The jurors filed into Courtroom No. 12 in Baltimore County Circuit Court yesterday to hear a civil case involving a life insurance claim. But they are also being asked to decide the type of question more commonly raised in a criminal court -- whether a Dundalk man killed a young woman whom he professed was the love of his life to collect on her $700,000 insurance policy.
Over the next six days or so, the jury will hear not only the detailed testimony of the State Farm Insurance agent who handled Heidi Bernadzikowski's life insurance policy but also the details of the woman's death in 2000. The 24-year-old was found strangled and with her throat slit on the living room floor of the Dundalk townhouse she shared with her boyfriend, lawyers for the plaintiffs said yesterday.
At the trial's conclusion, the jury will be asked to decide whether that boyfriend, Stephen M. Cooke Jr., killed her.
"The issue in this case," the man's lawyer, Joseph A. Miklasz, told jurors in his opening statement, "is whether Mr. Cooke is a slayer."
Miklasz told jurors that the last person to see Bernadzikowski alive "was the murderer -- and the murderer was not Stephen Cooke."
The jury's verdict will not result in anyone being sent to prison. The verdict instead will decide whether Cooke can collect the money he says he is owed as the beneficiary of Bernadzikowski's life insurance policy or whether the money will go to her brother, Timothy Bernadzikowski, who was listed on the policy as the secondary beneficiary.
By a "preponderance of the evidence" -- a lower threshold than the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard used in criminal court -- jurors will have to determine whether Cooke intentionally caused the death of his girlfriend and is therefore banned under the so-called "slayer's rule" from collecting insurance benefits.
The plaintiffs' witness list includes the Baltimore County homicide detectives who investigated Bernadzikowski's death -- but never charged anyone with a crime in the case. The defense intends to call an expert witness who will testify that the bloodstains on the clothes Cooke was wearing when police found him cradling his girlfriend's dead body would have been different had he been the one who slit her throat, Miklasz said in his opening statement.
On April 20, 2000, just a minute before 9 p.m., Baltimore County Police Officer Carey Kus was on patrol when a police dispatcher directed her to the 2000 block of Codd Ave. in Dundalk, Kus testified yesterday. The officer happened to be only a few blocks away. She said that it took her no more than a minute and a half to arrive at the brick townhouse from which Cooke had called 911, saying his girlfriend had been "murdered."
When Kus arrived, the front door was locked, and she could hear "some commotion and yelling inside," she testified.
After repeatedly banging on the door and identifying herself, Kus watched as the front door swung open, she testified. Peering around the corner of the door with her gun drawn, Kus found Bernadzikowski propped against the wall on the living room floor and Cooke, his clothes covered in blood, rocking her, the officer testified.
Kus testified that she ordered Cooke to raise his hands and asked if he had any weapons. He pulled a knife from the waistband of his jeans and tossed it toward the door, Kus testified.
The state medical examiner ruled the death a homicide.
William F.C. Marlow Jr., an attorney for Bernadzikowski's brother, told jurors in his opening statement that investigators immediately focused their attention on Stephen Cooke.
The lawyer described Cooke as a "domineering" and "possessive" man who bounced from one low-paying job to another and relied on his girlfriend's income. Even so, Marlow told jurors, Cooke filed for bankruptcy in February 2000, unable to pay more than $200,000 of debt.
The timing of the filing is important, Thomas S. Hood, an attorney for Bernadzikowski's estate, told jurors. Just eight days earlier, he said, Cooke had taken his girlfriend to a State Farm Insurance Co. agent he knew. They took out a $700,000 policy for Bernadzikowski, naming Cooke as the primary beneficiary, and a $900,000 policy for him, naming her as the beneficiary, Hood said.
The difference, Hood told jurors, was that Bernadzikowski complied with the insurance agent's requests for additional information needed to activate the policy. Cooke did not and his policy never went into effect, Hood said.
Also important, the plaintiffs' lawyers told jurors, was a phone conversation three days before Bernadzikowski's death, in which the insurance agent informed Cooke that his girlfriend's policy had been activated.
But Miklasz, the defense attorney, told jurors that they will hear a very different story from his side. He said he has a letter issued by State Farm 10 days before Bernadzikowski's death, saying the policy for which she applied had been "terminated."
The defense attorney also objected to the plaintiffs' suggestion that Cooke went to "great lengths to try to establish an alibi" the night of Bernadzikowski's death when he went to a grocery store to cash a check, withdrew money from an ATM, got an oil change, bought a part for a broken sink at a Home Depot and returned to the grocery store to retrieve a driver's license he said he accidentally left there.
"He's been a victim of this violent crime," Miklasz told jurors. "He is as victimized and probably more hurt than the Bernadzikowskis."
The trial is scheduled to resume today.