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Family of UD student says suicide ruling premature

Lawyer handling Florida A&M band hazing death retained

By Katie Wedell - Staff Writer

The death of a University of Dayton student on campus Tuesday has been ruled a suicide by the Montgomery County Coroner’s Office, but the family of the 18-year-old freshman is questioning that ruling.

Larry Cook’s family has hired a noted Florida attorney to investigate the circumstances surrounding their son’s death.

In a Friday afternoon press conference at the edge of campus, attorney Christopher Chestnut said he’s been asked to launch an independent investigation into the death because the teen’s family does not feel the police and university investigation thus far has been adequate.

“There was no preservation of evidence, no preservation of testimony,” Chestnut said. “Find out the facts first before concluding that this is a suicide.”

When asked what evidence has led to the conclusion that Cook did not take his own life, Chestnut said the way the teen’s body was positioned, the way that he fell, and the height of the window sill all suggest that he did not jump, as the coroner’s office has said. He added that authorities said the teen did not leave a suicide note.

On Friday a coroner’s official said Cook’s death was due to blunt force trauma. The investigation revealed that he jumped out of the sixth story window and landed on concrete. There were no signs of a struggle.

Cook was found deceased outside the Stuart Hall Complex about 7:20 a.m. Tuesday by students who immediately alerted University of Dayton Police. The case was then turned over to the Dayton Police Department homicide unit, which investigates all fatalities in the city.

Lela Collins, who spoke on behalf of the Cook family, said the coroner’s office has not notified the family it ruled the death a suicide.

Chestnut said the family felt the university was premature to declare the teen’s death a suicide, and that their hastiness compromised the investigation.

University officials did not ever make their own statement about the cause of death. In a letter Tuesday to students, faculty and staff, UD President Daniel Curran said, “Law enforcement officials and the (Montgomery) county coroner’s office are investigating (Cook’s) death as an apparent suicide.”

The university echoed that statement on Friday in response to Chestnut’s claims.

“The University of Dayton community offers our deepest prayers and support to the family. We all mourn the loss of this young man’s life. The Montgomery County Coroner’s Office has officially ruled the death a suicide,” university officials said in a statement.

Chestnut and Collins both said that Cook, a graduate of Sycamore High School in Cincinnati, was a jovial person who showed no signs that he intended to kill himself. That sentiment was shared by many who knew the engineering major in statements on social media sites this week. Many were shocked by news of the death, saying that Cook seemed like a happy college student.

“This is a kid that was home for Easter. He was home on Saturday,” Collins said. “It’s ludicrous that the police would botch this investigation.”

She said that Cook loved attending UD. His funeral will be held Monday in Cincinnati.

Chestnut said the family does not have an exact explanation for the teen’s death at this point, but suggested that it may have involved hazing. “The University of Dayton and others may be engaged in a cover-up of certain factors surrounding Cook’s death,” he said.

Neither the family nor Chestnut declined to confirm if Cook was pledging a fraternity or another organization that may have been engaged in alleged hazing. The university said Cook was not a member of a fraternity nor was he engaged in a membership intake process to join a fraternity.

Chestnut also represents the family of Robert Champion, a Florida A&M drum major who was hazed to death in 2011.

Champion, 26, one of six drum majors who led FAMU’s famous marching band, died after he was beaten on a charter bus parked at the Rosen Plaza hotel in Orlando, where the band stayed during the Florida Classic weekend.

His death led to the suspension of the iconic band, the retirement of its long-time director Dr. Julian White and the ouster of then-FAMU President James Ammons. The university also is a defendant in a wrongful-death lawsuit filed by Chestnut.

Dayton Police Sgt. Dan Mauch said Friday it will take between six and eight weeks before toxicology reports are available to determine if other factors contributed to his death. He said homicide detectives have met with the family during the course of the investigation.

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