Cleo Cooksey is a lover, not a killer. In his mind.
In the minds of Phoenix police detectives, Cleophus Cooksey Jr. shot nine people dead between Thanksgiving and Christmas in 2017. Maricopa County prosecutors have charged him in eight of those killings and are seeking the death penalty.
He told police his mother was “a rock,” and “a great lady.”
He shot her in the head, police say. The man Cooksey described as a brother, he shot point-blank in the face while he slept, police allege.
But in a three-hour police interview in January 2018 obtained through a public records request by Phoenix New Times, Cooksey depicted himself as a man of God, reformed in prison, someone who saw the light in people. And people saw the light in him. Especially women. He boasted of thousands of women friends on Facebook and told the Phoenix police detective his nickname in high school was Playboy.
So when that detective showed him a picture of Maria Villanueva, told him she was dead, and that Cooksey’s DNA was found at the scene, Cooksey snapped.
“I’m not gonna leave her, a woman dead!” Cooksey said as it dawned on him that he was now being accused of her murder.
“I wouldn’t …That’s not what I do. That’s not my kind of grief. I’ve never been that type of person,” he said. “I have no reason to do that. What would I get out of killing an innocent woman that helps me?”
Later, after he calmed down a little, he told Detective Paul Dalton, “I love women,” adding, “If you listen to some my songs, anything I say about a woman is building 'em. I could never do nothing like that.”
It’s true the man who also went by the rap name King Playbola penned sweet love songs to the woman who he called his queen and the light of his life. But he also rapped about leaving a woman to die in the dirt after sex, the same way Villanueva was found.
Dalton asked if there were “two Cookseys,” one light, the other dark.
Cooksey said, “only one.”
The wide-ranging interview touched on his personal struggles, dreams, criminal record, relationships, and more, all bound up in 346 pages of police reports released to New Times.
Police have never offered a motive for any of the fatal shootings. Cooksey’s own words come closest yet to understanding what drove a man who police say could have equaled the Baseline Killer, Mark Goudeau, as the most prolific serial killer in Arizona history.
From the three-inch stack of documents, new details are emerging about Cooksey’s mindset, the last crime he was accused of, his dramatic capture, and the ensuing investigation.
Detective Dalton had his reasons for asking about two Cookseys. He told Cooksey he’d interviewed thousands of suspects who were “crazy as fuck.”
In the interview room, Cooksey appeared composed. His reaction to the idea he heard voices: “Hell, no!”
But during Cooksey’s arrest and the shooting that led to it in a tight bundle of beige condos at 1320 East Highland Avenue on December 17, 2017, witnesses heard some strange things come out of his mouth.
Phoenix Police Detective Michelle Cervantes later testified in court that neighbors reported overhearing a heated argument about devils and demons.
Witness accounts all followed a similar vein. A series by dull thuds, like furniture knocking into a wall. A couple of loud bangs. A woman screaming. Then, an African-American woman slumped with her arm across the chest. Shouting between two men. More bangs. A darkened apartment, where usually the door was open and the inside visible.
Some of the neighbors knew the occupants, recognized the voices. One reported Edward Nunn shouting at Cooksey, using words like “Satan” and telling him to get out, that he was trouble. Some had heard similar arguments before. Cooksey had lived there for months, but always left after previous rows.
Officer Brian Authement was the first on the scene, responding at 7:50 p.m. to a “shots fired” call.
Instantly, the officer noticed a doorway deluged in gore, but no trails of blood leading to it, nor any shell casings around it. He figured somebody was seriously hurt beyond the doorway and there was no time for backup, he said in his report.
The door was locked. He banged on it and announced police presence.
The lock clicked open and Cooksey emerged behind a still-locked screen door. He told the officer that nothing was going on and nobody else was inside. But he kept his right hand behind his back.
He appeared to fling something to his right.
Authement ordered him to put his hands up and come out.
Cooksey started to reach for something to his right, but thought better of it. He cracked the door and squeezed through, never giving Authement a glimpse of what lay beyond.
The officer asked him where all the blood came from.
Cooksey quickly scanned both his arms and settled on a hand wound, which Authement “equated to a paper cut.” Cooksey said he was “much better now.”
Authement told him he was going to be detained, which enraged the 35-year-old ex-con.
