“That was a beautiful benefit. The amount of people that came out and supported it.... We did a really good thing.”
Nursing a beer at Local 510, Miesha Louie recalls the July 2011 fundraiser for an ailing friend that she and many others in Calgary’s close-knit music community participated in: besides her band, Miesha and the Spanks, local indie groups The Pine Tarts, Seven Story Redhead and The Fabulous Quickies played the stage gratis at Broken City, which in turn donated proceeds from the door to the cause at hand.
In addition to the music, there was a silent auction offering such sweet swag as a $700 bass guitar, purchased by The Dudes’ Danny Vacon, a Schwinn bicycle, a rare Ramones poster and more — all donated by the musicians and other attendees. Over $7,000 was raised, not including the contents of the giant pickle jar also being passed around and stuffed with cash, bringing the total closer to $9,000: all of it going directly to a young man battling a cancerous brain tumour.
A beautiful, generous outpouring indeed.
“It sucks that it wasn’t really worth it,” shrugs Louie a little over a year later.
“I found out it was positive....”
So read part of a Facebook message Robin Feagan received from Kristopher Cook in mid-May of 2011, confirming what many in their group of friends had been fearing for months. Feagan’s friendship with Cook — like Louie’s — was fairly new. Both had met him only in the last couple of years. Yet both say they felt close to a budding music impresario: Cook was co-founder of FARM (the Future of Alberta Rock Movement), booking shows around town — as all three travelled in the same small social circles orbiting the indie music scene, it seemed inevitable they’d strike up a rapport.
Feagan in particular recalls fond moments with Cook — seeing Prince together, his penchant for hosting theme parties, their summer river rafting trips, and karaoke outings.
Naturally, then, when he first reported feeling unwell the previous March, complaining of headaches and vision loss, Feagan was extremely concerned. When she first befriended Cook, he had confided to her that he had two sisters, one a twin, who had both died of cancer in childhood.
“He was having all these symptoms that go hand in hand with a brain tumour. I was really worried,” says Feagan, adding that everything seemed to come to a head at a party at Cook’s apartment that month. “That night he kind of ‘schiz’ed’ out and threw this book right through the window, screaming and freaking out how his sister had died and he was scared that he was going to die.”
That April, says Feagan, Cook said he went for tests which showed a growth, though it was not yet apparent whether it was benign or malignant, and that he was scheduled for a biopsy on the 22nd of that month. When he confirmed the latter result early in May, Cook turned to Feagan, among others, for support.
“I actually had cervical cancer when I was younger.... Kristopher knew that about me and when he first got sick, we had a lot of heart-to-hearts — these moments where he’d ask me about medication and these kinds of things,” she says. “But it’s because he needed to know what was going to happen to him.”
Another person who tried to bolster Cook’s spirits was Lindsay Shedden, Broken City’s music booker and festival director for Sled Island. Shedden was yet another new acquaintance of Cook’s — she had just moved to Calgary that February and says that Cook, who had been hired by the local music monthly BeatRoute to sell ads for Sled’s program guide (which the publication carries), was one of the first people she met in the city
“He was nice, but so flaky,” she says. “He couldn’t seem to get it together enough to sell one ad. I wound up doing his job for him.”
However, Shedden says she tried to rationalize Cook’s poor work habits — as well as other more destructive behaviour — as part of the psychological fallout from having a life-threatening illness.
“You can chalk that up to a scared young man who is quite possibly going to die from cancer,” she says. “He was a super heavy drinker, [and there was] definitely lots of drug abuse. But we were putting ourselves in his shoes, like, ‘how would we deal with this if we found out we had a tumour?’ Who knows what we would do?”
As such, work tensions aside, Shedden tried to be there for Cook.
“We went for this big long walk around Stanley Park, and he was talking about the testing they had done and how scared he was — just really looking for people to support him during that time,” she says. ”My sister-in-law’s mother had just overcome a brain tumour — she had gone through all the treatments and everything.... But I was able to tell him the story of this 70-year-old woman who wasn’t in as good of health as he was... and she overcame it, and was now cancer-free, so there was a lot of hope for him.”
FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS
The evening of July 8, 2011, the night of “Kristopher C’s Cancer Smasher Benefit Bash” at Broken City, certainly seemed a hopeful one — Louie’s band played, Shedden and Feagan, among other friends, helped organize, and all donated items to the silent auction. But contributions weren’t confined to this small group: musicians and fans from across the city lent their time and put up money and donations towards the cause.
