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Balt. Co. jury convicts man in 2000 murder of girlfriend

The mother of Heidi Bernadzikowski reacts to the conviction of Stephen Michaell Cooke, Jr. for the murder of her daughter 15 years ago. (Alison Knezevich/Baltimore Sun)

A Baltimore County jury convicted a man Thursday of plotting his girlfriend's murder 15 years ago, bringing a measure of closure for her family members, who said they always believed they would see him brought to justice.

Jurors found 44-year-old Stephen Michael Cooke Jr. guilty of first-degree murder, solicitation of murder and conspiracy to commit murder in the 2000 death of then-24-year-old Heidi Bernadzikowski.

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Prosecutors said Cooke hired two men from Colorado to kill her for insurance money.

"Sometimes it was tough to believe that this day would ever come, but we never gave up hope," said Tim Bernadzikowski, Heidi's oldest brother, as he spoke to reporters outside the courthouse in Towson.

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The verdict brought an end to years of waiting for Bernadzikowski's family and for county detectives, who suspected Cooke from the beginning.

The case was cold until a few years ago, when DNA evidence linked a Colorado man to the home Cooke and Bernadzikowski shared in Dundalk. The man eventually told police he was a hit man hired by Cooke.

Cooke, dressed in a dark suit and blue striped tie, showed little emotion as the jury foreman read the verdict. But Cooke's sister, seated on a bench behind him with other family members, cried out and broke into sobs.

Bernadzikowski's family filled a front row of benches on the other side of the room. After the verdict was announced, her four brothers stood with their arms around each others' backs. Once court was adjourned, the family embraced prosecutors.

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"It's immensely rewarding to be able to provide that relief to a family," said Assistant State's Attorney Garret Glennon.

Cooke is scheduled to be sentenced in August. He could receive life in prison without the possibility of parole.

His attorneys, Tara LeCompte and Breon Johnson, declined to comment.

Bernadzikowski's parents said they relied on their faith in God to help them through her death. The verdict was the answer to their prayers, they said.

"We've been praying for this for so long and trusted the Lord, and knew that he had taken us this far — he wasn't going to forsake us now," said Donna Bernadzikowski.

"Amen, amen," said Walter Bernadzikowski, Heidi's father.

Bernadzikowski grew up in Severna Park, the only daughter in a family of five children. Her family has described her as an animal lover and an avid pool player.

Her family says she and Cooke dated for less than two years. Donna Bernadzikowski said Thursday she "always felt uneasy about the relationship."

"If she had never met him, she would be alive today," she said.

Prosecutors said Cooke hired two men from Colorado — Alexander C. Bennett and Grant A. Lewis — to kill Bernadzikowski because he wanted to cash in on her new $700,000 life insurance policy.

Bennett traveled to Baltimore to kill Bernadzikowski, according to prosecutors. They said Lewis acted as the liaison between Cooke and Bennett and remained in Colorado.

Bennett, who pleaded guilty to first-degree murder last year, was the key witness for the prosecution. On the stand last week, he said he strangled Bernadzikowski and cut her throat on April 20, 2000, in the rowhouse the couple rented on Codd Avenue.

Police found DNA under Bernadzikowski's fingernails — an indication that she tried to fight off her attacker. But it was not until 2011 that new technology and an FBI database showed a match to Bennett, who has a criminal history in Colorado.

Bennett was scheduled to go on trial for murder in 2014 when he confessed and implicated Cooke and Lewis, his longtime friend.

Cooke's attorneys called Bennett's story bizarre and questioned his credibility. They suggested Bennett had met Bernadzikowski online, traveled to Baltimore to see her, and then killed her when she rejected him.

The defense also said detectives overlooked key evidence and focused on a vodka bottle that was not initially tested for DNA.

Bennett entered into a plea agreement with prosecutors and is awaiting sentencing. Lewis was convicted of murder last year and sentenced to life in prison.

After Cooke, Lewis and Bennett were all jailed, prosecutors said, Cooke tried to solicit an inmate to kill Lewis. Jurors found him guilty of witness intimidation and first-degree assault in that plot, but acquitted him of attempted first-degree murder and other charges.

Sgt. Allen Meyer, the lead homicide investigator on the case, sat with his wife before Cooke's verdict was read. In the crowded hallway outside the courtroom after the verdict was read, he said that "it just felt good to bring [the family] some satisfaction and closure."

Meyer said he felt sympathy for Cooke's family, too — especially his young son.

"They love him, and they're suffering just like everyone else," he said.

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