PASSAIC — The auctioneer sat above the cattle ring and told the crowd what a great herd they were getting ready to bid on: well-tended, top-notch cows and performance-tested bulls.
“They certainly would not be for sale if not for the circumstances,” auctioneer Jim Hertzog said into the microphone.
His voice broke with those words, and he held up a hand: “Give me a second.”
The arena crowd sat stone quiet. Hertzog, wearing a big cowboy hat, took a sip of water.
Then, with game face restored, he started the sale: “All right, boys, let’s take a look at 'em.”
The roundup was bitterly cold, on hands and heart.
With blowing snow, a north wind and temperatures in the teens, workers, including friends and family, herded nearly a thousand head of David Cook’s cattle off the Sterling Ranch in Bates County last week and took them to the Mokan Livestock Market in nearby Passaic, about 50 miles south of Kansas City. Cook kept the cattle on the 10,000-acre ranch, which he managed.
A mystery at the ranch
The ad for last weekend’s “Complete Dispersal Sale” described Cook as a knowledgeable and successful rancher for 35 years who always had a top-producing herd.
It doesn’t say the cattle were being sold because Cook, 55, hasn’t been seen since he disappeared from the ranch one day in mid-November.
His billfold was found inside the house. No disarray; no forced entry. His pickup still sat in the driveway.
“Nobody knows what happened. ... He’s just gone,” said Elsie Cash from behind the counter at McBee’s General Store, about a mile east of the ranch. “He used to stop in here all the time, for food and whatnot. Nice fellow.
“People round here sure are wondering what happened.”
The Sterling Ranch is between the Kansas City Power & Light generating plant at La Cygne, Kan., and Amsterdam, Mo. It’s rough land — a lot of pasture but with brushy hills and strip pits from old mining operations.
The rugged terrain hampered searches by law enforcement and a hundred volunteers.
“Brush is so thick in some places we couldn’t ride a horse through it,” said Judy Transue, Cook’s sister.
The search for answers
After more than a month of diminishing hope, she and others now believe someone took him out of the house and killed him. Over the years, Cook was involved in several volatile situations, including one in which he received death threats for testifying in a federal fraud case, family members and others said.
His daughter asked that her name not be used for this article for fear that she also could be in danger.
She is in her final year of medical school. During the preparation for the auction, she also was taking finals.
“It’s like something out of a movie,” she said this week. “It’s just overwhelming. I’m an only child, so I don’t have siblings to help me with all this. ...
“We’re trying to do what’s right. But if my dad should come back, it would be so sad to him that we’ve sold all his cattle.”
The Missouri State Highway Patrol’s drug and crime control division recently took over the investigation from a local task force. Sgt. Dan Green would say only that investigators are following leads.
“We can’t comment further than that at this time,” Green said.
A reward is up to $80,000.
Transue sat in her Lenexa dining room recently and said the case is difficult because Cook knew so many people from the ranch, cattle business and the power plant, where he also worked. A hunting lodge on the property brought strangers to the ranch.
Her head began to shake as soon as she saw a question coming that maybe her brother just took off ... needed time alone ... had to get away ... went to Europe ... ran off with a woman.
“No way,” she said. Then with a sad smile she added, “If nothing else, David would never leave his cows.”
'What I'll remember about David'
David Cook grew up the oldest of seven children in a farm family near Ballard. He always loved the outdoors and wildlife.
He tried college for a while but eventually quit and went to work. Ranching was what he wanted. He got married and had a daughter. Awhile back, he and his wife divorced. She remains on good terms with his family.
Those who knew him say he didn’t do drugs, gamble, chase married women or have money problems. He was honest, hard-working and well liked.
Hertzog, the auctioneer and one of the owners of the Mokan Livestock Market, met Cook 16 years ago.
“He was a good friend,” Hertzog said. “He and his family are good people. He was very knowledgeable about cattle. The guy worked all the time. Running that ranch and then working at the power plant — he was always going on about three hours of sleep. I don’t know how he did it.
“And here’s the thing: He was always in a good mood, friendly as could be. Take a dull moment, and make it bright. That’s what I’ll remember about David.”
Transue tells this story about her brother:
A few years back, she told him she wanted a colt to raise for riding and asked him to help find one. He did that and then offered to keep the animal at the ranch. Over time, he helped her break the animal.
One day when he finally got a saddle on the horse, he put his boot in the stirrup and was ready to swing himself up when he stopped and glanced at his sister.
He smiled, pulled his boot free and motioned to her — “Get up there.”
“He knew I wanted to be first,” Transue said.
Remembering the moment, she cried.
A family's pain
Mike Cook, a brother, was sitting in an office at Mokan Livestock Market before the start of the auction when the door opened and an employee stuck his head in.
“Mike, we’re getting ready to start,” the man said. “Jim wants to know if you want to say something first.”
Cook shook his head. “I can’t.”
The man nodded and closed the door.
“I don’t even know if I want to go out there because I’ll probably lose it when Jim talks about David,” Cook said.
The past month has been hard on this family. First there was the disappearance and intense search. Then came the realization that David Cook probably was not coming back and that something had to be done with his cattle.
The time of year makes it even harder. For years, 25 to 30 members of the Cook family gathered to celebrate Christmas at the hunting lodge on Sterling Ranch. They would ride horses, and David would show the children the buffalo and elk that lived there. He often sent each child home with a cow’s tooth or set of horns.
“Things are a lot different for all of us this Christmas,” Mike Cook said.
Especially for their father, Millard Cook, 83, who lives in a nursing home in Butler. Not long after his oldest son disappeared, he told Transue: “Find David.”
She took his hand.
“We’re trying, Dad. We’re trying.”