Where is Rachel Cooke?
Rachel Cooke, 19, was visiting her parents in Georgetown, Texas, during winter break from college. No one would know that would be her last trip home. On January 10, 2002, at approximately 9:30 a.m., Rachel went out for her four-mile daily run and was last seen only 200 yards away from her family’s home. Somewhere within that short distance, the beautiful and vivacious young student with a smile that could light up the vast plains of Texas vanished.
Northlake is a quiet place, about 45 minutes from Austin, where streets are named after Native American tribes and the only people there are residents and visitors. The houses are all set back with expansive drives on several acres of property, and the serenity is never disturbed by strangers.
The house located at 224 Navajo Trail was the Cooke family’s dream home, and they loved its tranquility and spaciousness. Robert and Janet Cooke raised Rachel and her little sister JoAnn there while Janet taught English at a nearby high school. Robert was a long-time software engineer for IBM and commuted daily to Austin.
Robert came from a large and very close-knit family in Texas, so his family regularly gathered at the 3-acre property for holidays, where they had big barbeques and reminisced. Times were good.
But this idyllic life came to an end on Thursday, January 10, a day that started out like any other. Robert and Janet left early for work, and their youngest daughter, JoAnn, went to her classes at a local high school. Enjoying her winter break as a freshman at Mesa Junior College San Diego, Rachel decided to stay home.
When the family left that morning, Rachel was asleep on the living room sofa, enjoying her last several days of vacation. While in Texas, Rachel had plans to attend her cousin’s wedding on January 12, then head back to California to meet up with her boyfriend, Greg. That Thursday, Robert did not hear from Rachel, who always found a reason to call him, which he found strange in retrospect.
Robert arrived home at approximately 5:00 p.m. and Rachel was still not there, having had no contact with anyone in the family the entire day. He really wasn’t concerned at first, thinking maybe Rachel was with her friend Shannon, who she had plans with that evening. Robert and Janet thought maybe her friend had come by and picked her up early. But after some time went by, Robert decided to get in touch with Shannon. He called Wildfire, a local restaurant where Rachel sometimes worked while visiting. To the worried father’s relief, they told him that, indeed, Rachel had worked a shift that evening. However, when morning came and there was still no sign of Rachel, Robert called the restaurant again, only to find out it was another Rachel that had worked the previous night’s shift. A sinking feeling overcame him.
Upon hearing the news, Janet immediately drove to the local hospital to find out if Rachel or any unidentified females had been checked in. Meanwhile, Robert drove the four-mile route Rachel normally took during her runs. “I drove the jogging route because we had figured out that the only things that were missing were her running clothes and yellow Walkman,” Robert said.
Sheriff and Volunteer Response
At 2:00 p.m. on Friday, Robert and Janet went to the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office to make a missing person report. They sat and described what the accomplished cross-country runner was wearing when she vanished along the quiet roads within the subdivision.
Police determined that Rachel spoke to her boyfriend Greg at 9:15 a.m., then left for her run mid-morning. A neighbor recalls backing down his drive and seeing Rachel running by at approximately 11:00 a.m. An elderly couple that was walking in the neighborhood saw her, along with another gentleman who was working on a property down the street from Rachel’s home.
The sheriff’s search began the following day with help from hundreds of volunteers, but it only lasted until Monday. Robert and Janet then brought in Texas Equusearch, a volunteer search and rescue organization that provides assistance to families of missing persons throughout the country.
After the initial search efforts concluded, Robert continued to run searches on weekends. “We carried on for nine months, but at some point, we thought we’ve done our best,” Robert told the Guardian. “If they took her 12 miles, there is no reason why they wouldn’t take her 15 miles. We could search the entire state of Texas and still not find her.”
Jump forward to May 10, 2019: On Rachel’s 37th birthday billboards were erected throughout Texas offering a $100,000 reward for any information about the whereabouts of Rachel.
