COVID court shutdown leaves Woodlynne councilman and son in legal limbo after clash with police

Timothy Cook

Timothy Cook outside his family's second-story apartment in Woodlynne, New Jersey, on June 30, 2020. (April Saul/WHYY)

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Nobody in the Cook household was alarmed on Feb. 9 when 16-year-old Tracy Cook dialed 911 to complain about her father, Woodlynne Councilman Clyde Cook. He had disabled her cell phone for being disrespectful at her South Jersey school.

But the call set in motion an ordeal the Cooks won’t soon forget — and that the COVID-19 pandemic makes even more calamitous. In the altercation that ensued when police arrived at their home, three family members were pepper-sprayed, and Cook and his son Timothy, 17, were charged with obstruction of justice and aggravated assault; the older Cook was also charged with resisting arrest.

The arrests have cost Clyde Cook two part-time jobs and stand in the way of Timothy’s plan to ship out with the Marines next month. Because of the coronavirus, it may be months before father and son have their days in court.

The 911 call

Tracy Cook had called the police in 2019 when she was upset about having to share a bedroom with her little sister. Then, the two responding officers reminded her that she was underage. She was offered counseling, which she declined.

This time, she was calm and matter-of-fact on 911 tapes made public.

“My dad won’t give me my stuff back,” the teen told the dispatcher when asked what her emergency was.

“I don’t think,” said Clyde Cook, “that Tracy would make that call again. She didn’t know our life and liberty would be put in jeopardy.”

The incident comes at a time that the tiny Woodlynne Police Department is already under fire for the actions of Officer Ryan Dubiel, who was fired and is facing criminal charges for pepper-spraying teens on a front porch, with no apparent provocation, on June 4. Dubiel was not one of the officers who responded to the Cook’s home, but it has put the force that patrols the borough of 2,900 people between Camden and Collingswood under the microscope.

The confrontation

The spark was ignited when officers Edgar Feliciano and Javier Acevedo attempted to enter the Cooks’ second-story apartment around 11 p.m. responding to the 911 call. Feliciano and his wife, Woodlynne Councilwoman Shana Feliciano, have a feud so fiery with Clyde Cook that Cook and Shana Feliciano have filed complaints of harassment against each other; and Cook has previously accused Edgar Feliciano of improprieties at a polling place and of intimidating sponsors of a yearly summer festival. In the police report, Feliciano refers to these conflicts as “a fabrication.”

Because of that history, Cook was willing to let Acevedo enter the home, but not Feliciano and requested another officer be called. Acevedo’s body camera was on, but by his own account, Feliciano’s was not. When Cook asked why, Feliciano said the battery died, although later that evening, he replaced it with a fresh one from his car.

Councilman Clyde Cook, Officer Javier Acevedo and Tracy Cook
On election night in Woodlynne in November 2019, Councilman Clyde Cook and Officer Javier Acevedo exchange words on the street. Acevedo is one of two Woodlynne policemen who were involved in the Feb. 9, 2020 incident at Cook’s home that resulted in the arrest of Cook and his son, Timothy. Cook’s daughter, Tracy (right) made the 911 call that triggered the February melee. (April Saul/WHYY)

According to the video and the police report, both officers forced their way inside. The Cooks said Clyde’s fiancée Lakeisha Fontanez’s blouse was ripped as Feliciano tried to get past her to arrest Clyde Cook; after that, Fontanez said she fled the room with three-year-old Jordynn Cook, her daughter with Clyde Cook. Tracy and Timothy were pepper-sprayed by Feliciano, and when Acevedo attempted to spray Clyde Cook, he got much of the chemical in his own eyes as well.

After the scuffle and while trying to clear the pepper spray from his own eyes, Acevedo is heard on the video saying “I got the door open, sprayed him, he starts fighting with Edgar, threw a couple punches, both tried to grab him, couldn’t grab him, the son comes, starts fighting me.” He said Timothy Cook kept resisting, until he handcuffed the youth on the kitchen floor.

Timothy recalled grabbing his father to act “as a buffer zone” when he saw both policemen chasing Clyde Cook into a dark corridor of the house. That scared him, the teen said, because he had seen Feliciano briefly drawing his gun at Fontanez, who was issued a summons for obstruction after the melee.

