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6 people allege former Mountie sexually assaulted them as teenagers

WARNING: This story contains details of abuse.

When Graeme Willson first called CBC News more than a decade ago, he came across as a broken man.  Some of his thoughts were jumbled and rambly, but his central memories and message seemed crystal clear.

In 1982, when he was a teenager in Abbotsford, B.C., he said he’d been sexually assaulted multiple times by a man who had power over him and trust in the community: an on-duty RCMP constable.

“I was repeatedly assaulted and victimized and stalked by Const. Don Cooke,” he said in a 2007 interview with CBC.

“There was never a moment that was anything that was less than sickening and frightening and disgusting to me, through the whole period.” 

He described Cooke as “a policeman that uses his authority to manipulate and twist and destroy people.” 

Willson told CBC that he and his family had reported the allegations to the RCMP in 1982 but felt they had not been believed. 

His life had been a mess ever since, he said.

Graeme Willson is shown during an interview with CBC News in 2007. (CBC)

Willson’s account, while vivid and heartbreaking, was unproven. To this day Cooke, in court documents and in a recent email from his lawyer to CBC, denies ever sexually assaulting anyone.

But Willson also said there was more to the story than just him.

Willson told CBC News that the Abbotsford Police Department had told him they were then investigating similar allegations against Cooke made by a number of other men.

“When I heard [there might be others],” he said, “it made me cry.”

Those others, who’ve never spoken publicly on this until now, are still fighting for compensation from Cooke and the RCMP decades later.

6 alleged victims, 1 officer

Willson said police told him the others had been teen boys on a local minor hockey team coached by Cooke at around the time of the allegations Willson himself was making. 

But Abbotsford police had given him no other details, he said. Neither they nor the RCMP have ever agreed to CBC requests for comment on the allegations.

What followed, over a period of about 15 years, was some of those other people, with allegations similar to Willson’s, stepped forward to CBC.

In addition to being a Mountie, Don Cooke, pictured on the far right, was the coach of the Matsqui Abbotsford Minor Hockey team, shown here during the 1985-86 season. (Submitted by Bob Callan)

First, it was two of the former hockey players. Then another man from Abbotsford. And eventually two women from Newfoundland. Each alleged assaults by the same RCMP constable.

Cooke, now 64 and retired, was criminally investigated on the sexual assault allegations by his former hockey players but in 2009, B.C. Crown counsel decided not to charge him. Its reasons were not made public. 

Likewise, Abbotsford police have not made public the details of their investigation.

Cooke sued RCMP over investigation

Cooke declined CBC’s request for an interview, referring us to his lawyer, who emphasized in an email that “a thorough investigation of the allegations” was conducted by police and that the Crown counsel “confirmed in writing that no charges would be laid and the police and Crown counsel were closing their file.”

Police in Abbotsford have also said they have no record of the Willson family’s 1982 complaint, though the Willsons insist it happened.

All of those making allegations of assault have also never wavered in their stories.

In the years after the Cooke criminal investigation, there came a flurry of lawsuits, accusations and denials, and lie detector tests failed and passed.

Willson himself had sued Cooke in 2005 but abandoned it when Cooke was not charged. 

Embittered that his allegations seemed not believed, Willson effectively disappeared. He distanced himself from friends and family and broke contact with his lawyer.

Const. Don Cooke, of the Abbotsford RCMP, tours the new police facilities on Marshall Road in this archival image from 1984. (Dave Paller/Abbotsford News/The Reach)

In 2010, Cooke sued the RCMP and others over the investigation into the complaints against him. 

In his suit, Cooke claimed there was no merit to the allegations and that the investigation itself had outed him as a gay man within the RCMP, which he labelled “homophobic.” He said he therefore could no longer work as an RCMP constable. 

The episode left him suffering “depression” and “panic attacks,” he said.

In his statement of claim, he also said one of the hockey players was “bitter and angry” because Cooke had once suspended him from the hockey team; Willson, who’d once failed a lie detector test, was “unreliable,” he said.

The suit was settled privately.

‘He’s a predator,’ alleges former hockey player

At around that time, one of the former hockey players, Bob Callan — the one Cooke had labelled bitter and angry — filed a lawsuit in 2012 against both Cooke and the RCMP. 

Callan has described for CBC alleged assaults in the team’s shower room, in Cooke’s private vehicle and in the basement of the home Cooke shared with another Mountie.

“He’s a predator,” Callan said in an interview with CBC News. “He takes advantage of people.

“He uses his power as king of the hill.”

Callan, now 53, recently took CBC News back to the Abbotsford arena where he alleges some of the sexual assaults occurred when he was a teen.

Bob Callan, now 53, alleges he was sexually assaulted as a teen by Don Cooke, who was his minor hockey coach at the time. (Dave Rae/CBC)

“I don’t think there’s a day that goes by that you don’t remember the kind of things that have happened, and the things that will never go away and you’ll remember for the rest of your life,” he said, seated parked in front of the arena, wiping tears from his eyes.

