For years, Baltimore County police were convinced that 24-year-old Heidi Bernadzikowski was killed in 2000 by her boyfriend.
Stephen M. Cooke Jr. had taken out a lucrative life-insurance policy on Bernadzikowski just a month before her death. The family sued four years later, alleging he was the killer and shouldn't profit from the death, and called a county homicide detective to testify that Cooke was the sole suspect. They were able to reclaim about $575,000 of the insurance policy through a settlement.
This week, police finally charged someone in Bernadzikowski's death — and it wasn't Cooke.
According to authorities in Colorado, a murder warrant was served Thursday on a man named Alexander Charles Bennett, 32, who was linked to the killing through DNA. After months of looking into Bennett's past, county police aren't sure what connection he had to Bernadzikowski, if any, but say they were able to place him in the Baltimore area about a month before her death.
Police say they aren't finished investigating. Elise Armacost, a spokeswoman for Baltimore County police, said detectives are trying to learn more about Bennett and "whether he acted alone."
"The case is not concluded as a result of this one arrest," Armacost said. She would not say whether Cooke remains a suspect.
Reached for comment, Cooke, who is now 40, said he has always maintained his innocence and was relieved at the news, but fears police aren't finished pursuing him.
"They pulled a real number on me — harassing me and harassing my family members," he said. "I was absolutely so certain that they weren't even looking for anyone else.
Bernadzikowski's parents, who now live in Delaware, said they were "elated" about the arrest and were waiting for a briefing from the detective in the case next week.
"It's been a long time, but I trust in God. He's always faithful, and we knew we'd get our answers sometime," said the victim's mother, Donna Bernadzikowski. "We are continuing to pray for a complete resolution."
The 24-year-old woman, a graduate of St. Mary's High School in Annapolis and an administrative assistant for a health-insurance benefits company, was found on April 20, 2000, strangled and with her throat slit in the Dundalk townhouse she shared with Cooke. An officer responding to the scene found Bernadzikowski propped against the wall on the living room floor and Cooke, his clothes covered in blood, rocking her.
A month earlier, Cooke and Bernadzikowski had visited a State Farm agent, taking out a $700,000 policy for Bernadzikowski, naming Cooke as the primary beneficiary, and a $900,000 policy for him, naming her as the beneficiary.
With the case unsolved, Bernadzikowski's family in 2004 sued Cooke, seeking to bar him from receiving any of the insurance money under what is termed the "slayer's rule," which says that anyone who intentionally causes the death of an insured person is barred from collecting the policy's benefits.
Cooke said Friday that he had intended to take out a policy only on himself until Bernadzikowski, his girlfriend of about 20 months, said she wanted one, too. They ended up going together and listing each other as beneficiaries.
A week into the civil trial, Cooke accepted the family's offer to give them approximately $575,000 from the life insurance payment, saying he wanted to move on.
These days, he lives in Pasadena and says he has a high-level government clearance. He said he hasn't picked up so much as a traffic ticket, but worries that police still want to pin the crime on him. While he hasn't heard from detectives in 10 years, he said they continue to contact people with ties to him, trying to get information.
"They've talked to people I just can't imagine they would ever call — one time they called my ex-wife's ex-husband's mother-in-law, just trying to stir things up," Cooke said.
Walter Bernadzikowski, the victim's father, maintains that the insurance policy was suspicious and Cooke shouldn't have been entitled to money as a result of her death.
"It was a huge insurance policy," he said. "If we had ever known that he had talked her into getting such an insurance policy, we'd have told her to run for her life."
Little information about Bennett was available Friday. He has no criminal record in Maryland, though The Denver Post reported he has a history there including arrests for burglary and motor vehicle theft.
Police received the positive DNA hit in September and have been working to learn more about him. Armacost said detectives were able to place Bennett in Maryland on March 30, 2000, after finding a notation that he was stopped by Maryland Transportation Authority police while walking through the Harbor Tunnel.
Bennett was being held at the Jefferson County, Col. jail, awaiting extradition to Baltimore County.