The Roller Coaster
Robert and Janet have had to travel a lonely road with many hills and valleys—one that never seems to end. Robert, a soft-spoken man who was more an introvert, had to learn very fast how to be extroverted, always speaking with controlled emotion while telling his story repeatedly to media to raise awareness of his daughter’s disappearance.
Since the searching stopped, Robert dedicated his life to telling his daughter’s story. In 2004, he began working on a first-ever initiative with the National Center for Missing Adults providing 2-day training seminars to law enforcement throughout the country. The search for his daughter became bigger than he, wanting to help others avoid the same frustrations he faced in the aftermath of his precious daughter’s disappearance.
Robert and Janet never stopped. The Cookes, along with their daughter JoAnn appeared on the John Walsh Show and talked to media any opportunity they had. The day Rachel vanished, became an anniversary of candlelit services, balloon releases, and even letting white doves fly into the sky.
“She was supposed to hang out with her father in the afternoon. He was going to take off work early and they were going to go shopping,” said Sgt. Brinkmann. “She had a wedding she was getting ready for.” Rachel’s disappearance easily became the most famous missing person's case in Central Texas.
Advice to Other Parents
“I know someone took Rachel,” Robert says. “I don’t know exactly where they took her, but I know she is probably not alive. I know that. We faced that a long time ago.”
The Cookes advise relatives to act fast, not waiting for 24-hours to make a police report. “When an adult goes missing it can be hard to get the attention of the police,” Robert said. “We thought there was a 24-hour waiting period before a missing person report could be filed. It turns out that is a myth.”
Real-life is far from what we watch on glitzy television shows, but Robert hired an ex-FBI profiler who told him to voluntarily take a polygraph test. Robert remembers that advice and urges family members to try to rule themselves out as suspects as early as possible. “While polygraphs are not admissible in court, if you volunteer the test, it can help move their attention on,” said Robert. “It’s an awful thing, but the families are always considered suspects in a missing person case.”
Dealing With the Loss
It’s a desperate way of living when a loved one goes missing, unable to go backward, unable to move forward, stuck in the ambiguity of it all.
Robert and Janet got divorced which is common for parents of missing children. Janet was twice admitted into a psychiatric hospital where she was treated for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Robert dealt with his pain in different ways: dedicating his life to finding Rachel, even at the expense of his health. JoAnn finished high school and became a student at the University of Texas. They all eventually both moved out of their home in the Northlake subdivision where their dreams resided.
Missing person expert, Thomas Lauth, CEO of Lauth Investigations International has been a private investigator for over 25 years. “Sadly, divorce is common when such a horrific trauma occurs in someone’s life,” said Lauth. “Even siblings are overlooked and suffer when the focus of a parent is on their missing child.”
Lauth has worked with missing person’s families and conducted hundreds of private investigations over the years. “They have had to keep hope to even function while Rachel Cooke has been missing,” Lauth says. “That is an almost impossible feat when faced with ambiguous loss that is one of the most traumatic of human experiences.”
Would a Body Provide Relief?
Since Rachel vanished, eight bodies have been found in or around the Cooke’s home in Williamson County. Each time they have had to wait for DNA results. “You don’t want to get your hopes up. You must be ready for that phone call,” Robert said. “Anytime they find human remains . . . it's really bad.” One unidentified body was found only nine miles from their home. The Cooke’s agree that was the worst one to wait for.
Would a body provide relief? “There’s no answer. Part of me wants to find her no matter what,” Robert said. “Another part hopes she is alive.
Parents of missing children of any age suffer the “not knowing” if their loved one is alive and preparing for the worst. The search consumes their energy while they attempt to survive on a reserve. While the pain of ambiguity can steal your health, one pledge always stays the same.
Sadly, I must report that Robert Cooke passed away at the age of 59, on November 5, 2014, in Austin. While he may never know what happened to his daughter Rachel, he made a promise he would never stop looking for her, and he kept that promise.