“When you love someone, you love both the good and the bad in them.”
– Sue Klebold, mother of Columbine shooter Dylan Klebold
March 27, 2017 was a day whose afternoon was broken in two: a morning of complete normalcy cruelly juxtaposed with an afternoon of bitter heartbreak and confusion. Because of the events that occurred on that seemingly ordinary Monday, the lives of three families were torn in half, three young children were taken away from their mother, and the entire Broken Arrow, Oklahoma community was shaken. Four people – as young as 15 and as old as 21 – made a harrowing decision that would leave three of them in graves and one of them in prison.
The city of Broken Arrow made national news that day when three teenagers – Maxwell Cook, 18, Jacob Redfearn, 18, and Jaykob Woodruff, 15 – broke into a home in the early afternoon and were shot and killed by the homeowner’s son, 23-year-old Zach Peters. According to reports, after already burglarizing a detached garage located on the premises, the three broke through the back door of the house and into the kitchen – armed with brass knuckles and a knife – and were immediately met by Peters, who, according to his testimony, didn’t give the teens a chance to approach him.
Shots immediately rang out. Two of the teens’ bodies were found inside the kitchen, while the third was found in the driveway after fleeing the residence. The getaway driver, 21-year-old Elizabeth Marie Rodriguez – who was also Cook’s girlfriend of approximately one month – drove off and later turned herself in to the authorities.
It is unimaginable what kind of pain the three boys’ families are going through. With no known criminal records, the circumstances surrounding their deaths are more than likely a complete shock to their parents, who now have to grieve their child’s death while coming to terms with the illegal activities they had partaken in, along with the lawful way their child died.
Oklahoma is one of many states with a “Stand Your Ground” law, also known as the “Make My Day” law – a statute that gives one legal permission to use deadly force in order to defend themselves in the event of a home invasion. According to Title 21, Chapter 53, Section 1289.25, Oklahoma law states, in part:
“A person who uses force, as permitted pursuant to the provisions of subsections B and D of this section, is justified in using such force and is immune from criminal prosecution and civil action for the use of such force.”
It also goes on to elaborate that “a person who unlawfully and by force enters or attempts to enter the dwelling, residence, occupied vehicle of another person, or a place of business is presumed to be doing so with the intent to commit an unlawful act involving force or violence.”
Due to these provisions and the events surrounding the three boys’ deaths, Peters’ actions against the teens were deemed justifiable by law enforcement in a statement made on April 4, and he will not be charged. Furthermore, three first degree murder charges have been filed against Rodriguez, due to Title 21, Chapter 24, Section 701.7, which summarizes, in part, that a person commits first degree murder when “that person or any other person takes the life of a human being” during the commission of a felony. Therefore, even though Elizabeth didn’t pull the trigger that day, she is being charged as if she did.
The public’s reaction to the entire case has been very hot or cold; either their opinion is in full support of Zach Peters and his actions of self-defense, or they side with the three teens, stating that their deaths were excessive and unnecessary. Is it possible, however, that there can be a little bit of grey in a seemingly very black and white ordeal? Who wins in this situation? Is it Zach Peters, who now has to live with the burden of taking three young men’s lives, even though his actions were legally justified? Is it Elizabeth Rodriguez, who could potentially face the rest of her life in prison for three counts of first degree murder – including that of her own boyfriend? Or is it her three children, who may have to grow up without their mother? It certainly isn’t Jacob, Maxwell, or Jaykob, who all three lay six feet under the ground, or their families who have all lost a son, a brother, a nephew, a grandchild.
The sad truth is that sometimes nobody wins. All it took was four humans to collectively make one bad decision to destroy their own lives.
I had the privilege of meeting with Amy Cook, Maxwell Cook’s mother, on an unusually warm February day at a quaint Owasso bookstore approximately twenty-five miles north of the house where her son was killed. When I explained to her that I write both the positive and the negative aspects of a case when I compose an article, she calmly replied, “You can’t write the good without the bad.”
It had been ten months since she’d last seen her son, the second oldest of four children, who had recently turned eighteen and had moved out of the house and in with his girlfriend, Elizabeth Rodriguez. Amy’s face transforms into joyous expressions as she recalls her final day with Max – March 26, 2017 – which she describes warmly as “a gift.”