The fundraiser was necessary, according to Shedden and Feagan, because Cook claimed he couldn’t work while in treatment. Besides, hailing from Texas, he wasn’t even a Canadian citizen and wasn’t covered by the provincial health care system.
Almost immediately following the show, however, people became suspicious of Cook’s story. Relations became strained; so much so that Louie, who began sharing her place with Cook at the beginning of the summer with the intention of helping him during his radiation treatments, had moved out and severed all ties by September.
The first harbinger of dodginess was the brand-new MacBook Pro Cook brought home the day after the “Cancer Smasher.”
Not only did it give Louie pause, but Shedden’s boyfriend, Danny Vacon, who lived next door to Louie and Cook at the time, also commented on the timing of the new acquisition. Shedden, who personally handed Cook the cash raised the night before, dismissed his concerns.
“I was like, ‘you’re being paranoid,’” she recalls telling Vacon.
About a week after that, Louie says she got a call from a friend that permanently altered her relationship with Cook.
“Her best friend had grown up with Kristopher,” says Louie of the caller. “She was like, ‘listen, I should have told you before the fundraiser, but he never had any sisters and he pretended to have cancer before.’
“I only knew him for a year and a half before that and I still thought that he was my best friend and that we were super close,” says Louie, “but hearing that from someone I had known for much longer was a trigger — I believed it right away. He was living with me at the time so I just kept my eyes open to see.... Where are these bills? Shouldn’t they be around somewhere? Shouldn’t there be prescriptions? Why won’t he let me go to the doctor with him? Why won’t he let me help organize this stuff to get his bills in order?”
Shedden acknowledges there were “low rumblings” of a similar nature across the community.
There were the parents who never showed up, even though they had supposedly already lost two children to cancer; Cook’s incessant partying when he was supposedly in the midst of radiation treatment; his adamant refusal to let the different friends who dropped him off at the hospital go in with him; and his suspicious hair loss — he would shave his head because “it was falling out anyway,” say Feagan and Shedden, only to have it grow back immediately, not to mention that his beard and other body hair seemed unaffected.
Then there were more rumours of more calls from people out of Cook’s past, alleging a previous cancer hoax on his part, and the troubling revelation that in the mid-2000s he had been arrested for stealing from an employer, The Rocket T-shirt shop.
Also, each person interviewed for this story independently expressed the belief that Cook’s “symptoms” seemed to be cobbled together from various sources. Louie mentions a mutual musician friend in Edmonton recovering from a brain cyst around the time Cook said he first felt ill: Cook’s vision problems seemed remarkably similar to those of the Edmonton musician.
Feagan now believes her own family’s cancer history fuelled Cook’s fabrication.
“In hindsight, I think he did a lot of fishing through me so he’d get information for his own story,” she says. “And my uncle Keith actually had a brain tumour at the same time, so he’d ask me questions about him. He got to know my mom, and my stepdad, and my whole family. He was just fishing information from us for his own story so he’d know how to act, what to say when people asked him questions: how long his radiation would last, those kinds of things.”
Nonetheless, even as their doubts mounted, many close to Cook resisted voicing their concerns, for fear both of being ostracized and of having to admit to themselves that they had been duped.
“It’s a weird feeling — you’re hoping someone does have cancer because you don’t want to believe that they made this whole thing up and hurt all these people,” says Louie, expressing a sentiment shared by the other interviewees.
THE LAST TO KNOW
When asked what pushed their doubts from the realm of conjecture to certainty, Feagan and Shedden answer in unison: “Hayley.”
Hayley Muir, who started seeing Cook at the time of his supposed diagnosis and eventually became his live-in girlfriend, says she wasn’t aware of the whispers surrounding Cook’s illness until roughly three months ago.
“When you’re in a relationship like that and you’re kind of blinded by the whole thing, you don’t see certain things,” she admits today.
The tipping point occurred one night when Louie confronted Muir about all the nagging questions she had been harbouring for nearly a year. Muir admits that at first she was defiant and defensive — essentially in denial — but that the seed had been planted.
“I played detective,” she says. “I just snapped and started digging around.”
