When Michael Keith Cook was sentenced last week for computer solicitation of a child under age 15, he didn’t lose his freedom. But even before he set foot in the courtroom, he’d already lost something precious to him – his career as a school band director.
"They’ll never hire him again in a school because he’s a convicted felon and because he’ll be a registered sex offender," said his attorney, Tom Walsh. "It’s also a loss for the community that he can no longer teach music."
A Centreville resident, Cook, 43 of 14313 Climbing Rose Way, had been the band director at Robinson Secondary School for six years. Before then, he’d taught music at Stone, Carson and Robinson middle schools. But when he was arrested last August, it marked the coda, or end, of that part of his life.
On Feb. 28 in Fairfax County Circuit Court, Cook entered an Alford plea, not admitting guilt, but acknowledging the existence of enough evidence to convict him. He returned last Thursday, July 12, for sentencing by Judge David Schell and received two years in prison, all suspended.
At the outset, Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Bob McClain explained the events leading to Cook’s arrest. He said county police Det. Nickolas Boffi was working online, acting in an undercover capacity as a 14-year-old boy, when Cook contacted "the teen."
"The defendant solicited him and offered to meet and perform oral sex on what he thought was a 14-year-old male," said the prosecutor. Boffi is with the Child Exploitation Unit, and McClain said this type of sting is "a preemptory strike by police to weed out child predators."
The conversations between Cook and the detective occurred between July 19 and 27, 2011. Authorities say Cook, using a particular screen name, sent the "teen" a photo of his face and tried to meet with him. Via his Internet-service provider, police identified the screen name as his, and Cook later admitted it.
He was arrested and charged on Aug. 31, 2011, and the county school system immediately placed him on unpaid leave. Cook had been an FCPS employee since August 1999 and Robinson’s band director since 2006.
In court, McClain said what took the offense "to another level is that [Cook] suggested that he and the [‘teen’] act out the subject of their online conversations." Furthermore, said the prosecutor, "He chose a profession that would place him around minors – the very people who could become his victims."
Although the discretionary sentencing guidelines for Cook’s crime call for probation, said McClain, "The commonwealth is asking for incarceration."
Walsh, however, asked Schell to give Cook probation, plus a sex-offender assessment. He also noted that his client will be placed on the sex-offender registry – "which is punishment, in and of itself."
"This offense took place over nine days and was carried out through IM chats and e-mails," said Walsh. "There were no meetings. The detective attempted three times to set one up, but the defendant declined. It was just sexual conversations."
Even though the detective told Cook he was just 14, said Walsh, "Boffi posted an ad on craigslist on a site for males seeking males, ages 18-27," and that’s the ad to which Cook initially responded. Walsh also stressed that Cook turned himself in to the police. He was released from jail on Sept. 6, 2011, and has been on supervised release since then.
Before moving to Virginia, Cook taught middle- and high-school instrumental music in Maine for eight years. And in 1999, he received the "Maine Distinguished Teaching Award from Bowdoin College. At Robinson, he directed the high-school bands, including the Symphonic Band, Advanced Band Concert 4, the Percussion Ensemble and the Robinson Marching Rams.
Until this incident, many people considered Cook a model citizen. "There were 23 letters of recommendation – character references written [to the judge] on his behalf," said Walsh. "They were written by family members, co-workers, friends, professionals in other careers, parents of children he’s taught and parents whose children later won music scholarships – and they attribute that to Mr. Cook."
He said all these letters described Cook as being honorable, decent, hardworking, trustworthy and dependable. "He chose to be a band teacher – not to surround himself with children – but because he’s good at it," said Walsh. "He dealt with teachers and students and did very well, and this incident didn’t take place in school."
Walsh said a forensic psychologist evaluated Cook and found him at "low risk of engaging in further sexual offenses. It’s not a violent offense, just an unfortunate mistake."
Before sentencing, Cook stood and addressed the court. "I’ve been completely devastated by this," he said. "But more important, so have my family, friends and colleagues and people who’ve supported me – and it is to those people I sincerely apologize."
Judge Schell then sentenced him to two years in prison, suspending all that time. He also placed Cook on two years active probation and ordered him to have no unsupervised contact with children under 18.
In addition, a DNA sample from Cook was to be taken for placement into Virginia’s data base of convicted felons. Schell further ordered him to undergo sex-offender evaluation and treatment and to add his name to the national, sex-offender registry.
Afterward, outside the courtroom, Walsh said Cook – who’s now working in the "service industry" – is "disappointed in his own actions and felt that he let people down. It’s a sad case because I think the music community has lost a very valuable asset. It was a poor mistake on his part and he recognizes it."