“He turned and faced me, puffed up his chest, and tightened his arms while balling his fists, and banged his arms against his side yelling, “I’m the strongest man alive,” and “I’ll cut your fucking throat,” Authement reported.
The officer still had no backup. No backup. The “strongest man alive” was a few feet away, raging.
Authement kicked Cooksey in the midriff and backed away. Cooksey got up and advanced, screaming, “I control the gun.” The officer’s service pistol was holstered.
So he unclipped his stun gun, ordered Cooksey on the ground, and when he refused, introduced him to high-voltage policing. Cooksey remained on the ground, with the electrical leads still pinned to his chest.
Authement, by the way, was the same officer who got into trouble in 2010 after Phoenix Councilman Michael Johnson accused Authement of assaulting him as he rushed to a fire to help.
After backup arrived at Cooksey's residence, a sergeant guarded Cooksey, while others cleared the condo.
Cooksey’s ire resurfaced. The sergeant reported Cooksey said he was Donald Trump, repeated it, and then blurted, “I did this for Donald Trump.”
A pair of officers zip-tied him and bundled him into the police Chevy Tahoe.
There, the diatribe continued, another officer reported.
Cooksey told him, “I’m a 33rd degree Mason. You have no right to detain me. You can’t cage me and I know what’s going on here.”
Beyond the condo portal lay horror.
Authement pushed on the door with all his weight to force his way inside. Two corpses blocked the way. Gore splashed the hallway.
Forensic experts and back-up officers found bloody footprints or blood splatter in just about every room. Crimson sprayed the kitchen ceiling.
Rene Cooksey – his mother, his rock – had a hole in the top of her head. Pathologists later recovered a bullet from her neck. Stepfather Edward Nunn had been shot between the eyes. Pathologists later pulled bullet fragments from his face and torso.
Back at the interview room, Cooksey told detectives how his grandfather started Arizona’s civil rights movement, how he himself worked for the government, and that he wanted to call Trump. Then he stopped talking and demanded a lawyer.
That would change.
THE VASQUEZ SISTERS
The other important woman in Cooksey’s life, another of his great loves, was Liliana Vasquez – Lily.
Nearly a month after the arrest, on January 11, 2018, Detective Dalton pushed a photo of her in front of Cooksey.
The suspect identified her and acknowledged that she was special.
“That’s my queen. I love Liliana,” he said.
Then Cooksey confided, “She’s gone and I miss her.”
Already Vasquez had told police why. She spoke to them for 24 minutes from Estrella Jail, two days after Cooksey’s arrest.
She explained that she broke up with him because Cooksey was seeing other women and got one of them pregnant. They had grown distant and she didn’t care anymore, Vasquez told police.
She described how he’d come over when he wasn’t staying at his mother’s condo on East Highland Avenue. She said Cooksey loved his mother and stepfather.
She hadn’t seen Cooksey for nine days and he had never acted violently toward her, Vasquez told police.
But, like her ex, she was presenting two versions of herself to police, too.
Later Detective Dalton pressed Cooksey on it, asking, “Will she do anything for you?”
“I wouldn’t say she’ll do anything for me, but she loves me. I’m pretty sure she would,” he said, before adding unprompted, “She wouldn’t do no crime for me, and I wouldn’t ask her to. … We kept each other out of trouble.”
Except, that’s exactly what police suspect Lily Vasquez and her sister Griselda Vasquez did. Avondale police booked her into jail on suspicion of tampering with evidence and hindering a murder investigation.
An investigation into the shooting of her own brother, Jesus Real, on December 11, 2017.
When police arrived at the Avondale apartment, they found Real dead on a chaise, shot point-blank in the face while he slept. They did not find any bullet casings, nor Real’s cellphone, even though the charger was right next to his corpse.
Police later found the phone in a nearby motel, with the sisters, they allege in court documents. But prosecutors never filed any indictments against the women, nor in Real’s murder. Police accuse Cooskey of that shooting, but it remains the only one still not prosecuted.
In jail, Lily Vasquez told Phoenix police she didn’t know anything about what happened to her brother or if Cooksey was involved. She said she’d told Avondale police everything she knew. Which landed her in jail.
Police knew the autopsy revealed that bullet fragments inside Real’s head could have come from a 9 mm pistol. They say Cooksey used two such weapons and that he stole one of them from his third victim nine days before Real was shot. They were now hoping Vasquez would describe the Glock, hoping Cooksey really had been flashing it around.
