EVERETT — When Ken Cowsert looks back at his legal career he sees the faces of children.
He prosecuted some of the worst child abuse cases in Snohomish County history. As a judge, he’s agonized over the kids caught in the middle of ugly divorces. While presiding over the county’s Family Drug Court he has seen how a parent’s addiction can fracture the lives of their children.
Cowsert, 66, can close his eyes and see the children. He has spent his career fighting to protect them and seeking justice for the ones who were hurt.
“You just hope that you’ve done the right thing and had a positive effect,” the Snohomish County Superior Court judge said recently.
“I know I’m not going to make everyone happy, but I’m making the best decisions I can.”
Cowsert is stepping down from the bench today. He is retiring after 26 years with the county. He’s had two careers here, and even met his wife, Helene, on the job.
Cowsert was a seasoned prosecutor when he was hired by Snohomish County in 1985.He earned a reputation here as a deft trial attorney whose courtroom skills left his fellow lawyers in awe. He prosecuted some of the county’s most high-profile cases, including the 1986 beating death of 3-year-old Eli Creekmore.
“To call him a legend as a prosecutor is not too strong,” Snohomish County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Roe said.
He knew how to get information from people, Snohomish County Superior Court Presiding Judge Ellen Fair said. When Cowsert questioned witnesses, he made it seem like he was having a conversation with them.
“His cross examinations were works of art,” Fair said.
Cowsert left the prosecutor’s office in 1995 to become a court commissioner. He was appointed to the Superior Court bench in 1999.
“I know he’s loved and enjoyed being a judge. I don’t know if it has compared to the joys of being a prosecutor. I think that was his first love. He was such a good advocate,” Fair said.
Fair worked alongside Cowsert as a deputy prosecutor. The pair prosecuted serial arsonist Paul Keller after he confessed to setting dozens of fires in the Puget Sound area in 1992 and 1993.
“I learned so much working with him. He was so highly organized. He knew his cases backward and forward,” Fair said.
Cowsert had been prosecuting cases in Snohomish County for about a year when an Everett boy was fatally beaten by his father. Eli Creekmore’s death became one of the most notorious child abuse cases in county history. It led to changes in child abuse laws and brought heavy scrutiny to the practices of state social workers.
Darren Creekmore had beaten his son on numerous occasions. Eli had been removed from the home only to be returned to suffer more violence at the hands of his father. Then in the fall of 1986 Eli was delivered a beating that would take his life. Upset that Eli was crying, Creekmore kicked his son in the stomach. Eli suffered for hours from a ruptured bowel. His father refused to help his son. The boy died alone in his bed.
“That was something else,” Cowsert said.
He and deputy prosecutor Paul Stern were assigned the case.
At first it was unclear how Eli had died. Creekmore, then 26, initially was charged with manslaughter. The story hit the newspapers and the prosecutor’s office was flooded with phone calls from people furious with how the case was charged, Cowsert said.
More evidence came in and Creekmore eventually was charged with second-degree murder.
“I think (Cowsert) would agree that it was a remarkable trial experience,” Stern said. “We had to explain the unfathomable.”
Darren Creekmore was convicted of murdering his son. He was sentenced to 60 years in prison — a sentence nearly four times longer than what was then the high-end of the standard range.
Creekmore, who turns 50 next month, remains locked up in a Kansas prison. His earliest release date is Sept. 15, 2046.
Eli’s death brought more awareness about child abuse in the community, Cowsert said.
Cowsert wasn’t in the courtroom when Creekmore was sentenced. The deputy prosecutor was in the middle of selecting a jury for another child homicide trial.
Three-year-old Steven Collins had suffered burns from scalding water and a hair dryer. He’d been slammed into wall and died of a head injury. His uncle, David Crane was charged with the boy’s murder.
“I can shut my eyes and I’m back in it,” Cowsert said.
He recalled how he held a hot hair dryer to his hand for a brief moment. He wanted to get a sense of what the boy must have endured.
A jury convicted Crane of second-degree murder and he was sentenced to 60 years in prison.
Then in 2005, Crane’s conviction was overturned, along with scores of similar second-degree murder convictions across the state after two controversial state Supreme Court decisions. Crane later pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter and was released from prison after serving about a third of his murder sentence.
Similarly Noreen Erlandson, a former Bothell nurse, was set free 14 years into her 40-year prison sentence after her conviction was invalidated by the higher court’s rulings. Erlandson had been one of the last defendants Cowsert prosecuted. A jury convicted her of fatally beating her 2 1/2-year-old daughter, Kayla.
The kid cases are the ones he can’t shake, Cowsert said.
His experiences with child homicides no doubt shaped his interactions with the parents he’s encountered in the county’s Family Drug Court. Cowsert has been the presiding judge for the therapeutic court since it opened in 2008. The voluntary program is for parents with substance-abuse problems who have lost their children because of allegations of neglect.
The goal is to help parents get clean and sober and give them the tools to keep their children.
Cowsert knows first-hand what can happen to kids in the care of the wrong adults. He has shared those stories with the parents in his court. He recently recalled one hearing when a parent said “I forgot” when asked why a court order wasn’t followed.
Cowsert brought out an autopsy photograph of an infant whose parents he prosecuted in the 1980s. The couple said they had forgotten to feed their newborn child.
“That’s what ‘I forgot’ means to me,” Cowsert said.
Cowsert said he can only hope that something he did or said clicks with the parents.
“He’s been good in that role. He held people accountable and recognized the need for them to get help in overcoming addictions,” Superior Court Judge Ronald Castleberry said.
Cowsert has been a great resource on the bench, Castleberry said.
“You knew you’d get well-grounded advice, especially when it came to criminal law,” he said.
He has good common sense and a great work ethic, Judge Larry McKeeman said.
His advice and his sense of humor will be missed, his fellow judges said.
“I think the bench will also miss his doughnuts,” Castleberry said.
Cowsert, who off the bench often punctuates his point with profanity, also has a sweet tooth.
“Cowsert is the greatest grazer in the courthouse. If there was birthday cake anywhere in the building, he’d find out,” Castleberry said.
Cowsert said he’s going to miss the people he’s come to know over the years. He plans on enjoying retirement, relaxing, riding his tractor and puttering in his woodshop.
“I’m damn sure not watching daytime TV,” he said.
Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; firstname.lastname@example.org.