Everyone in the family had been home that day, which was a rare occasion since each family member had their own busy schedules. Max had stopped by with Elizabeth’s youngest child since the mother of three was sick, and his friend Jacob tagged along. Amy noticed how grown up Max seemed as he sat on the couch, casually chatting with everyone as he bounced the baby on his knee.
“Max had mentioned to me how he wanted to be a father figure to the boy, which I thought was very mature of him,” she recalls.
When the three were leaving, Amy walked them out to the car. As Max buckled in the baby, he suddenly said, “Mom, I really need to get my act together. I don’t think God would be very pleased with me right now.”
Amy and her husband, Chuck, had noticed a change in their son in the recent month. He suddenly had money even though he was unemployed; he could no longer account for his whereabouts when his parents asked. They had not supported Max moving in with Elizabeth since they were not married, but he had just turned eighteen and were trusting him to make his own decisions. They had always raised their children in a Christian household, and hoped he would soon exit this inexplicable phase and return to his old self: playing in the praise and worship band at No Limits Church, teaching his friends to play guitar, and pursuing his dream of enrolling in Oklahoma Technical College to become a diesel mechanic.
Amy had no idea that Sunday would be the last time she would see her son.
Monday, March 27, 2017: Amy was having a quiet morning at her job at an insurance company in Owasso. Her day had been uneventful until about 12:30 in the afternoon, when she felt a searing pain in her stomach. She doubled over with the pain, which was so severe that she began to wonder if her appendix had ruptured. The feeling passed after a few moments, but she had no idea what had caused it. She would later realize this occurred at almost the exact time of Max’s death, and wonder if it was her body’s intuition of the temporary severing between mother and son.
Around 12:45, Amy’s cell phone began buzzing. The name LIZ RODRIGUEZ popped up on the screen, but Amy decided to ignore it, wanting to separate her work from her personal life.
I’m at work. Did you need something? Amy texted her son’s girlfriend, whom she barely knew. They had only met a couple of times, and she seemed like a shy, sweet young girl.
Elizabeth never replied. Amy thought nothing more of it and continued working.
After awhile an odd feeling swept over her, and Amy tried calling and texting Max a few times – to no avail. She logged on to Facebook and checked her son’s profile, and was perplexed to find “RIP” and “Fly high baby boy” written on his page by Elizabeth. As the hours passed, more and more people were writing “RIP” on his page.
Was this some sort of elaborate prank her son’s friends were playing?
“Max, call me back now,” she left in a voicemail on his phone after the third Rest in peace had been posted. “This isn’t funny.”
Amy turned on the news to search for traffic accidents or anything plausible that would explain why people were thinking her child was dead. She saw a breaking news special about a triple homicide in Wagoner County, but that was so far away she didn’t even consider it to be a possibility for her son to be a part of it. What would he be doing way out there?
As the day dragged on without word from her son, and more of his peers posted on his Facebook about how much they were going to miss him (“Social media is cruel,” Amy would later say), she knew something had gone awry. After the extremely inconvenient death of her phone’s battery, she left work and drove home to her children, explaining, “Something is wrong. I don’t know what, but something bad happened to Max.”
Amy quickly charged her phone, and then drove to Elizabeth’s house (the lights were off and nobody appeared to be home). It was on that drive that a sudden, cold understanding crawled over her: her precious son, Max, was dead.
Amy turned the car around and sped to her husband’s work, where Chuck’s shift was had just ended. Together in the parking lot, they called the Wagoner County sheriff’s office.
“My son is Maxwell Cook. Was he one of the boys shot and killed in the Broken Arrow home invasion?” she asked.
The bodies had not been identified yet, the officer had said. When Amy offered to go to the Tulsa Medical Examiner’s Office for a visual ID, she was told that was not allowed, and to instead email photo identification of her son to the detective on the case. She and Chuck immediately emailed several pictures of their son, and gave the detective permission to access their son’s state ID from the Department of Motor Vehicles.
A preliminary identification gave them the information they were sadly expecting. The grief-stricken parents immediately drove home to their remaining children, where they managed to break the news. Three siblings were now without a brother; two parents were left with only three of their four precious children.
Their pastor called, and the congregations of three churches the Cooks had gone to over the years – Bethel Baptist, First Baptist of Owasso, and No Limits Church – all came over to comfort the grieving family.
