Thirty-six-year-old Cleophus Cooksey Jr. is accused of eight murders and suspected of a ninth. Two of the shooting deaths attributed to Cooksey stand out. New reports document the deaths of Salim Richards and Maria Villanueva and the ensuing investigations, describing unpublished accounts of Cooksey’s near-misses with law enforcement, revealing details that do not perfectly square with official accounts, and suggesting a closer web of relationships between the suspect and his victims, who were all killed between Thanksgiving and Christmas last year. The killings of Villanueva and Richards connect many or all of the other killings in different ways. New Times takes a deeper look separately at what happened to both victims, and maybe why. SECOND OF TWO PARTS.
Salim Richards was not the kind of man to get jumped by a stranger.
The 35-year-old private security guard grew up streetwise, on what his mother Sandra Johnson called “the most homicidal block in Brooklyn.” He stood 6-foot, 4-inches, and weighed 307 pounds. He carried a 9 mm Glock pistol.
Johnson taught her son to be respectful and respected, to not hang around those fools down the block. She described it as a place where kids grew up used to hearing gunshots and seeing bodies, where they expected trouble and not much help. The kind of place Richards chose to leave behind.
“My son was peaceful,” Johnson said.
On December 2, 2017, Richards was heading into the Cove at 44th Apartments in west Phoenix when somebody shot him once through the chest. The killer took his Glock and a golden chain around his neck.
At first, police said it looked like a random robbery gone bad. That’s what the Phoenix detective told Johnson, she said. Later, the detective suggested it was a drive-by, that Richards had been shot inside his car, or outside his car, or inside the apartment building, or outside it.
Separated by 2,145 miles and time, Johnson is left to ponder inconsistencies and gaps in the stories she’s heard from police and the people closest to her dead son. Those snippets of information just don’t add up for her.
She’s left with theories and suspicions.
But new details have come to light in the official police reports.
Those reports suggest Richards may not have been jumped by a stranger. Rather, they build a mosaic of the people in his life and their connections to each other and to the man police say killed him, Cleophus Cooksey Jr. They also hint at connections to other men police say Cooksey shot dead in a three-week rampage a year ago.
On the night of December 2, Salim Richards, who worked in government offices for Blackstone Security, was in his apartment near Christown Spectrum Mall. He had some beans on the stove. His girlfriend, Iara Muniz-Torres, at the time a paralegal in the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, invited him over to her place in west Phoenix.
Richards agreed to pick up Bacardi and strawberries for their dinner date.
The couple had been dating around six months. Richards was smitten. He told his mother back in Brooklyn that his new girlfriend “was the one,” and that someday she’d be the mother of his children.
Muniz-Torres lived in the Cove on 44th Apartments, a stucco apartment complex just behind a strip mall on the corner of 43rd Avenue and Indian School Road.
Richards always parked his black 2007 Acura TL on the same side of the complex. But this time, Richards approached the complex on foot, from the store around the corner.
At 7:44 p.m., police responded to reports of gunfire at the apartments. There, in the parking lot, they found Richards dead, laying face-up next to a white truck.
A trail of blood led to a yellow Dodge Challenger. Blood was all over the trunk and back bumper. Nearby was a 9 mm Luger casing, a bottle of Bacardi mix, and a small bottle of liquor.
“My son is very repetitious. He used to drive me crazy with that repetitious stuff. He does the same thing every time. That night, he took a different route to her apartment and he got killed,” Johnson said.
Fifteen minutes before Richards was shot, Cooksey received a text message, police say. The cell tower served the Cove apartments. Four minutes before the shooting, his phone was within 200 yards east of the crime scene. Four minutes after the shooting, it was the same distance to the south of it.
An hour after the shooting, Cooksey texted a friend that he’d meet at a Circle K a quarter-mile away.
The night after the shooting, Cooksey posted a YouTube video, sporting a gold-colored chain. Muniz-Torres and some of Richards’ friends later told police Richards wore one just like it. It was distinct because it was chunky, but it lay flat, and the clasp would oxidize and leave green marks on his neck.
Police later traced the bullets from future shootings to Richards’ stolen Glock. They said Cooksey used it in all the subsequent murders.
Twenty-one days after the first killing linked to Cooksey, and two weeks after Richards was shot to death, police took Cooksey into custody and the shootings stopped.
Phoenix police interviewed three of Richards’ friends from around his pad in the Missouri Crossings Apartments on 17th Avenue, across the street from the mall and Solano Park.
Two were neighbors: 47-year-old Roy Stewart and 42-year-old Lonnie Terrell. The third man, 48-year-old Greg Carey, claimed he was Richards’ best friend and bought him the chain he died wearing.
Carey and Stewart had keys to Richards’ apartment, his mother said. Stewart turned off the beans that were on his stove the night he died, he told her.
Carey saw a picture of Cooksey on a police board and said without prompting, “That’s Cleo.” He told police Cooksey hung around Richards’ apartment complex. He also hung out in Solano Park, where he went to the YMCA or shot hoops. Carey told police he had seen him 10, maybe 20 times.
He said Cooksey and his friends were not close to Richards’ circle. Carey and Richards rarely spoke with Cooksey. Carey described him as “arrogant,” always talking about “whipping somebody’s ass.”
Instead, it was more like a friends-of-friends arrangement, Carey said. He mentioned a slim Hispanic man named Jesus, who was 5-foot-7 and also went to Solano Park.
That description fits Jesus Real, who police say Cooksey shot dead on December 11, possibly with the gun he stole from Richards, but they’ve never charged him.
Richards never mentioned to Carey that he’d ever had any problems with Cooksey. But Richards told his mother about one, a month before he died. He and his girlfriend, Muniz-Torres, were walking. Cooksey showed up and made such a scene that Richards pulled his gun on him, Johnson said.
