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The anguish of murder

By: Atlanta Northcutt -- Southern Standard

Amber Dodson and Kelly Dodson hold the necklaces they wear in remembrance of their late mother and father.

More than five years after the murder of their parents, Kelly Dodson, left, and Amber Dodson say they still struggle to cope with the tragedy.

It’s been over five years since the murders of Gary and Gail Dodson. The owners of Gary and Gail’s Pit Stop were killed by their son-in-law, Bryan Cooke, who was convicted and sentenced to life without parole.

The memories, anger and heartache still linger for their daughters, Kelly and Amber Dodson. In the early morning hours of June 29, 2015, Kelly received a phone call from Amber with devastating news that would change their lives. Their parents had been stabbed to death in their own home.  “This is like something you see on TV,” said Kelly. “You don’t think it could happen to you. Especially being married to someone for 18 years, you think you know them. Nobody ever dreamed he could be capable of doing what he did.”

Amber received a phone call from one of the employees of Gary and Gail’s Pit Stop saying her father had not shown up to work. This was out of character since he would always be at the store by 3 a.m. to open. 

Amber had a key to their house and came to unlock the door. As she walked in, she found her dad’s body next to the couch with blood everywhere. She went to the bedroom where she discovered her mother’s body. Cooke’s car was hidden behind the house, and her parents’ Jeep was missing. Amber called Kelly and asked if she knew where Bryan was. He had a tendency to disappear for long periods. Amber told her he had murdered their mom and dad, and there was blood everywhere. Kelly collapsed. She pulled herself together enough to drive to her parents’ house where police swarmed the scene.

Kelly and Bryan had been married 18 years. Five years before the murder, Bryan became addicted to pain pills after having a series of knee surgeries. 

As Cooke's addiction grew worse, so did his temper and violence.  He began taking large amounts of Mucinex DM, which causes a euphoric effect if enough is taken. He started stealing from his family, Kelly’s family and Kelly herself. He was in and out of jail, becoming a convicted felon for theft and drugs. He would disappear without explanation. 

Amber said, “From the time they got married until the last five years, you couldn’t ask for a better person. My daughter was with Bryan more than her own dad while he babysat her. He’d do anything for you.”

Kelly and Bryan had two children together. Since Bryan had been in and out of jail and rehabs for the past several years, Gary stepped in to fill that father-figure role in his grandchildren’s lives. Kelly’s son sobbed as he discovered the news of his grandparents’ murder. Kelly's daughter came to the scene but wouldn’t look at Kelly or acknowledge her.  Kelly was full of guilt, saying, “My daughter blamed me. I blamed myself a lot. I felt as though everyone here blamed me at the time too.”

As a Christian woman, Kelly was taught to stay and take care of her marriage. She was afraid if she left, Bryan wouldn’t have anyone and would get worse. She believed if she stayed he would choose her and the children over getting his next high. 

She was wrong. 

Although her family and friends warned her that the situation was worsening, Kelly wasn’t able to see how bad it actually was. “I honestly thought I had to do whatever it took to keep my marriage together,” said Kelly.

Gary’s body was found next to the couch with multiple, deep stab wounds and no defensive wounds, leading investigators to believe he was sleeping at the time of his murder which occurred between 10 and 10:30 p.m. Sunday night. Gail’s body was found at the doorway of the couple’s bedroom as if she’d been awoken by the sounds, went to check and Cooke was right there. 

Cooke shoplifted the knife used to kill the couple. It was left on the bathroom sink with his blood-soaked clothes. He brought extra clothes to change into after the killings. Due to these facts, investigators knew it was premeditated.  Amber says, “He went in there to steal the money and kill them. He was prepared.”

Cooke was placed on the FBI’s Top 10 Most Wanted list. Kelly was terrified he might return to kill her and the children. 

The same fear gripped Amber. A wave of relief washed over them as Amber saw the news that Cooke had been arrested in Jacksonville, Fla., and called Kelly to tell her he had been captured.  The community was devastated at the news of Gary and Gail’s murders since they made so many daily connections at their store.

Since his arrest, Kelly has not spoken to Cooke. He continues to send her and the children letters. She doesn’t open hers, but the children do. 

Amber got a letter as well. He sent it to her before the trial. The letter was to try to haunt her. The letter ended by saying, “P.S. Tell your mom happy birthday. Oh wait, you can’t. That sucks.” He timed it to arrive a few days before Gail’s birthday. The prison system says Cooke can continue to send letters. Amber says, “He’s hurt us so badly and now he is continuing to do so from inside his prison cell.”

Once the trial finally took place at Warren County Courthouse, Kelly was afraid to look at Bryan. He had a smirk on his face the first time the women saw him. Kelly didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of breaking down on the stand, but it was too hard not to. 

Cooke showed no emotion or remorse. When he took the stand, he tried to claim self-defense. After three hours, the jury found him guilty of two first-degree murders. He still hasn’t taken responsibility for what he did.

Even though Cooke is in prison five hours away, Kelly still fears he could escape. The sisters don’t believe justice was fully served for their parents’ murders. Cooke is allowed to see and speak with his family. 

Amber says, “I don’t think he should have any rights.”

Kelly adds, “We can’t talk to our parents. What gives him the right to be able to? He shouldn’t have that right. As a family member, I also have to think about his family who I’ve known for 18 years. They never saw the side of him that we did. It’s a hard situation.”

Four years later, the sisters are still learning how to manage the pain and grief the murder of their parents has left. When holidays, birthdays and important life events occur, the sadness creeps in more deeply. Emotions range from anger to depression, but they realize their parents wouldn’t want them to feel these ways.

Kelly says, “It doesn’t get easier. It’s still just as hard as it was that day. To me, you just learn to deal with it better. You learn to deal with it in your own way. It seems like only yesterday I got the call that it happened, but it seems like it’s been forever since I’ve seen or spoken to them.”

The community’s support has been heartwarming. They receive hugs, stories, tears and laughter as they talk with people who knew and loved their parents. The women enjoy people coming up to them, sharing stories and recollecting all of the great qualities and memories of their parents. 

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