Mary Margaret Cook, 1970, Florida
Mary Margaret Cook
Missing since November 14, 1970 from Highland City, Polk County, Florida.
Classification: Endangered Missing
<HR>Circumstances of Disappearance
Cook, a 25-year-old mother of two, was last seen on November 14, 1970. She reportedly went on a shopping trip to retail store in Lakeland but never returned. Her 1959 white Cadillac was found in the store's parking lot the next day. Cooks wallet was found inside the car, but $200 her husband allegedly gave her was missing.
Cook's body has never been found and no one has ever been charged in her disappearance.
Article from 2003
Published Sunday, March 9, 2003
Floor Dug Up in Search for Woman
Sheriff's officials say that husband is a suspect as they keep searching.
By AMY L. EDWARDS
HIGHLAND CITY -- On the night of Nov. 14, 1970, Mary Margaret Cook left her Highland City home to go shopping at the J.M. Fields department store on North Lake Parker Avenue.
The 25-year-old mother of two was never seen again.
The next day, Cook's 1959 white Cadillac was found in the parking lot of the department store, according to a report in the Nov. 17, 1970, edition of The Ledger.
Mary Cook's wallet was recovered, minus about $200 in cash that her husband, Earl Cook was said to have given her, authorities said.
More than 30 years later, Polk sheriff's detectives are digging up the garage floor of the Cooks' one-time home in Highland City searching for Mary Cook's body.
"We believe there's a possibility that Ms. Cook may have been disposed of in her yard," said Col. Grady Judd of the Polk County Sheriff's Office.
And they are publicly calling Earl Cook, a suspect in the long unsolved mystery.
"We never focus on just one person," Judd said,"but he is the primary suspect."
The Cooks once lived at 309 Third Street. The house numbers on the road have since changed, but their house and garage remain.
County maintenance crews and detectives began digging up the concrete slab of the oversized garage Thursday.
Crews continued drilling and digging late Friday and Saturday afternoon.
By early Saturday night, the forensics units and construction crews were gone.
All that visibly remained of the investigation were dirt piles and concrete slabs surrounding the garage that runs adjacent to the small yellow and white house.
Judd would not say whether a body or any evidence was found. The crime scene is still under investigation, he said Saturday night.
It's been 32 years since the Sheriff's Office began investigating Cook's disappearance. The detective originally assigned to the case has died.
Cook's body has never been found, nor has anyone been charged with her disappearance.
However, Judd said Leathern "Earl" Cook, who today would be about 62 years old, remains a prime suspect in the case.
Earl Cook did go through "extensive interviews" early in the investigation, Judd said.
However, "it was not protocol at the time to name him (publicly) as a suspect."
Judd said Earl Cook does not currently live in Polk County and would not give further information about his whereabouts or background.
The Ledger was unable to locate Cook Saturday.
Judd said the residents currently living at the Third Street house are not related to the Cooks and are not a part of the investigation.
They have cooperated fully with investigators, Judd said, adding that any damage to the home would be fully repaired when the digging is finished.
A woman seen walking into the house Saturday night would not comment.
Judd would not say what specific information caused authorities to plunge into the garage floor of the Cooks' former residence so many years after Mary Cook's disappearance.
"We don't ever quit looking," Judd said. "We owe it to Mary, her two children and the rest of her family."
Cook is one of Polk County's oldest missing person cases. But there are others even older.
Five years before Cook disappeared, a young woman who also lived on Third Street in Highland City disappeared and has never been found.
Peggy Wynell Byars-Baisden, who was 23 at the time, was last seen April 2, 1965, at the now-closed Chatterbox Bar on U.S. 98 where the Polk Parkway currently exists.
According to the Polk County Sheriff's Office, she was seen in the parking lot of the bar having car troubles.
A witness told authorities a male was assisting her with the car.
She was never seen again.
Despite the fact Cook and Byars-Baisden were of nearly the same age and lived on the same street in the small, Highland City neighborhood, Judd said he does not think the disappearances are related.
Judd said he hopes anyone with information about Cook's disappearance would contact the Sheriff's Office.
"There may be those who the suspect confessed to," Judd said.
An anonymous tip can left with Polk County Crime Stoppers at 1-800-226-TIPS.
