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Originally published June 29, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 29, 2008 at 12:57 AM

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Contractor's mysterious death in Iraq leaves his widow wondering "why"

The telephone connection from Iraq was startlingly clear. But Michelle Cook barely recognized her husband's voice. High-pitched and squeaky, as...

Seattle Times staff reporter

TUMWATER — The telephone connection from Iraq was startlingly clear. But Michelle Cook barely recognized her husband's voice. High-pitched and squeaky, as if he had inhaled helium.

"Michelle, Michelle, Michelle," Gordon Cook said, over and over again. "Where are the kids? I love you, Michelle, Michelle."

Then the line went silent.

A day later, on July 2, 2006, Michelle Cook learned that her husband, an American contractor stationed at a remote post along the Syrian border, had been killed.

The circumstances of Gordon Cook's death remain unclear two years later. Defense Department officials say he was gunned down in a roadside attack on his car. But one Army investigator believes that an Iraqi in the car was complicit in the attack, according to e-mail communications.

For Michelle Cook, that harrowing phone call to their home in Tumwater lingers as a nightmare farewell, and a stark reminder of unanswered questions. If it was an ambush, how could Gordon Cook have had time to call up his family and talk?

"I live every day with the last words of my husband ringing in my ears," Michelle Cook said. "He deserves some kind of justice. I know that there is more to his story."

"Dangerous decision"

Gordon Cook is one of the more than 1,100 civilians who have died while working for U.S. contractors in Iraq, where the American military has outsourced an unprecedented number of convoy, security and maintenance responsibilities to private companies.

Many have perished in relative anonymity. There are no Pentagon news releases to mark their sacrifice, and there's no tally that separates out the smaller number of American contractors killed in Iraq from the broader total that includes hundreds of Iraqis and people of other nationalities.

For families, the search to find out the fate of their loved ones can be agonizing.

The Army's Criminal Investigation Command investigates some of these casualties. Special agents rotate through the office, where they have handled some 5,000 cases of theft, corruption, murder, rape and other crimes. About a half-dozen active cases involve American contractors slain in Iraq.

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Since her husband's death, Michelle Cook has dealt with five agents in Baghdad, each handing the investigation off to the next. She has sometimes received contradictory information. An agent back in December said the case was still open. But a stateside representative of the Investigation Command this month said it had been closed nearly a year ago, and apologized for never informing her, she said. After her inquiries, the case was reopened on June 23.

Cook worked for American Iraqi Solutions Group, which has completed about $250 million in Defense Department contracts, according to a statement from the company. He helped manage the company's $12 million contract to provide food, shelter and security for some 600 Iraqi soldiers at a post along the Syrian border.

At the time of his death, Cook was in a precarious position with the company. He believed some Iraqi employees were criminals and feared their Mafia-like influence, according to Michelle Cook.

Cook also believed that his company had done a poor job of fulfilling its contract at the border post. In June 2006, Iraqi officials asked Cook to form his own company and negotiate a contract to take over the services, his wife said.

On the day of his death, American Iraqi Solutions Group officials say, Cook made a secretive exit from the border post to negotiate that contract in Baghdad. He left without a security convoy, and without notifying the company's operation center.

"He made a business decision ... it was a very dangerous decision," Carter Andress, president of the company, said in an interview from Baghdad. "He got killed in the process of trying to conclude a contract for himself."

"You can't hurt steel"

Gordon Cook, who was 36 when he died, was a combat-savvy veteran who had served in the Marines and Army, as well as the Air Force reserves. He did his best to reassure his wife and two children about the risks of civilian work in Iraq. "You can't hurt steel," he would say.

His post along the border, at the edge of Anbar province in an area rife with insurgents and bandits, put him in one of the most perilous parts of Iraq. In 2005, an attack on a convoy killed 11 company employees who helped deliver supplies to the post.

Cook went to work there in March 2006. A month later, an Iraqi employee was killed in another convoy hijacking. Cook was convinced that Iraqis within his company had helped orchestrate the attack.

Cook detailed to then-company president Monte Jensen his concerns that adequate security safeguards had not been in place. "I believe that the conclusions of senior management might not be the same as mine, therefore leaving AISG and its personnel at risk for future losses," Cook wrote in a memorandum that he also forwarded to his wife.

In the weeks that followed, Cook felt increasingly isolated and vulnerable at the camp. He was fearful of sleeping alone, and contemplated getting a dog that could wake him up if there was an intruder, Michelle Cook said.

Gordon Cook returned home to Tumwater in June 2006 for a visit. On Father's Day, he and Michelle drove to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. At the last moment, he hesitated. "What if I just don't go back?" he asked her.

But he got out of the car, and he flew back to Iraq.

Abduction, murder plot?

Cook planned to quit his job in early July.

As the date of departure neared, a new wrinkle emerged. According to his widow, an Iraqi official wanted Cook to directly contract to provide services at the border post. The day before he died, Cook instant-messaged her about the possibility of managing the contract from back in Washington state.

In a brief static-filled call the next day, Cook told his wife he was in a truck, and "going." No information about where, or why.

Near midnight, she received a second call, this one equally mysterious. Cook said he was in a car, and "going." Once again, no where or why.

The final call came the following morning. It was different. The connection was sharp. It seemed like he was talking from next door. Yet his farewell words were spoken in that high, bizarre voice.

Later, Michelle Cook came to believe that her husband's voice had been affected by injuries suffered before he was shot.

According to a medical chart that was part of an autopsy report, Cook's injuries included a throat wound and laceration near the left side of his abdominal cavity.

The official account says her husband was slain in a road attack, but Michelle Cook believes there may have been a plot to abduct and kill him.

The official account was based, in part, on the eyewitness testimony of the driver of Cook's car. Agents told Michelle Cook his name was Mr. Barani and he somehow had escaped the ambush.

"I feel like Mr. Barani was involved in your husband's death," Special Agent Edward Thomas wrote in a June 25, 2007, e-mail.

Barani, after initial interviews, could never be found for a follow-up polygraph exam, according to Thomas.

Army officials told Michelle Cook the driver worked for the company.

Steve Fitzsimons, spokesman for American Iraqi Solutions Group, said he could not comment on current or former Iraqi employees, but that the company fully cooperated with the Army investigation.

There have been other troubling details.

Gordon Cook's personal computer, for example, was not returned along with his other personal effects. Instead, it was sent to the American Iraqi Solutions Group, which held it more than a month.

Michelle Cook says she was told the computer had not been tampered with. But she found that all the data dating back to Gordon Cook's March arrival at the border post had been erased.

Epilogue

As of this month, the Army investigation into Cook's death is officially classified as "unresolved" as investigators reopen the probe to review the issues raised by his family.

Michelle Cook decided to tell her story in hopes that Congress will increase oversight of U.S. contractors in war zones. "I can't change what happened to my husband. But maybe I can help others," she said.

Michelle's focus is now on raising her 9-year-old daughter, Emmy, and 16-year-old son, Kamron.

But many nights, she lies awake for hours, wondering what happened.

"It's those phone calls," she said. "They won't let me go."

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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