WILKES-BARRE — A man who served for two decades as a city police officer was sentenced to three to 24 months in prison Tuesday for sexually assaulting a girl nearly 70 years his junior.
Gerald Cookus, 78, of Mayock Street, Wilkes-Barre, admitted to investigators in April he inappropriately touched the then 8-year-old girl while the two were together last year inside a private residence, remarking at the time he feared the accusation would destroy his life and career.
The former lieutenant erupted into tears during a short apology.
“I am very sorry for my conduct,” Cookus said between bursts of tears. “I do apologize for the person involved … to my family. I’ll make sure this never happens again. I’m sorry for it. I’m very, very sorry and I apologize for all of it.”
A former Wilkes University security chief who was a greeter at Plains/Solomon Junior High School prior to his arrest, Cookus pleaded guilty to indecent assault of a person under the age of 13 in October. He must serve two years probation following his prison term and must register with the Pennsylvania State Police for life as a sexual offender, though he was not deemed a sexually violent predator, Judge Joseph Sklarosky ordered Tuesday.
Cookus must report to the Luzerne County Correctional Facility by 9 a.m. Friday.
Prior to the sentence, defense attorney Frank Nocito said Cookus “had a very difficult start to life,” adding he was physically abused at a young age by his mother’s boyfriend and “bullied” in school for not having a father.
Cookus sought psychotherapy a week after his arrest and is on medication “so nothing like this ever happens again,” Nocito said.
“There was a problem,” Nocito said. “It was addressed.”
In an interview with police, the victim’s mother stated she witnessed the abuse, which she said included Cookus “flickering” the victim’s genitals on the outside of her pants. The victim, in a separate interview with forensic investigators, said Cookus, then 77, touched her buttocks multiple times, according to the affidavit. Cookus told investigators he did it because he “thought she liked it,” but denied touching the victim’s genitals, according to the affidavit.
Cookus, a U.S. Navy veteran, served for 20 years as a city police officer, rising through the ranks to lieutenant, after beginning his law enforcement career in 1964 as a patrolman in Lancaster County. He took the head security job at Wilkes following his retirement from the city police department in 1986, Nocito said.
Cookus allegedly told investigators he believed the charges would “ruin his life and career as a law enforcement officer,” a sentiment Luzerne County Detective Chaz Balogh found troubling from the onset of his investigation.
Though Cookus was an “outstanding” member of law enforcement whom Balogh considered a mentor when he was a young police officer, “that all ended” when he began to investigate him, he said.
“It was all about him,” Balogh said of his interviews with Cookus. “It was odd. That bothers me that this is the first time I’m hearing his remorse. He was not remorseful at any time until today.”
Nocito noted Cookus’ wife of 51 years, with whom he has five children and 12 grandchildren, was present in the courtroom, but said Cookus’ family has largely shunned him since his arrest.
Assistant District Attorney Angela Sperrazza said Cookus’ actions were to blame for his current standing with his family. She urged Sklarosky to impose a sentence that went outside the standard range.
Sklarosky, before imposing his sentence, said he noted Cookus’ remorse in the courtroom, as well as his acceptance of guilt, lack of a prior criminal record and time as a public servant, but stated the longtime police officer should have known better.
“Because of that involvement in law enforcement, you should have seen the conduct in this case was inappropriate and unlawful,” he said.
As a result to the outrageous light sentence members of the public have now started a Change.org campaign to force the judge to resign from his position. If this story has upset you and you wish to help the community gain justice, consider signing the petition HERE.
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