Crime

Ex-convict charged in spree of 5 killings

Police say Samuel James Cooper Jr. is a hardened, violent criminal who went on a deadly year-long spree that peaked with the recent shootings of a homeless man and a convenience store owner.

Authorities charged Cooper, 30, of 2300 Creech Road on Tuesday morning with five counts of first-degree murder.

Raleigh police and the Wake County Sheriff's Office accused him of the May 12, 2006, killing of Osama "Samuel" Haj-Hussein, the June 3, 2006, death of Leroy Jernigan, the April 27 killing of Timothy Barnwell, the Oct. 12 death of Ricky High and, two days later, the killing of Tariq Hussein.

Cooper was released in 2006 after years in prison for a 1994 robbery. While in prison, he broke out, attacked an elderly man and stole his car. At his sentencing for the escape, he punched a deputy in the face.

Cooper's father, also named Samuel Cooper, said Tuesday his son is caught up in a chain of violence that began at home.

"I was taught to beat my child," said the elder Cooper. "It is a vicious cycle."

On Tuesday afternoon, Wake County District Court Judge James Fullwood told the heavily shackled Cooper he could face the death penalty. Wake District Attorney Colon Willoughby said he had not decided whether to seek Cooper's execution.

Authorities think Cooper's crime spree extended beyond the Triangle. Two arrest warrants were obtained for him late Tuesday in connection with a robbery in Reidsville where two people were seriously injured Nov. 4.

Dean Venable, a spokesman for the Rockingham County Sheriff's Office, said a family returned home to find two men inside. The men, dressed in black, demanded money. Venable said one suspect shot two men in the head. One fled to get help. Venable said the second remains in very serious condition.

The identity of Cooper's court-appointed lawyer was not available Tuesday night.

Cooper was arrested Nov. 21. Police say he robbed the Bank of America on Benson Road in Garner. After a chase on the Greenfield Parkway, police took a 9 mm handgun from Cooper after they trapped him inside a Domino's Pizza distribution center off Waterfield Drive.

Garner police Sgt. Joe Binns said Tuesday that three men were charged with taking money to help Cooper escape. Anthony Ray Avery, 47; Issmar Leonardo Estupiman, 28; and Angel Dario Rodriquez, 25, were charged with being accessories after the fact.

Police would not say how they linked Cooper to the five killings. In a news release, authorities said Cooper's arrest "set in motion a chain of events."

The elder Cooper said the weapon recovered from the robbery linked his son to the killings.

Some acquainted with the suspect were stunned by Tuesday's charges.

Yanny Khalioui, who has managed the H&K Grocery near a restaurant Cooper's father owned on Tarboro Road, said the son often ducked in to buy Newports or a box of Dutch Masters cigars.

"He didn't look like somebody who would do all that," Khalioui said Tuesday.

The fourth shooting victim, High, was a popular handyman for business owners on the street. He often slept underneath a broken-down work truck behind a beauty salon in the 300 block. High was found shot to death across the street from the elder Cooper's Pappa Pizza N Subs shop.

"We were living in the house with a person we didn't even know," the elder Cooper said Tuesday. "Prison made him a more intelligent criminal."

Father and son shopped at both In & Out Mart, where Haj-Hussein was killed, as well as Bobby's Grocery, where Hussain was killed. The younger Cooper bought beer and snacks and never spoke with owner Eyad Heiyeh. "Usually all my customers talk to me," Heiyeh said. "Except for him."

Cooper was released from prison in February 2006. He had been in since 1994, when at 17 he was sentenced to 20 years for armed robbery.

Cooper was volatile, with 20 infractions ranging from assault to disobeying orders, prison records show.

In June 1999, while Cooper was at Wake Correctional Center, he and two inmates overpowered a guard and escaped. Cooper and one of the inmates carjacked a Buick from a 64-year-old man and headed east on Interstate 40.

The two were arrested after they drew attention at an apartment complex in Benson by asking residents for a ride to Wilmington.

In September 1999, Cooper was sentenced 26 to 32 months for that escape. A deputy was taking him from a Wake courtroom when he punched her in the jaw and knocked her down. He was trying to take her gun when others came to her aid, authorities said at the time.

"My heart goes out to all of those people who are suffering because of what my son has done," Cooper said Tuesday night. "If I could go to them I would say, 'I'm sorry.' "

(Researchers Susan Ebbs, Paulette Stiles and Lamara Williams-Hackett and staff writers Sarah Ovaska and Marlon A. Walker contributed to this story.)

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