Prosecutors Depict Scam Turned Deadly; Psychologist’s Killing May Be Linked to Debt
The first note, jotted quickly on a yellow Post-It note, was friendly, almost timid. “Is it possible to meet Wed. or before?” it read, in graceful, precise handwriting. “Possible to get $50K?”Despite that plea and several others, psychologist Rodney Cocking, 59, a researcher for the National Science Foundation, continued to wait in vain for Frederick County contractor Randall H. Gerlach to repay him nearly $300,000, authorities said.
The tone of Cocking’s dispatches changed from gentle to insistent. “I would like to have full payment by February 1, 2002,” he wrote on Jan. 11. “If you foresee any delay, please contact me.”
Three weeks after that deadline, on Feb. 23, authorities say, Gerlach, 57, visited Cocking’s home in Carroll County — and beat him to death and dumped his body in Frederick Municipal Forest.
With Gerlach set to go on trial on a first-degree murder charge tomorrow in Carroll Circuit Court, prosecutors said they plan to present reams of financial documents to show that Gerlach bilked relatives and friends, including Cocking, out of more than $500,000 in an investment scam.
No charges have been filed in connection with the alleged fraud, which federal authorities are investigating. But Carroll prosecutors said they will argue in court that the financial dealings between Gerlach and Cocking led to the slaying.
In Carroll, which recorded just four homicides last year, the trial has garnered a lot of attention, partly because the victim and the man suspected of killing him seem unlikely characters in a murder case.
Gerlach, who is free on bail, had never been in trouble with the law, prosecutors said. He was known in Frederick and Carroll counties as an amiable, talkative fellow — a homebuilder and general contractor, a long-time Frederick County resident and a married father of two grown sons.
Gerlach had done jobs, big and small, at Cocking’s house in the Carroll community of New Windsor. The two exchanged Christmas cards, and Cocking once invited Gerlach and his wife, Gail, to a gathering at his home, authorities said.
As for the murder charge, Gerlach “denies it and claims he is innocent and has asked us to vigorously defend him,” said his attorney, Barry Helfand. He said Gerlach had no motive for murder.
“I believe the state has no evidence to suggest that Mr. Gerlach owed Cocking any money,”Helfand said. “We believe that Mr. Gerlach has paid Dr. Cocking, and we believe that evidence of that is found in a series of signed notes.” Helfand did not elaborate on the notes.
Cocking, who lived alone, was reported missing by a friend Feb. 23. Within days, police said, they found enough evidence, including blood on Cocking’s driveway, to list him as “missing under suspicious circumstances.” His 2000 Lexus sport/utility vehicle was found in a supermarket parking lot 15 miles from his home, driven there by Gerlach or someone helping him, authorities alleged. No one else has been charged in the case.
To many people who knew Cocking, the possibility that he had met with violence was hard to believe.
“You just don’t jump to those conclusions,” said Bob Jordan, an accountant who was friends with Cocking for 20 years. Cocking was a jovial man, not the sort to make enemies, Jordan said.
“We thought that maybe he had a heart attack,” Jordan said. “That’s why we were looking around the roadways.”
Then, last June 5, Gerlach was arrested at his home in Mount Airy.
In documents filed in court, prosecutors said that blood, identified as Cocking’s in DNA tests, was found in the bed of Gerlach’s Toyota pickup truck. Prosecutors said in the court filings that by late 2001, Cocking may have suspected that Gerlach had cheated him out of hundreds of thousands of dollars in an investment scam. When Cocking pushed Gerlach to give back the money, prosecutors said, Gerlach killed him for fear that the alleged scheme would unravel.
Last June 17, a man walking his dog on a dirt road in Frederick Municipal Forest found skeletal remains in plain sight that turned out to be Cocking’s. He had suffered a fractured skull in two places and several broken ribs, an autopsy showed.
Jordan last saw Cocking a few days before he disappeared. Jordan said he noticed nothing about Cocking to suggest he was under financial stress. Cocking had invited four close acquaintances to the Arlington condominium he had recently purchased, and the men sipped champagne, enjoying one another’s company, Jordan said.
Gracious and voluble as always, Cocking held forth on a panoply of subjects. Friends called him “The Doctor” because of his extensive knowledge on a range of arcane topics.
“He seemed to thrive on having his finger in lots of different things,” Jordan said. “He was always very busy, but seemed to always have time to socialize. He probably didn’t sleep that much.”
Cocking had built an impressive resume as a psychologist. He had a doctorate in developmental psychology from Cornell University, had received numerous awards and held top research positions at the National Science Foundation and the National Academy of Sciences.
Work consumed him, friends and family members said. But he managed to find time to attend operas and to work in his garden on the four acres of land he bought in New Windsor in 1994, after many years of living in Washington.
He especially enjoyed the Australian soprano Joan Sutherland. But like his intellectual curiosity, Cocking’s musical tastes were wide- ranging, said his friend Walter Schultz, 72, a retired hairstylist. He also said Cocking, who spoke some German, was widely traveled, and visited Japan shortly before he was killed. Cocking enjoyed playing the grand piano in his New Windsor house.
“The minute he saw that house, he knew it was the type of house he had wanted his whole life,” Schultz said.
Shortly after Cocking bought the three-bedroom home in the Carroll hills — a four-hour round-trip from his office in Arlington — he met Gerlach. Recommended by a real estate agent to build an addition to the house, Gerlach soon became friendly with Cocking.
Eventually, prosecutors said, Gerlach began soliciting “investments” from Cocking for what Gerlach described as a real estate development that would offer Cocking big financial returns.
Over time, prosecutors said, Cocking gave about $300,000 to Gerlach. They said Gerlach also received several hundred thousand dollars from relatives and others. Gerlach opened a bank account under the name RIGGS, for Randall Investment Group General Services, prosecutors said, and produced fraudulent investment statements and other documents for those who had given him money. But he deposited the investments in a personal account, prosecutors said. They have not said publicly whether any of the money has been recovered.
Friends said it was difficult to believe that Cocking would fall victim to a crooked investment scheme unless the sales pitch was exceptionally persuasive. “Although Rod was friendly, he certainly wasn’t naive,” said Bonnie Spaulding, 59, of Everett, Wash., who stayed in touch with Cocking after their high school years in Wyoming.
“He wouldn’t, I don’t think, tumble into something without thinking it was a fairly safe deal.”