“They’re not … the memories you want to listen to.”

Callan never complained at the time, he said, because Cooke threatened him.

“I was told that because of his position, because of his knowledge with policing, that I would be killed … I would vanish,” he said.

“Nobody would ever find me — if I said anything to anybody.”

Cooke befriended teen’s family

Shortly after Callan filed his lawsuit, another Abbotsford man, Tom Thiessen, now 55, filed his own civil suit against Cooke and the RCMP.

Thiessen alleges that as a 14-year-old, he was “held down and basically raped.”

“I mean, it’s very sickening,” he said.

Thiessen told the CBC he met Const. Cooke at a traffic stop one day while out riding his new bike.

“I was so proud of it, and he told me the same — that he had just got a new bike and maybe one day we could go for a bike ride.”

Talk of cycling turned to multiple ride-alongs in Cooke’s RCMP cruiser, and then visits to Cooke’s home. That, in turn, led to impromptu wrestling matches, then casual touching — then, as Thiessen alleges, sexual assault.

“I was just kind of freaked out and scared about everything that was happening,” he told CBC News. 

Cooke befriended his whole family, he said, to the point where Thiessen’s parents hung Cooke’s RCMP portrait on their living room wall, thrilled their young son had a Mountie as an apparent mentor.

Don Cooke’s RCMP portrait was hung on the living room wall of Tom Thiessen’s family home. Thiessen said his parents were thrilled their son had a Mountie as an apparent mentor. (Submitted by Tom Thiessen)

Thiessen said he was nauseated by the photo but didn’t have the heart to tell his parents.

Thiessen alleges Cooke assaulted him multiple times while Cooke was on duty, including in a farmer’s field near the Thiessen family home.

“Always in his police cruiser,” said Thiessen. “Several times.”

Thiessen also said that Cooke’s roommate, a fellow RCMP constable and Abbotsford hockey coach, once found the teen in Cooke’s bed but said and did nothing.

A decade later, that constable killed himself at an RCMP detachment at Courtenay, B.C.

RCMP in talks with civil litigants

In 2019, as the lawsuits by Callan and Thiessen edged forward, they were joined by another former hockey player and teammate of Callan’s. Travis Piers filed a separate lawsuit against Cooke and the RCMP, alleging that during “the years 1982 through 1985, he was sexually assaulted on numeous occasions by … Donald Cooke.” 

And this year, two more people have come forward privately with fresh allegations.

Two women from Newfoundland, where the RCMP transferred Cooke after his time in B.C., tell CBC News that, as they put it, Cooke cultivated malicious sexual relationships with each of them as teenagers, beginning in 1986.

One described being terrified, as Const. Cooke allegedly once locked her inside an RCMP holding cell.

CBC News has agreed not to identify the two women because they fear stigmatization in the tiny community where they once lived.

Graeme Willson, left, and Bob Callan, right, are shown as teenagers in these undated family photos. (Submitted by the Willson family/Submitted by Bob Callan)

Both women learned of the ongoing civil suits only by chance, through a Google search, and last year reached out to the men in B.C. who are suing Cooke and the RCMP. They have since provided statements meant to support the men’s allegations.

Both told CBC News they’d each kept quiet for decades because they felt shame over what had happened and because they’d each thought they were the “only one.”

Now, the RCMP and the three men with active civil suits in B.C. have entered into talks that could lead to a settlement.

If they reach a deal, the details would likely be kept private under a non-disclosure agreement, which is common in such cases.

‘Nobody listened’

Cooke is not a part of the talks. Neither is Graeme Willson.

In the years after he abandoned his suit and left his social circle, few heard much from or about Willson. Until 2017 when, in a trailer in a B.C. homeless encampment, someone found his body. He’d been dead for some time. 

It was later determined he had overdosed on fentanyl.

In that 2007 interview with CBC, Willson described how his earlier life had been derailed.

“It has destroyed who I was or who I could have been,” he said. “It destroyed all my dreams. Anything I wanted to do in my life, I never did.”

For his part, Thiessen remains enraged over how everything has played out.

“It makes me very angry that nobody listened, that’s he’s still out on the street. And I believe he’s probably still doing what he did to us. And, you know, everybody has to pay and … the system didn’t stop [him] when they should have.

“He’s the only person I actually hate,” said Thiessen. “And I don’t hate people much, but I hate him.”

Callan is likewise angry, but he is also determined to push on in the civil process.

He is speaking out now so that others can know this story and, he hopes, can learn from it.

“Sad part is he’ll always, seems like, he’ll always have a small piece of you. Sometimes that’s hard to let go, because you beat yourself up so much,” he said.

“[You] think so many things about how you should have got out of it, or what you should have done different. Why were you in that position … you know, to be so vulnerable.”

Support is available for anyone who has been sexually assaulted. You can access crisis lines and local support services through this Government of Canada website or the Ending Violence Association of Canada database. ​​If you’re in immediate danger or fear for your safety or that of others around you, please call 911. 

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