Man who killed parents in '88 wants freedom

Charles Cohen says he would spread Christian ministry


Thursday, August 31, 2006

Editor's note: This story is being reprinted with permission from the News Journal in Wilmington, Del. Charles Cohen is a 1982 Galesburg High School graduate.

WILMINGTON, Del. - Charles Cohen had already made up his mind that he wanted to kill when he lured his dad into his bedroom one November day in 1988.

Cohen was 23 when he used a 10-pound dumbbell to repeatedly bludgeon his father, Martin Cohen, into unconsciousness. Afterward, he slit the 58-year-old's throat.

"And then I stabbed him because he was still breathing," Cohen said then. "I stabbed him until I was sure he was dead."

Then he headed downstairs calling for his mother, Ethel.

"Mom! Mom! Dad fell down!" her son cried. "Come up quick - come up and look!"

The 63-year-old woman, who needed a metal walker to move around, would meet the same gruesome fate as her husband - at the hands of their only child.

"It didn't take as many strikes to kill her because she was, you know, frail," Cohen told New Castle County police 18 months after he was arrested for the killings.

After pleading guilty to the Delaware murders, saying that he was mentally ill, Cohen was sentenced in 1992 to two terms of life in prison, plus 60 years. Cohen would later confess to killing a third person while on the lam in San Francisco.

Today, Cohen, 41, asked the state Board of Pardons to commute his sentence.

His reason: so he can spread his Christian ministry.

"I don't have a problem with that, as long as his flock are fellow inmates," said Deputy Attorney General Stephen M. Walther, who prosecuted Cohen.

Walther said he remembers walking from his house to the murder scene in the upscale Gateway Townhomes in Hockessin and finding one of the most horrific homicides he has seen in his 30 years as a prosecutor.

"It was nasty - one of the most nastiest murder scenes I've been to," he said. "I've had some baby murders that were pretty gruesome, but in terms of violence it was just obvious rage."

In a situation such as Cohen's, it would be rare if ever that his sentence would be commuted, said Lawrence Connell, associate professor of law at Widener University School of Law.

"I can't imagine how people would look at that and say that justice is somehow served by commuting his sentence under these circumstance," Connell said. "You have to start from the premise that any kind of a commutation is a matter of mercy or grace rather than a matter of right."

This is the first time Cohen has appeared before the Board of Pardons. The five-member board only makes recommendations. The governor has the final say.

Letters sent to Cohen requesting an interview with The News Journal were not answered.

According to the Department of Correction spokeswoman Gail Stallings Minor, Cohen has not been a behavioral problem. His last write-up was in 1997.

Cohen, Stallings Minor said, had been an inmate at Sussex Correctional Institution in Georgetown. In May he was transferred to the Delaware Psychiatric Center, which is on the grounds of the Delaware State Hospital.

Cohen's father was appointed the hospital's director in early 1988.

Life in Illinois

Before taking the job in Delaware, the Cohens lived in Galesburg, Ill.

"I knew Charles via school and my brother," said Jon R. Symmonds, a childhood friend who still lives in Illinois. "When Charles lived in Illinois, he enjoyed working out and listening to music. He loved playing tennis. We played a simple game of cards many times while he lived in Peoria. Spades was our game.

Symmonds also said Cohen "loved the band U2. His favorite song was 'I Still Haven't Found What I Am Looking For.' "

He became a punk musician, wearing his hair in a mohawk and dabbled in drugs and the occult. He also would take to wearing Halloween costumes out of season.

After high school, Cohen tried different things: A two-week stint in the Marine Corps; working as a male stripper; playing drums in a band named Bourbon and Clorox. He designed the band's logo: a large bird clasping a bottle of bourbon in one talon and a bleach bottle in the other.

"I never expected Charley to do what he did," Symmonds said. "I would like to see the day when Charley can get out of prison, however, I would like him to step up and answer for his crimes.

"I don't believe he should be pardoned."

Living on the lam

The Cohens moved to Delaware in April 1988 after Martin Cohen, a clinical psychologist, was appointed director of the Delaware State Hospital. Cohen began attending the University of Delaware as a freshman and was taking art classes.

In November of that year he brutally killed his parents and left their bodies in the Beechtree Lane home. The bodies were found Nov. 14 by two members of Martin Cohen's staff, who went to his house when he did not show up for work.

According to News Journal reports, Cohen fled the state in the family's 1983 Ford LTD and headed to Los Angeles. He drifted around Southern California, blending in with transients and the homeless at various shelters. He also went to Mexico, where he abandoned the car.

By 1989 Cohen made his way to San Francisco, where in February of that year he was taken in by a 51-year-old banker named Conrad Lutz.

Cohen admitted killing Lutz on Feb. 24 because he said the man made sexual advances toward him. Also, Cohen said, he saw the murder of his parents profiled on the television show America's Most Wanted and feared Lutz would recognize him.

After the Lutz killing, Cohen made his way back East hitching rides and jumping freight trains - stopping in places like Florida and New York before landing in New Orleans a few days before Mardi Gras in 1990.

Some two months later Cohen was arrested in a suburb of New Orleans and charged with mugging an elderly woman and cheating a cabdriver out of a fare. He gave a fake name to officers.

The confession

Languishing in the Jefferson Parish jail because he was unable to post bail, Cohen became more involved with Pentecostal Christians and attended worship services.

When it was time for his hearing - against his public defender's objections - Cohen stood up and made a chilling proclamation.

"I'm guilty of the charges here today and not the least of which is three murders. My real name is not James McDowell. My real name is Charles Cohen. I am one of America's most wanted criminals. I make this confession in Jesus' name."

Cohen was brought back to Delaware and on Feb. 13, 1992, ended up pleading guilty to the murders of his parents.

Because he was still facing the death penalty, a jury was convened to decide his fate and recommended 8-4 to spare his life.

When Superior Court Jerome O. Herlihy sentenced Cohen on May 4, 1992, he agreed he should not be executed but said Cohen "should never be set free."

Two years later Cohen returned to California, where he pleaded guilty to the Lutz murder. He was sentenced to life in prison, with no chance of probation or parole.

If his sentence in Delaware were somehow commuted he would still face the same fate in California.

Walther was not at today's hearing in Dover, but sent a letter to the board recommending that Cohen "never ever be released from prison."

"Don't you think it's odd that he wants to get out to preach his ministry after murdering three people," Walther said. "I guess he's forgotten that phrase 'Thou shall not kill.' "


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