Amy L. Edwards can be reached at email@example.com or 863-802-7550.
Garage Dig for Body to Resume
Investigators will continue to dig up the garage floor of a Highland City home in search of the body of a woman police say may have been buried there more than 30 years ago.
Crews began digging March 6 but stopped Sunday. Polk County Sheriff's Office Col. Grady Judd said Friday authorities are working with the current homeowner and will continue digging soon.
No arrests have been made, and Judd would not say if investigators have found any evidence in the disappearance of Mary Margaret Cook, who has been missing since 1970.
Authorities have named her husband at the time, Leathern "Earl" Cook, who now lives in Greenacres City, a prime suspect in her disappearance.
Cook said in an earlier interview with The Ledger that he had nothing to do with his wife's disappearance.
Published Saturday, March 29, 2003
Dig Fails to Find Woman's Body
Sheriff's Office demolishes garage in hunt for woman.
By AMY L. EDWARDS
HIGHLAND CITY -- Polk Sheriff's Office investigators made a final attempt Friday to find the body of a missing woman they said may have been buried under the garage of the Highland City house she lived in more than 30 years ago. It's been almost a month since the search began, and investigators said Friday they haven't found the body of Mary Margaret Cook.
"We closed another chapter in a 32-year-old missing-person case," Sheriff's Office Col. Grady Judd said. "We are disappointed we didn't find Ms. Cook."
The Sheriff's Office tore up the concrete slab beneath the Third Street house's garage and began digging on March 6.
Crews dug for several days and then the search halted. On Thursday, the Sheriff's Office paid a contractor to demolish the entire garage. Detectives began digging again Friday. But by the afternoon, officials said they wouldn't dig at the site anymore. We are satisfied we can close the chapter," Judd said.
The Sheriff's Office said the current residents of the Third Street home are not part of the investigation and are not related to the Cooks.
Judd said they have been "wonderful to us in the investigation." The Sheriff's Office is footing the $4,000 bill to replace the garage, Judd said. Cook, 25-year-old mother of two, was last seen Nov. 14, 1970, when she left her Highland City home to go shopping at J.M. Fields department store on North Lake Parker Avenue in Lakeland, according to police and newspaper accounts.
Cook's 1959 white Cadillac was found in the store's parking lot the next day.
Her wallet was found inside the car, but $200 her husband reportedly gave her was missing. Cook's body has never been found, and no one has been charged with her disappearance.
The detective originally assigned to the case has died. Recently, the Sheriff's Office publicly called her husband, Leathern "Earl" Cook, a prime suspect in her disappearance. Earl Cook, who remarried and moved to Greenacres in South Florida, told The Ledger he is innocent. "I never killed my wife," Cook said. Cook said earlier he had nothing to hide and that investigators wouldn't find anything under the garage. "I ain't worried about it," he said earlier. "Nothing there but garbage."
Judd said Friday detectives will continue to investigate the Cook case.
"We suspect she was murdered and buried," Judd said. "We will continue to investigate." Judd said Earl Cook remains a suspect.
"Certainly we do not want to focus on one suspect," Judd said, "but he had the opportunity and motive." Judd said he was "not at liberty" to say what Earl Cook's motive may have been to kill his wife. Earl Cook did go through extensive interviews early in the investigation, Judd said. But it wasn't protocol at the time to name him publicly as a suspect.
Investigators wouldn't say what led them to tear up the garage floor and dig more than 30 years after Mary Cook disappeared. Judd said investigators would follow up with other information about the case in hopes of finding Cook's body.
"Unfortunately, most of these cases don't get easier with time," he said.
Investigators remain hopeful, however. "Relationships change," Judd said. "Sometimes difficult investigations become easier when relationships change over time."
Judd said the Sheriff's Office is also hopeful that residents who once lived near the Cooks or knew the family might come forward with information.
"There are still folks in the area that we believe know something," Judd said. "I hope somebody's conscience bothers them." To report an anonymous tip to the Sheriff's Office, call Polk County Crime Stoppers at 800-226-TIPS.
Amy L. Edwards can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 863-802-7550.
OM, can we get that better description ?? If you haven't already, you should post it on WS too, those ladies from Doe and all the others watch WS, and may make corrections to her page.
