A week into trial and more than four years after filing a claim on his girlfriend's life insurance policy, a Dundalk man accused in a lawsuit of killing the woman to collect on the $700,000 policy has settled the case by agreeing that her family will receive most of the proceeds.
Stephen M. Cooke Jr., 33, accepted the family's offer to divide the approximately $575,000 payment from the life insurance policy for which Heidi Bernadzikowski applied the month before she was killed.
Cooke, listed as the primary beneficiary on the policy, will get 20 percent of the insurance benefits while Timothy Bernadzikowski, Heidi's brother, who was listed on the policy as the secondary beneficiary, will receive 80 percent of the money.
The lawsuit sought to bar Cooke from receiving any of the insurance money under the so-called "slayer's rule," which says that anyone who intentionally causes the death of an insured person is barred from collecting the policy's benefits.
The settlement, reached Monday afternoon in Baltimore County Circuit Court, closes one chapter in the death of Bernadzikowski, a 24-year-old administrative assistant for a health insurance benefits company who was found strangled and with her throat slit in April 2000 on the living room floor of the Dundalk townhouse she shared with her boyfriend.
But a lawyer for the Bernadzikowski family said the woman's relatives await what they consider to be the more important legal milestone - the completion of a successful criminal prosecution in Heidi Bernadzikowski's death.
"The family is relieved to put this part of it behind them," attorney Michael T. Wyatt said, "But for them, there can be no closure until the criminal case is resolved."
No one has been arrested or charged in Bernadzikowski's death. During the trial last week, a lawyer for Cooke said the Pigtown native was not involved in his girlfriend's death.
Also during the trial, a Baltimore County police detective testified that Cooke remains the sole suspect in the homicide, lawyers in the case said. That detective, Cpl. Allen Meyer, had been assigned in 2000 as the lead homicide investigator in the Bernadzikowski case. Meyer has since been promoted to the Police Department's investigative services unit in Parkville.
Meyer and his former partner, Detective Kurt Wilhelm of the homicide unit, said yesterday that the investigation remains open.
Although the life insurance case was a civil matter, jurors would have had to decide a question more commonly raised in criminal court.
By a "preponderance of the evidence" - a lower threshold than the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard used in criminal court - jurors would have been asked to determine whether Cooke intentionally caused the death of his girlfriend.
But the jury never got a chance to deliberate.
On Monday afternoon, after the plaintiffs wrapped up their case and Cooke's attorney called three witnesses to testify, the defense told Judge Lawrence R. Daniels that Cooke had decided to accept the Bernadzikowski family's settlement offer from last week.
"He decided enough was enough," defense attorney Joseph A. Miklasz said. "He's going to pay his lawyer and his expenses, and he wants to continue his education, get his degree and move on with his life."
Although Miklasz had told jurors in his opening statement that his client would testify, Cooke never did.