EDINBURG — Donna Tijerina was in tears Monday in anticipation of seeing for the first time the man who robbed her son of his ability to walk.
“I didn’t think it was going to be this hard,” she said, wiping her eyes, as she waited for the trial of the shooter who accidentally struck down two students at Harwell Middle School.
Dustin Wesley Cook, 38, was spared jail time and will instead serve three years of supervised release after pleading no contest to criminal negligence charges during an emotional court hearing Monday morning.
Cook, an Edinburg marksman, was target shooting toward the school from about a mile away when he struck the boys Dec. 12, 2011. The gunshots left Nicholas “Nicko” Tijerina, then 13, paralyzed and Edson Amaro, then 14, with serious internal organ damage.
Nicko and his mother, who moved to Houston after the shooting, returned to face Cook in court with other family members. Edson, who still suffers ongoing physical problems from the shooting, woke up in too much pain to appear, said Assistant District Attorney Gracie Reyna.
Cook was remorseful as he met the Tijerinas for the first time before the courtroom and publicly apologized.
“I’ve spent the last two years praying for you to recover, as well as Edson,” he told Nicko. “I understand your anger and your frustration and I read about a year ago in the newspaper where you had mentioned (me not) reaching out. I tried since day one, but I couldn’t because of the case.
“If I could go back, 1,000 times, I would.”
He bent to hug Nicko in his wheelchair, as well as his mother.
Cook was originally charged with reckless injury to a child, a second degree felony that carries a possible punishment of two to 10 years in prison.
But on Monday, prosecutors allowed him to plead to a lesser charge, criminally negligent injury to a child, a state jail felony that could carry 180 days to two years in a state jail.
Reyna told the court that prosecutors had initially sought the “reckless” charges believing that Cook — an accomplished shooter and former Marine who lives in the area — should have known the school was there and been experienced enough to take more precautions in shooting such a high-powered rifle.
But the reduction in charges acknowledged the accidental nature of what occurred and allowed all parties to skip a full trial.
“The families were onboard — they wanted closure,” she said.
‘A SLAP ON THE WRIST’
Donna Tijerina told 139th state District Court Judge Bobby Flores she had agreed to the plea deal, but still begged him not to let Cook walk totally free as she described the effect on her family in the last two years. She spoke of Nicko’s isolation since the shooting, of his inability to get out of bed or do basic tasks himself and the 18 pills he must take every day.
“I hope to God you don’t give him a slap on the wrist,” she said of Cook. “When I left here I had no intention of coming back because I could not imagine going to Wal-Mart and running into him and trying to explain to my son how he is free.”
“I hope he gets prison so that he understands a little bit of what my son goes through every day.”
Flores announced the evidence found Cook guilty, but declined to give him jail time. The judge instead sentenced him to three years of community supervision for each child, which he will serve concurrently.
“I expected a little bit more, I really did,” Reyna said of the judge’s sentence.
Flores did not explain his decision and could not be reached later at his office to elaborate on it. Reyna had declined to suggest a sentence, saying the District Attorney’s Office had agreed not to, and instead asked the judge to make a decision based on the family’s comments.
In a statement emailed to the media after the hearing, Cook reiterated his apology but maintained that he had been neither reckless nor negligent in the shooting. The Tijerina and Amaro families both have separate civil lawsuits pending against him, seeking monetary damages.
The Tijerinas expressed many emotions after the hearing ended, from anger that the shooter would not see a jail cell to relief that the case at least had been resolved.
“It’s not fair,” said Nicko’s grandfather, Donald Rex, of the sentence. “I would never have agreed to that.”
Nicko himself was matter-of-fact, saying the hearing was difficult but he was glad it was over. His mom seemed to waver between distress over the light punishment and serenity that she had said her piece and it was out of her hands.
“I think he was (sincere), that’s why I hugged him,” she said of Cook. “He’s facing his own demons now.”