I emailed Meghean a week or so ago. She responded saying she'll add additional information asap. She had just gotten back and was mega behind.
I checked yesterday, no updates yet. I was very verbose on WS....in the Peggy Wynell Byars Baisden thread, I didn't know how to start a thread or even if I was allowed to do it. I am bringing some of that information here. I should have more discriptive information about Margaret after this week end. no1
Palm Beach Post-2003 Interview with Tony Margarets youngest son
GREENACRES MAN A SUSPECT IN WIFE'S 1970 DISAPPEARANCE
BYLINE: SCOTT McCABE, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
DATE: April 26, 2003
PUBLICATION: Palm Beach Post, The (FL)
SECTION: A SECTION
MEMO: Ran all editions.
Tony Cook barely remembers his mother, but he has vowed to find her killer.
Police say he should start with his father.Polk County sheriff's detectives reopened the 32-year-old mystery of Mary Margaret Cook last month by digging up the garage floor of the family's former home in Highland City. They also announced that Leathern "Earl" Cook, Tony's father, now a Greenacres resident, was their main suspect.
"I would hate it if it's my father and lose both parents, but I would like to see it resolved," Tony Cook said when investigators began snooping around. "I hope he didn't. I love him, but there's always that doubt."
Tony's 35 now and lives in South Palm Beach with a family of his own. He was 3 years old and the younger of Mary Margaret's two boys when she vanished in November 1970. He remembers only flashes of his mother, his bottle and his crib. It's mostly an emotional recall.
But in the month since detectives began ripping up the garage, Tony began his own investigating - questioning his father's family and visiting with detectives. Tony has even undergone hypnosis to delve for clues and lost memories.
Earl Cook has always told Tony that his mother abandoned the family. Tony's not so sure. The more he learns, the more suspicious he has grown.
Now, Earl Cook refuses to talk to him, Tony says.
Cook, 62 and a Greenacres resident for nearly 30 years, maintains his innocence and told detectives that they wouldn't find anything under the garage in the Central Florida town.
"I never killed my wife," he told The Lakeland Ledger last month, "and I want them to prove that I did."
He wouldn't comment for this story.
Learning through clippings
As a boy about 7 years old, Tony Cook got in trouble for learning the details of his mother's disappearance.
It was in the mid-1970s. He was visiting his grandmother's tiny house in Mulberry, where a living room wall displayed a framed portrait of Tony and his brother, Travis, with their mother.
Tony knew not to bring up the subject of his missing mother. His father didn't even have photos of her. But that day, when no one was looking, he crept into his grandmother's bedroom. He discovered a shoebox filled with old pictures and worn newspaper clippings about his mother: "Highland City woman missing," "Police suspect foul play in woman's disappearance," read the 5-year-old headlines.
Tony quickly shoveled the keepsakes into his little blue suitcase so that he could read them when it was safe. When he returned home to his father's house in Greenacres, he sat on his bed and stared at the clippings. He was too young to fully absorb the painful words in front of him.
The thrust of what he saw: On Nov. 14, 1970, Mary Margaret Cook disappeared. Her 1959 white Cadillac was found, along with her empty wallet, the next day at a Lakeland department store parking lot. Earl Cook told detectives his wife, who was 25, had about $200 with her to buy Christmas presents for her two boys, Travis, 5, and Tony, 3. They never found her.
'I had a lot of questions'
Tony's stepmother found him on his bed that day, looking at the articles. She made Tony apologize to his grandmother for taking them from her house.
"When I got caught, I had a lot of questions and a lot of tears," he said. "What happened to her? What was she like? Where did she go to school? Did she love me and Travis? Who was she?"
The Mary Margaret Cook case outlived the life of the detective who tried to solve it. Dan Weatherford, a huge, gruff man, had investigated Polk County's biggest crimes, even discovering the controversial gun that sent convicted killer Willie Darden to the electric chair in a case that drew national attention.
Mary Cook's disappearance was the only major crime Weatherford couldn't solve. After his retirement in 1977, he would call his department at least three times a year to remind them. "You figure out how to solve that case, yet?" his deep voice boomed over the phone, recalled sheriff's Col. Grady Judd. Weatherford told him,"I don't want you to quit. You can't ever quit, not until you solve it or until the suspect dies."