“I thought, if he’s going to point a gun at her,” said Timothy Cook, “what’s he going to do to the person he hates the most?” He said that at that point, he could still see but he didn’t think Acevedo could, and that the officer pushed him into a wall before arresting him. “Everybody was blind from the spray,” said Timothy Cook, “so everybody was stupid.”

Body camera footage of incident involving Woodlyne councilman and police officer
Woodlynne authorities say the incident remains under investigation.(YouTube)

In the police report, Feliciano said that Timothy Cook became “aggressive,” assaulting Acevedo, and that Clyde Cook resisted arrest and struck Feliciano with a closed fist.

Both Woodlynne Public Safety Director Edwin Figueroa and Colby Gallagher of the Camden County Prosecutor’s office said the incident is under investigation and they are not commenting on what happened at the Cook’s home. Gallagher acknowledged receiving many inquiries about the case from the public.

The fallout

In the meantime, Clyde Cook has lost two mentoring jobs that brought in about $1,200 a month and is mowing lawns and doing home repairs to pay the bills. Vanessa Stratton was notified that because of the arrest, New Jersey Division of Developmental Disabilities policy prevents Cook from taking her autistic and cognitively impaired grandson, Nyquay Ashley, 23, on their customary outings to restaurants, stores, parks and the barbershop.

“I feel safe with Clyde because I’ve seen him with my grandson for so long,” said Stratton, who is elderly and says walking is difficult for her. “When he took Nyquay out, we got a break. If we got someone else, we’d just have to start all over again.”

Cynthia Campbell, program director at Life Steps, LLC, had to abide by the same regulations and let Cook go just as he had succeeded in helping a 21-year old client get his first apartment. “If the charges are dropped, he can come right back,” she said. “The family still asks for him. You have to have a passion for this work, and Clyde does. He goes above and beyond the call of duty.”

Timothy Cook, who graduated from Collingswood High with honors last month, has been at the center of a community effort on his behalf. A private Facebook group called Justice for Timothy Cook has over 500 members and a rally was held Thursday evening.

Woodlynne City Councilman Clyde Cook
Woodlynne City Councilman Clyde Cook campaigns during an unsuccessful run for mayor of that borough in November 2019. (April Saul/WHYY)

Among his supporters are Kate and Ian Whitfield, who own The Chip Shop in Haddonfield where the youth has worked part-time for a year. “I was absolutely shocked and heartbroken for Timmy,” said Kate Whitfield. “He’s an amazing kid and we’re lucky to have him working with us.”

Timothy Cook wants to make one thing clear. “This isn’t about race or Black lives,” said the teen, “it’s about Woodlynne. I’m the son of a councilman that they hate.” Of the charges against him, he said: “There’s no reason for me to fight a cop. I’m not a violent person … I’m a middle child!”

The Marines told Cook he will have to re-enlist unless his case is resolved by Aug. 19.

According to Jennifer Sellitti, Director of Training and Communications for the New Jersey Office of the Public Defender, the Cooks could be waiting months for a court date. Because of the pandemic, only a few court proceedings have been held using Zoom and other video platforms. She estimates that hundreds of defendants are affected, and “all these people sitting in jail will be first in line for their trials … if you’re out, it’s going to be a long time before your case is resolved.”

About 75 demonstrators show their support for the Cook family at a rally in Woodlynne on July 9, 2020. (April Saul for WHYY)

If the Cooks’ situation isn’t a case of bias, Philadelphia attorney Patrick Geckle would call it an argument for police reform. He specializes in cases of police brutality and false arrest.

“It’s just another example of terribly over-aggressive policing,” said Geckle, who believes that Officer Feliciano should have “deferred to his partner” because of the feud. “None of this should have happened. The officer made no effort to try to de-escalate the situation.”

Timothy Cook agrees. “There were so many avenues that could have been taken,” he said. “They could have taken Tracy out and talked to her.” In the past two weeks, the youth has been offered a deal by prosecutors; if he writes a 1,000-word essay on making good decisions, does five hours of community service, and accepts three months probation, his record will be expunged.

The younger Cook can’t bring himself to do it. “I write essays all the time for AP English,” he said, “and community service? I do those things anyway. Three months’ probation? Not a problem, I’ve been good for 17 years! But my number one pet peeve is being blamed for things I didn’t do, it’s just not right.”

For Timothy, joining the Marines is a chance to see the world and get a college education.

“Now I’m stuck in the freaking mix,” he said. “Half a dozen police cars and an ambulance come in the middle of the night because someone got her Instagram taken away.”

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