Most of us subscribe to the belief that when we endure something so painful, that over time, that pain will subside. Time will heal the wounds. But then, we’ll hear or see something that will instantly take us back to that moment and suddenly the pain is fresh again.
For Lori Cooper it was the spring of 1972, when her father’s arm was almost entirely blown off by a burglary suspect he was pursuing on foot. Although he survived the shooting, Lori’s father was never the same again after that day.
Lori and her younger sister Amy grew up listening to their dad’s police radio — which was always sitting on top of the counter in their Columbus home. That was their normal.
“My dad was my hero…he loved his family and loved being a police officer … It’s the only thing he ever wanted to do after high school,” Lori says. Niki “Nick” Cooper served on an elite unit known as “D Platoon,” where he and the other members would respond immediately to serious crimes.
On March 15, 1972, Charles E. Hays and his accomplice were burglarizing homes in a subdivision on the city’s southeast side. They had traveled from Dayton — about an hour and a half away– after previously casing out the area. The thieves reportedly hit six houses in 60 minutes and 10 families were victimized in all. Apparently they’d been using the backyard of one of the homes to stash the stolen items. Meantime, the police sergeant called for additional backup units to help investigate the ‘rash of burglaries’.
As Niki and his partner were interviewing one of the couple’s outside their home, they spotted the suspects. Niki’s partner tackled Hays’ accomplice down to the ground and placed him in handcuffs, the police had said.
Based on the initial summary report of what happened that day, Niki started chasing Hays across the street and that’s when gunfire erupted. Niki was shot in the arm but also returned fire. As the two were struggling on the ground, Hays allegedly shouted out: “I’m gonna kill you … f*cking pig.”
After the shooting, some people in the dept were recommending that Niki go on disability. But Lori says he was so young at the point, only 29, he’d never be able to support his family with that money alone. He’d have to continue working and luckily the deputy chief fought for him to stay on patrol. Niki underwent multiple surgeries and was out of work for months. He didn’t have use of his left arm, but still worked as a patrol officer for eight more years.
During the weeks immediately following the shooting, Lori says, “The only thing I can compare it to, is when you have a death in the family.”
“His fellow officers and friends were always at the house just hanging around, having meals with us…there was always someone there to provide whatever support we needed while my father was recovering in the hospital for over a month.”
But as the weeks passed, everyone started to go away and the reality of what happened really started to set in. “My father was a changed man, forever.” He fell into depression, turned to drinking and had what today would probably be diagnosed as some form of PTSD.
“It was extremely difficult to watch my dad, as he went from being this all-star athlete and member of an elite platoon to someone who was bounced around from the radio room to the records room in the last seven years of his service,” Lori said. He retired early after serving 25 years with the dept.
Lori says after the shooting, her dad couldn’t perform all the same duties as before. He became invisible… forgotten.
“Even though my dad left the hospital and the media reported he was in good condition… no one really knew the trauma he would have to endure going forward…When I saw one of the officers who was wounded in Dallas recently come out of the hospital with a sling on his arm, it brought back all these memories.”
Niki Cooper died several years ago at age 71, after suffering a massive stroke. Lori says many of the health issues her father battled over the years, were related to that initial arm injury. On what would have been her father’s birthday this past May, Lori began thinking more about the case. She wanted to delve deeper and find out what really happened. One of the first things she discovered was that the warrant for Hays was still valid.
Hays never stood trial for the shooting. He is still alive, living in Dayton, Ohio bound to a wheelchair. He’s 82 years old.
“He outlived my father…Any man who had the intent to kill a police officer should not have been able to roam this country freely for so many years without paying some kind of penalty. The laws should be stiffer, they should be police-specific,” she says.
Hays had been released on a $10,000 recognizance bond after his indictment by a Franklin County grand jury in 1972, but he didn’t meet the terms of his bond.
Shortly after the Columbus incident, he was arrested in Lexington Ky., on unrelated charges and sent to Connecticut to serve time for second-degree burglary. CT Dept of Corrections records show that Hays was behind bars from 1976 to 1980. Over the next couple of decades, though he roamed the country a free man and essentially flew under the radar, Lori says.
“It’s mind-blowing to me that a wanted felon was able to collect benefits from the federal government all these years.” Hays had been on disability, since the shooting left him paralyzed from the waist down.
Lori and her family had initially been told that Hays would probably spend most of his life behind bars for unrelated crimes. But as far as she knows, he only spent four years in that Connecticut prison.
As Lori investigated the matter further, she found out that the Ohio governor did issue an extradition order, but it was apparently filed in the wrong place. The prosecutor’s office says under the old filing system — the cases of Hays, his getaway driver and accomplice were all filed under one number and “that may have caused some confusion.”
For some reason, when Hays got out of prison in Connecticut, no one really tracked him down to answer to the charge from Columbus.
“My father wasn’t one to look back at the past. He wanted to move forward with his life…he never really talked about what happened,” Lori says.
She’s so grateful to the prosecutor in Franklin County for re-activating the case after all these years. “It was the right thing to do, and thankfully [Ron] O’Brien recognized that.” O’Brien believes that Hays skipped bond and is responsible to answer for the charge.
“Were it not for O’Brien and his staff, we wouldn’t even have a chance,” Lori says.
Attorneys for both sides are expected to appear before Judge Guy Reece II on December12. The public defender in the case entered a plea of not guilty on Hays’s behalf on October 5.
According to the prosecutor’s office, the court will determine on Dec. 12 if a trial goes forward. The judge could decide to dismiss the case based on “lack of sufficient evidence” or “speedy trial rights violations.” Another possibility is the judge could ask the prosecution to go back and write a summary arguing why the case should move forward.
No matter what happens that day, Lori is determined to keep fighting for her father.
She plans to reach out to her local representatives in Congress to discuss possibly drafting legislation– in her father’s name– which would put people like Hays away for life.
The current statutes in Ohio are not police-specific, Lori says, but she hopes to change that. If a suspect is charged with ‘intent to kill’ and the victim is a law enforcement officer, that suspect should face stiffer penalties, she says.
“I never want this to happen to any other law enforcement families.” Lori says she hopes to contact Rep. Steve Stivers and Senator Rob Portman in the coming weeks.
“I owe it to my dad to leave him a legacy he can be proud of….Hays was a career criminal, who was intent on killing an officer of the law and no matter how much time has passed, he deserves to spend the rest of his life in prison — even if he only lives one more day,” Lori says.
“Even if the judge decides not to send Hays back to prison, I will move forward. I won’t give up until I get justice for my father.”
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