At the time, Muir’s computer was broken, so she and Cook were sharing his. Muir discovered that Cook’s email correspondence had been saved to the hard-drive and she started uncovering a picture of a person that didn’t add up to the one she thought she knew. Small beans at first — an exchange with an ex-girlfriend she didn’t know existed, and others with the stepmother Cook supposedly wasn’t talking to. But, still, if he had lied about these things, then what else?
Bewildered, Muir turned to her mother for advice.
“I saw everything in a completely different light,” she recalls. “I was like, there’s no way any of that is real because I partied with him during the time he had treatment, I never went to the hospital with him because he wouldn’t let me, not knowing the names of any doctors.... I think I said to my mom, the fact that I’m even questioning that he had cancer and I’m the one who lives with him, really says a lot. There should be no doubt in my mind.”
Finally, Muir decided to contact Cook’s father, who lives in Toronto, to clarify a few things. She sent an email to his work address. As it was a Saturday, she wasn’t expecting an answer for at least a couple of days.
“Within five minutes I got a phone call from Kristopher’s stepmom. Kristopher was home sleeping so I just stepped out the front door and into the laundry room, and it sealed the deal within five seconds. She said, ‘what’s going on, hon?’ I told her I didn’t know, and she said, ‘is he sick or is he lying to you?’ I let out a big breath and said, ‘I think he’s lying to me.’ She said ‘probably, because he’s been known to do it before.’”
At least twice before, it turns out — Muir later contacted an ex-girlfriend of Cook’s who said that in 2008, Cook told her that doctors had found something on his lungs, and while they weren’t yet sure what it was, they suspected the worst. Later, Muir spoke to a former co-worker of Cook's at Original Joe’s in Kensington where he had once been employed. He told her that Cook had claimed to have throat cancer in 2009.
And, Muir says, following a confrontation with Cook after he discovered she had been in touch with his family, he admitted that he never had any sisters, but he maintained the story of his illness.
When Muir eventually spoke to Cook’s father, he confirmed that Cook was an only child. He also informed her that Cook wasn’t Jewish, as he had claimed for some reason. Furthermore, while it was true that the family hailed from Texas, they had relocated to Canada when Cook was three, not as a teen as he had told everyone.
Finally convinced that everything, including the cancer diagnosis, was a fraud, Muir told Cook she wanted him out of their home — the next day while she was at work he took his belongings and essentially vanished. No one interviewed for this story has seen him for at least two months now, but they all believe he’s still in the Calgary area.
“I still don’t have 100 per cent proof, like medical records — I tried, but I can’t get a hold of those things — but in all honesty there’s no doubt in my mind that he lied about having cancer,” Muir says. “There’s no way he did (have it). Maybe the police will uncover something on his medical records, but definitely not brain cancer within the last year.”
SHEDDING SOME LIGHT
Last week, the story broke on social media — an anonymous Tumblr blog detailing Cook’s deceptions surfaced, and it soon began making the rounds on Facebook. Then a thread appeared on Reddit about the subject, with a host of burned former acquaintances airing a variety of grievances about Cook.
Interestingly, this new digital wrinkle in the story may have prevented yet another person from falling for a Cook-concocted tall tale.
“Within five minutes [of the Tumblr link being posted on Facebook] I get a message from my friend who lives in Victoria,” says Louie, “and she’s like ‘hey, I need you to tell me about this guy, I’ve been talking to him on [the dating website] Plenty of Fish for a month now and I was about to Skype with him before you posted this.’ He said he was thinking of moving to Victoria from Toronto for a fresh start.”
The aftermath of all this has left Cook’s former friends coping in various ways. Louie says she accepted the fact that she was duped long ago, Shedden is still angry, and Feagan’s distraught over the realization she had a friend that never really was.
Muir, though, perhaps sums up best why they’ve decided to go public with their story.
“This time around with cancer.... He took it to the extreme and got a bunch of money. But it was never that before, it was just something that he said. People have asked me why he would do this. I would say money and attention — to get people to love him and get sympathy. But at the root of it, he’s very, very sick. He can’t not lie. I don’t even think he realizes he’s lying, he can’t help it.
“He’s a very sick individual — not from cancer — but he’s a sick man and he needs help. I don’t know if there is any help for him, but he needs it if there is some form. If not there will be more victims.... More broken hearts.”
The Calgary Police Service says it is investigating.