Dalton confronted Cooksey about Real. He said he heard about him getting killed from Lily Vasquez.
Cooksey and Real had grown close. Real trusted him around his sisters. The father accepted him despite the color of his skin and his prison record. He said they were family, that Real “was like my brother.”
About the killing, Cooksey said only, “All I know is he told me he’s gonna invest in my music and the next thing they’re saying he wasn’t around. Like a few days after that.”
A NEW MAN?
Cooksey went to jail the first time at 18 when he and friends tried to rob a Phoenix topless bar. The owner shot and killed his close friend. Cooksey was charged with his friend’s death under the felony murder statute.
He and the young man had grown up together. He lived with Cooksey’s family. So when the state charged him, he was “devastated.”
“It hurt. It just hurt,” he said, insisting he was no killer: “I could never do that.”
He repeated both lines when Dalton confronted him about the 2017 killings.
Fifteen years in prison did not agree with Cooksey. His stretch featured multiple serious disciplinary cases, including fighting, refusing orders, drugs, and assaulting staff, according to a 452-page Arizona Department of Corrections file, released to New Times in response to a public records request.
Cooksey told Detective Dalton a member of the prison staff sexually molested him. He was angry.
The first time Cooksey got out, in 2015, he went straight back in, for a parole violation.
His sentence ended in July 2017, and he walked free.
This time was different. This time, he was making it. At least that’s what he told himself and Detective Dalton.
Cooksey had completed his GED in prison. Jesus Real had helped his hip-hop career and Cooksey had started getting gigs at the Rhythm Room. He got side jobs in construction and selling cellphones.
He was making an average of $300 a week and because he lived with his mother, his costs were low.
And he kept charming the women.
One was named Holly, who told police they’d stopped seeing each other in November, but that news of Cooksey’s arrest “shocked” and “really affected” her. He had never acted violently towards her. When he called her from jail, he told her he was being set up, she told police.
He bragged to Dalton about a rich, Italian lady in her 40s he’d met. Ruth Ann let him drive her convertible Volkswagen Jetta, made lasagna from scratch for him, and took him to the Biltmore to share calamari.
“That lifestyle calls me,” Cooksey said. “Yeah, I belong over there.”
He was trying to be his uncle, his childhood idol.
“I mean, he’s a player. He stayed fresh. He always had the newest of clothes. He wore Gucci before everybody was talking about Gucci,” Cooksey said. “This guy was sly, you know what I mean? He drove the coolest cars. Had the prettiest girls.”
Cooksey told Dalton he’d left his old world behind and he felt a twinge of what he called survivor’s guilt that some of the young men in his circles and neighborhoods would not follow him to “the Biltmore, just metaphorically speaking.”
“I can’t bring them with me like that,” he said, adding, “maybe they just don’t want that.”
For him, “It’s working,” he said. “I (am) envied.”
PROBING THE DARK SIDE
Dalton saw right through the pitch, calling Cooksey “basically a salesman.”
He set him up with a conversation about the light and the dark, asking him how he deals with negativity.
“I’m not entertaining anything negative, anything evil,” Cooksey said. “I have no dealings with the dark side.”
He pushed across the interview table a photo of Maria Villanueva, who had been shot dead and left half-naked in an alleyway west of the airport. He told Cooksey she was dead and his DNA was found at the scene.
“It hurts!” he said.
“I do. I don’t do that. I wasn’t, yeah, I don’t do that stuff. I don’t, I don’t murder women,” Cooksey stammered.
Dalton pressed on, showing photo after photo of the victims.
Then he presented a booking photo of Cooksey on Dec. 20, two days after police arrested him at the scene of his dead parents.
“I don’t see sunshine in that face,” Dalton said.
“Shit hurt, man!” Cooksey replied.
Dalton showed him all the victim photos, all nine.
“We’re gonna go dark again, okay? Every single one of these somehow were linked to you in their deaths, whether it was science or physical evidence. That’s a lotta people, brother.”
“I don’t have nothing to do with none of that,” Cooksey said. “I have no reason to hurt none of these people for any reason or anybody.”
“I don’t have no reason. I’m winning out there.” Cooksey said.
A jury may be the real judge of that.