Carey told police a slightly different version of that story. He explained how Richards had a restraining order against a woman he once dated. She told Carey that Richards had “got into it with some guys” at the apartment over a woman, and he pulled a gun on one. The other man, she reported, told Richards he “wasn’t over it,” and planned to “get him.” But Carey told police the woman was “unreliable.”
Carey also told police he recognized photos of Latorrie Beckford from Solano Park and the basketball courts at Maryvale Community Center. Carey used to live on 59th Avenue, less than a mile away. He, Richards, Cooksey, and Beckford all played basketball there together, he told police.
Police say Cooksey killed Beckford on December 13 and Kristopher Cameron two days later.
The community center is within a mile of, and halfway between, where Beckford, Cameron, and Richards were each gunned down in separate attacks.
Roy Stewart told police he didn’t know Cooksey and didn’t recognize any of the other victims. Lonnie Terrell said much the same, but when he saw a picture of Cooksey, he said he recognized him from state prison.
Arizona Department of Corrections records confirm that between September 2003 and June 2004, both men were in the Buckley unit at Lewis prison at the same time.
Cooksey was serving 16 years for a strip club stick-up. In 1994, Terrell was convicted of second-degree murder and served time until 2013.
He also was convicted separately of a minor marijuana possession charge.
Stewart also had a lengthy criminal history, which started with a 1991 theft and evading police case and another that involved trafficking stolen goods. In 1994, he was charged with armed robbery and aggravated assault. He was charged with a narcotic drug offense in 2003 and with drug paraphernalia earlier this year. Every time, he pleaded guilty.
As police investigated Richards’ death, Carey brought them some screenshots of text messages on Richards’ phone between him and a man who had been involved in a major drug bust nearly a decade earlier. Richards may have had as many as three phones. Richards’ mother said Carey was taking care of personal effects not seized by police after the shooting.
Carey explained that Richards had a run-in with a man who worked at a Subway restaurant in downtown Phoenix on Jefferson Street, where Richards and Muniz-Torres sometimes went for lunch. One day in October, the Subway man learned a woman he was dating had given Richards her phone number.
When Richards went back to Subway, the man screamed at him, followed him to work, and harassed him there. Richards filed a police report on October 27, five weeks before he died.
Richards’ friends told police he was not overly concerned. The screenshots involved the harassment complaint.
The man in the text messages has a long history with the criminal justice system. Between 2009 and 2012, he was prosecuted twice on marijuana possession charges and once for fleeing police. He pleaded out each time.
But it was a 2008 case that really landed him in the mire. He was one of 46 defendants in a massive street-gang drug case brought by the Arizona Attorney General’s Office. Detectives tapped a dozen telephones, recorded more than 7,100 calls and transcribed 14,000 pages of conversations.
The state charged the man in Richards’ text messages with 20 felonies. The day the wiretap evidence came out, he pleaded guilty to one count, admitting his role in a criminal enterprise. A judge sentenced him to two years’ probation.
He told court authorities he had moved to Arizona from Milwaukee, where he left a mother on crack cocaine, a father in and out of prison, and job of three years at Subway. Phoenix police could not confirm if the man in the phone was the same person as the man at the downtown Phoenix Subway.
Back in Brooklyn, Sandra Johnson is waiting for answers and a straight story. She says she’s heard too many conflicting ones.
Nobody ever told her about basketball in the park, Cooksey, or the criminal backgrounds of so many people in her son’s life. None of it made sense to her.
“My son didn’t sell no drugs. He didn’t hang around guys like that. That’s why he left,” Johnson said, her hardened Brooklyn accent unmistakable.
Richards’ friends told police he “wasn’t into anything shady.”
Phoenix Police Detective Jean Butcher called Johnson a day or two before cops told the press that Cooksey was a suspect in nine killings. She told the mother she’d be “very happy” soon. Butcher had told her earlier that she’d recovered Richards’ journal from his apartment. In it were details so graphic they would lead straight to the killer, Johnson recalled the detective saying.
But Johnson wants to know more about the Subway worker. Muniz-Torres had told her the worker got angry every time he saw her with Richards, Johnson said. The man threatened to kill him, she said. The man told them “I just got out of prison. Seven years for manslaughter. And I will kill you. I’m a trained killer. I know how to kill somebody with one shot.”
“That always stuck in my heart,” Johnson said.
Now, she wondered whatever happened to that line of inquiry. Why had nobody pursued the Subway incident?
As Johnson’s questions linger, hints peek out from the 100 pages of the police reports into his death.
Salim Richards lived near, and reportedly played basketball with, people who had a string of legal issues. His circle of friends potentially connects two, maybe three other victims: Real, Beckford, and possibly Cameron.
Richards dated a woman he called “the one.” Cleo Cooksey dated a woman he called the love of his life. They broke up the day before her brother, Jesus Real, was shot. Maria Villanueva was similar in appearance to the women Richards and Cooksey dated.
Richards, who his mother called a woman magnet, reportedly squared off violently three times in disputes with other men over women in the last weeks of his life. One was on the street with Cooksey, another was at his apartment complex with a man who’d been in prison on a murder charge, and the third was at the downtown Subway with a man who might have been involved in a street gang.
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Prosecutors, armed with strong evidence — forensics, witnesses, the bullets, DNA, cellphone tracking — are marching forward with a death-penalty trial for Cooksey in eight of the nine shooting deaths. But Sandra Johnson is not interested in a clean verdict.
She wants to know the messy truth. She wonders why someone killed her son and if anyone put him up to it. She doesn’t understand why police dropped the other leads.
“People we trusted to get the truth out haven’t done it,” Johnson said, her voice rising. “And I’m gonna find the killer who killed Salim.”