Amy and Chuck began the somber phone tree to notify family members until the task became overwhelming; the Cooks had family across the United States, and calling each of them would take all night. As much as Amy was against being notified this way, she went ahead and posted on her Facebook page for everyone to see:
Although the family already knew the truth, it was not until two days later – Wednesday, March 29, 2017 – that Max was publicly identified as one of the teens shot and killed in the home invasion. Elizabeth Rodriguez was also ascertained to be the getaway driver, as she turned herself in to authorities in order to give them information about the three boys’ deaths. She was promptly arrested for her part in the crime.
The news broke across the nation, and opinions about the case flew wildly. Some people felt the teens deserved to die, while others thought shooting them was excessive.
“The media did a very good job making my son look like a thug,” Amy says tearfully, “but they didn’t watch him take his first steps. They didn’t walk him to his first day of school.” She describes her son as a friend of the underdog; an intelligent, goofy, accepting, and compassionate child who made a positive impact on others. Whenever he saw someone alone at school, he swept them up under his wing and befriended them.
Max was an energetic and creative child growing up, once taking a mattress on a float trip down the river. Another time Amy overheard him convincing his brothers and sister to jump off the roof into a pile of leaves he’d raked (she quickly ran outside and intervened).
“He brought excitement and drama in a good way,” she remembers. “He was the life of the party.”
Max was also a talented musician, teaching his friends to play guitar just as his father had taught him years before. Max’s Instagram is full of brief guitar performances and a cappella riffs – anything from Maroon 5 to Elvis. Intermingled with these videos are photos of Max with his family and friends.
“He never left the house without saying ‘I love you,’” Amy remembers.
There were approximately 700 people in attendance at her son’s funeral, which took place at First Baptist Church of Owasso on the third of April. There was a time of praise and worship, where songs such as “What a Beautiful Name It Is” and “No Longer Slaves” were performed. Max’s favorite song, “Blackbird” by the Beatles, was also played. Amy stood up and sang a song as well; a final tribute to her musically gifted child.
A year later, the Cook family is now preparing for Elizabeth Rodriguez’s trial. Amy plans to pray over the entire courtroom each time she enters.
“I want the truth, even if it makes my son look bad,” she says.
She and Chuck have mixed feelings about the trial against Elizabeth, as well as the entire situation surrounding their son’s death. Always supportive of the Second Amendment, the two once considered purchasing a gun to keep in the house for safety. They understand Zach Peters’ right to defend himself, but must simultaneously grieve for their son and come to terms with the decisions he made that ended his life.
“We raised Max better than that,” Amy says. “No normal parent raises their child like that. Kids still do awful things. He’s one hundred percent guilty, but he did not deserve the death penalty.”
Amy harbors no hatred for Elizabeth either, who, according to police reports, was the mastermind behind the burglary. According to the only other witness who was in the car with Elizabeth that day (who is a minor, and therefore will remain anonymous in this article), none of the boys wanted to partake in the break-in that day, but Elizabeth convinced them and drove them to the house in Broken Arrow where they would ultimately be killed.
The two women write letters back and forth as the trial looms in the distance. Elizabeth has spoken to the media about regretting her role in the deaths of the three boys, and has defended Zach Peters’ actions as well.
“She didn’t want my son to die, but the law is the law. But what if she could do something better with her life?” Amy questions.
Amy also wonders what drove her good and well-behaved son to stray from his upbringing. After his death, the Cooks realized this was not his first break-in (Elizabeth also confirms this in an interview with the media), and ask themselves why he began participating in such illegal and dangerous activities. Was it for the money? Was it to impress Elizabeth?
Max’s autopsy report had given another insight into a possible motive that the Cooks were unaware of. Trace amounts of drugs were in his system, and Amy wonders if he had run out of money and needed to purchase more.
Despite the decisions her son made in the final weeks leading up to his death, the Cooks choose to remember Max as the funny, charming, and wonderful person he was: a young man who befriended everyone, talked about his Christian faith openly, and gave the best hugs.
“That’s what I miss most about him,” Amy says, “his great big smile and his bear hugs.”
Max’s mother strives to bring some good from this tragic situation, taking the broken wings of her son’s death and learning to take flight without him. Every day she seeks God’s will, and she feels called to write to and connect with other grieving mothers who are suffering the losses of their own children. She also wants to teach others not only to make positive choices, but to truly consider the consequences of each action.
“Everyone is forgivable,” Amy asserts. “Your actions in one moment do not define you, but even someone leading a good life can make a fatal decision.”