Heidi Bernadzikowski was found dead in April 2000.
Heidi Bernadzikowski was found dead in April 2000. (Courtesy of family, Baltimore Sun)

A man convicted of plotting his girlfriend's murder 15 years ago maintained his innocence Thursday, even as a Baltimore County judge sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

"I didn't have anything at all to do with this," said Stephen Michael Cooke Jr., 44, who was found guilty in a murder-for-hire scheme in which Heidi Bernadzikowski, 24, was killed.

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But Circuit Judge Jan Marshall Alexander told Cooke he had no doubts about the jury's decision, and he called the murder "one of the most coldblooded, heartless, manipulative, despicable crimes that I have seen in almost 30 years of law."

Alexander added, "The jury has spoken."

Prosecutors said Cooke hired two men from Colorado to kill Bernadzikowski for life insurance money. She was found strangled, with her throat slit, in the couple's home on Codd Avenue in Dundalk in April 2000.

One of the men, Alexander C. Bennett, 36, entered a plea agreement with prosecutors and testified against Cooke. He admitted to killing Bernadzikowski.

The case went unsolved for years. But in 2011, newly discovered DNA evidence linked Bennett to the crime scene, and he eventually implicated Cooke.

Grant A. Lewis, 36, the accused "middleman" in the plot, was convicted of first-degree trial last year. He was sentenced to life in prison.

Cooke was found guilty in June of first-degree murder, solicitation of murder and conspiracy to commit murder for his role in Bernadzikowski's death. In addition, the jury convicted him on charges of witness intimidation and first-degree assault connected to allegations that he tried to hurt Lewis.

On Thursday, Cooke told the judge, "I cried my eyes out for four years" after Bernadzikowski's death.

"I didn't do this," he said.

Cooke, who worked for the Department of Veterans Affairs before his arrest, has an 8-year-old son.

Alexander told Cooke he believed he should "never see the light of day," and handed down a sentence of life plus 30 years.

At the sentencing, Bernadzikowski's family described the loss they suffered after her murder. She grew up in a large family in Severna Park.

"Our whole family cherished her as the only girl out of five children," said her oldest brother, Tim Bernadzikowski. "She was a kind and caring person that would do almost anything for anyone that she knew."

He said Cooke has shown "not one ounce of remorse."

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"I will never forgive the defendant," he said.

Bernadzikowski's mother, Donna, read aloud the names of the eight nieces and nephews her daughter never got to meet.

"They know her today only as Aunt Heidi who is in heaven," she said.

Cooke's family said that they believe he had no involvement in the murder and that he plans to appeal his conviction.

"My brother maintains his innocence, and I stand behind him 100 percent," said his sister, Kim Mertes. "We're very confident we will win on appeal."

His father, Stephen Cooke Sr., said his son grew up in a close-knit family in Pigtown and has no history of violence.

The person prosecutors described "is not the person I know," he said.

Both Stephen Cooke Sr. and Mertes said they felt Cooke's trial was unfair and that key evidence was omitted. They also questioned why Bennett — who admitted to strangling Bernadzikowski and slitting her throat — received a lesser sentence of 30 years in prison.

"We truly believe that this was a travesty of justice," Mertes said.

Tim Bernadzikowski said that for his family, "justice has finally been served."

"We can finally try to put all this behind us and move on," he said.

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