Weatherford didn't live to see it solved. He died in a tractor accident in 1992.
Judd, who looks more FBI than small-town deputy, is running the investigation now. He wouldn't say why he ordered the garage searched, but he believes more information is out there. Over time, he said, relationships change and someone may come forward with details they have held inside for years. After all, there's no statute of limitation for murder.
"We're hoping that someone comes forward - before they go to their grave - to clear up their conscience and clear up the murder of a 25-year-old mother of two boys," he said.
But after nearly a month of digging and demolishing the garage, sheriff's detectives turned up nothing.
Earl Cook remains the main suspect, although he should be comforted to know that detectives don't focus solely on one person, Judd said. He had opportunity, he was the last to see her alive, and he was physically capable, Judd said. He wouldn't talk about why he would want to see his young wife dead.
Earl and Mary Margaret Cook were married about eight years when she vanished. He often drove to West Palm Beach for painting jobs during the week, then would return to Highland City on weekends. He remarried two years after his wife's disappearance and divorced three years ago. He married a third time and lives in a modest, well-kept yellow house.
Mary Margaret's 77-year-old mother still has two of the three Christmas gifts that Mary Margaret intended to buy her boys the night she disappeared. Gladys Barefoot bought the toys for her grandchildren that Christmas in 1970 because that's what Mary Margaret would have wanted, she said. One present is a red Radio Flyer wagon; the other is a heavy plastic elephant with velvet ears.
"It's kind of hard knowing that your mother is missing because she was out buying something for you," Tony said. "That's a killer."
He's worried that his older brother, Travis, saw something and has been holding it inside all his life. Travis, who lives in Lakeland working for the same tank-lining company Earl once worked for, is painfully shy, Tony said.
Tony, who's married with a child and attending Florida Atlantic University to become a teacher, has had the same dream over the years - that police find his mother's body. She's buried toward the back of the house, behind the garage.
Gladys Barefoot has the same dreams.
They wake her up and she can't get back to sleep. That's when it gets bad, she said.
When Mary Cook first disappeared, the Barefoots took care of little Travis and Tony. On weekends, Earl returned from Palm Beach County to stay with them.
But it became unbearable for Gladys after detectives told her they suspected Earl.
"Police had me watching him, making sure he didn't say or do anything suspicious," she said. "My nerves couldn't take it no more, thinking he did it. It was like sitting here with my daughter's killer and not knowing."
Gladys finally sat Earl down and asked him, "Did you kill Mary?"
Earl didn't answer. He grabbed Travis and Tony and walked out. He's never answered her question, she says.
"I've prayed for 32 years to know what happened to her," she said. "I just want some closure. Maybe those prayers will be answered.
"I'm a Christian. If Earl had anything to do with it, I'd like to know that he's paying for it before I leave this Earth. If he didn't do it, then I'm praying for him, 'cause I know he's hurting, too."
Staff researchers Dorothy Shea and Sammy Alzofon contributed to this story.
Shortly after this disappearance Mr. Cook converted the back porch of the house in Highland City into a bedroom. He never returned to live there. He left the wooden floor slanted and left the hose bib inside the room. (This is a frame house with a crawl space beneath.) He kept the house for many years afterward and for sometime rented it to people with whom he would leave the children. Eventually in the 80's he sold the house to a couple he had been renting it to.
Mr. Cook was not living at this residence with his wife at the time of the disappearance but was living and working in Palm Beach County, he had just returned for the weekend which he did periodically.
Mary's parents and siblings had gone on a camping trip that weekend.
Family claims that a brother-in-law had been staying at the house.
Mary's wedding rings were in the house.
Family claims that Mary NEVER left the children alone with Mr. Cook.
All pertinent info was provided by Mr. Cook. No eye witnesses could place Mary or the car at the scene during business hours.
Mr. Cook cleaned out all of Mary's belongings and threw them away shortly after the disappearance. The car, purse, and contents were returned to him shortly after the disappearance.
Mr. Cook refused to let Margaret's parents care for the children, instead leaving them with complete strangers and at times known pedophiles.
Mary is/was one-half American Indian.
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