many, many years,” Gillespie said. “I mean, it’s not impossible, but then again, you have to consider what has taken place inside that vehicle and who’s been in it.”
While there have been numerous tips over the years, none have helped the sheriff’s office or her family find her. That doesn’t mean they’ve stopped looking or stopped remembering.
Last summer, deputies began excavating land near Liberty Hill in connection with the case. After several hours of digging, deputies left empty-handed.
Rachel Cooke’s mother: “It’s hard not to get your hopes up”
KXAN sat down with Rachel’s mother, Janet Cooke, on Thursday.
“She was totally full of life. There weren’t enough hours in the day for her to get done everything she wanted to do,” Cooke said of her daughter.
And in the years, days and hours since her disappearance, Cooke has had to live her life, but said, “Rachel’s there. Every minute of every day.”
And Cooke says she’s never lost hope that one day, she’ll know what happened to her daughter.
“When we first started doing the searches, even before the sheriff’s department got there, people would come up and start crying and said, ‘Janet I’m so sorry we didn’t find her.’ And they’d be in tears. And I say, ‘Well, at least we know where she isn’t.’ And I guess I’ve held on to that attitude. Since Day 1,” Cooke said.
Cooke commended Sheriff Chody’s work on the case, after what she called “a really rocky start” under former leadership, and expressed her gratitude for the cold case unit he started last summer.
“He cares. He honestly cares what happens,” she told KXAN. “They are working their tails off, going from square one, going through every single bit of information or lack of information.”
With details about a vehicle potentially linked to the case expected to be released Friday, Cooke admits, “It’s hard not to get your hopes up.”
But she said there’s a line. That she has to see any new tips for what they are. Another investigation. Another possibility. Another step.
“I can’t get too wound up in it. I have to keep it at arm’s distance. Otherwise, it’d eat me up,” Cooke said.
She says the answers will come out, that she has to believe that. And she’s waited long enough.
“It’s like I said early on. It ain’t over till the fat lady sings. Well, I’m now the fat lady. And I’ll be signing when it’s over,” Cooke said. “Sooner or later we’re going to get the right one, BINGO. And sooner or later somebody’s gonna come forward and put this to an end. It’s time. It’s time to end. I’m not quitting. I’m not giving up.”
There is a $100,000 reward still on the table for information in Cooke’s case.
The FBI and Williamson County Sheriff’s Office asks individuals with any information regarding Rachel Louise Cooke to call 1-800-CALL-FBI (1-800-225-5324) or submit a tip online at tips.fbi.gov or contact your local FBI office or the nearest American Embassy or Consulate.
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