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JAMES COOLEY: Investigators on trail for clues in 24-year-old homicide

JAMES COOLEY: Investigators on trail for clues in 24-year-old homicide

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James A. Cooley's wife arrived home 24 years ago to find her husband lying dead on the floor, a hammer by his side and blood spattered everywhere.

Cooley's death, at age 52 in the basement of his Hobart home, sparked a nearly year-long feud between police and elected officials in Lake County.

"It was a very controversial case," said Lt. Steve Houck, now a leading Hobart detective who was new to the force when Cooley was found dead.

The Hobart police investigation concluded Cooley, suffering from cancer and reportedly depressed, hammered his own head 32 times and died a suicide.

But Daniel Thomas, then the Lake County coroner, challenged the police finding, insisting Cooley's death had to have been a homicide.

At Thomas's urging, the county prosecutor and Indiana State Police became involved in the case. But despite a separate state investigation, Cooley's death never has been resolved.

The Hobart Police Department closed its books on the case decades ago.

"We're not looking at any cold cases right now, including that one," Houck said.

It's a different story for Indiana State Police.

"It is an open case with the state police," 1st Sgt. Al Williamson said last week.

State police reopened the case in January 1986, nine months after Cooley's April 1985 death, at the request of then-Lake County Prosecutor Jack Crawford.

One of the last detectives to work the case, Williamson said there were a few leads at the time, none of which panned out. Nothing new has transpired in recent years, but state police have kept open the case.

"There's no doubt it was a homicide," Williamson said.

The sheer number of blows to Cooley's head and their placement on his skull lead to no other conclusion, he said.

Blood spattered on the walls, ceiling and countertop of Cooley's basement played an important role in the investigation.

Ron Englert, the Oregon-based blood spatter expert called in by Hobart police, determined Cooley's wounds were self-inflicted because the blood spewed evenly around the room, casting doubt that another person was present.

Thomas countered that the inner plate of Cooley's skull had been shattered by at least one blow. If that blow was the first, Thomas noted, the victim couldn't possibly have struck additional blows.

If other blows were struck first, the victim would have been too weak to inflict the deadly blow, Thomas argued at the time.

Today's greatly advanced technology might have made a difference if available then, Williamson said.

"I would like to think that with the technology we have now, it could have been handled better, or faster," Williamson said.

There still is a chance a suspect could turn up, Williamson said. Often people with knowledge of a crime come forward years later, propelled by changes in their life circumstances.

"It does happen," he said.

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The Times' cold case series examines unsolved homicides throughout Northwest Indiana and south suburban Illinois. We want to remind our reader…

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