Episode 082: Lindsey Bonistall

July 10, 2023

When an apartment fire leads to a gruesome discovery, a family is devastated and a community is on edge. Who killed Lindsey Bonistall?

Episode Media
Lindsey Marie Bonistall (FindAGrave)
Lindsey’s apartment building (Google Maps)
Important locations in Newark (Google Maps)
Distance between Lindsey’s and James’ apartments (Google Maps)
James Cooke (Newark PD)
Episode Sources
Episode Transcript

Welcome back to Bite-Sized Crime. This week I’m bringing you the case of a young woman whose life was tragically cut short just as she was finding her independence. This episode includes graphic descriptions, so listener discretion is advised.

Lindsey Marie Bonistall grew up in White Plains, New York, an upper-middle class suburb of New York City. Lindsey was a bright, happy child, always quick to laugh. She was close to her parents and her older sister Kristen, and as she grew, the family encouraged Lindsey’s passions.

In high school, Lindsey was a well-rounded student, taking part in a variety of school clubs and activities. She was a varsity swimmer and an all-American cheerleader as well as captain of both the soccer and track teams at Good Counsel Academy High School. She was an honor roll student and was elected senior class president. Her mother Kathleen said, “Anything she decided she wanted to do, she did and she put her whole heart and soul in it and did it well.”

Lindsey was also committed to giving back to the community. She volunteered at the White Plains Youth Center and served as a mentor for younger students. She was known for her energy and positive attitude, and everyone spoke highly of her.

After graduating in 2003, Lindsey enrolled at the University of Delaware, majoring in biology in hopes of someday becoming a doctor. But soon she discovered a new passion: writing. She switched her major to English and dove head-first into the school’s journalism program. When she began getting published in the school’s student paper, she knew she had found her calling.

By the end of her freshman year, Lindsey had settled into college life. She had a solid group of friends and an active dating life. When she got an opportunity to transfer to Cornell University, an Ivy League school in Upstate New York, she decided to turn it down so she could stay in Delaware. She felt like she had found a home there.

Lindsey started her sophomore year strong. She moved into an off-campus apartment with her friend Christine, and she was working at a local restaurant between classes. She was paying her own bills for the first time, and she loved the independence of this new adult life.

On the evening of April 30, 2005, Lindsey headed over to the campus dorms to hang out with her girlfriends. They only had a few weeks left of classes before they took their final exams and went their separate ways for the summer. They stayed up late talking and laughing, watching that week’s episode of Saturday Night Live. When the show ended at 1am, the friends said their goodbyes and Lindsey left the dorm, saying she would probably pick up some food on the way home before crashing into bed. They had no way of knowing that this would be the last time they would see each other.

Just two hours later, at 3:00am on May 1st, frantic calls began pouring in to 911. There was a fire at the Towne Court Apartments in Newark, just a few miles from the university campus. Local fire and police units responded to the scene, where they quickly extinguished the blaze. Investigators determined that the apartment was unoccupied, but they wanted to be thorough – there had been a string of home invasions in the area over the last few months, and just 24 hours earlier there had been another fire that they suspected to be the result of arson.

Newark Fire Marshall Henry Baynum was called in. After a preliminary investigation, he determined that the fire had been started in the apartment’s bathroom. However, before he could investigate further, he was called away to another fire just a few blocks from the apartment. He told the officers at the scene to secure the apartment until he returned. Maintenance workers changed the locks to prevent anyone coming in or out.

A few hours later, Baynum returned. This time, he spotted something he hadn’t seen before: strange writing on the walls of the apartment. He immediately called Detective Andrew Rubin of the Newark Police Criminal Investigations Division. Together, the men examined the writing. Scrawled in blue magic marker were the words, “more bodies are going to be turning up dead.” There were also references to the KKK and “white power” among other disturbing phrases. Based on the state of the scorched walls, it was clear these things had been written before the fire was started.

Rubin and Baynum moved through the apartment, looking for anything else that might help them identify the perpetrator. Baynum returned to the bathroom, where he believed the fire had started, and he noticed that there was a large amount of debris in the bathtub. As he began carefully removing the charred pieces, he uncovered something truly horrifying: a human body lying face-down in the partially melted tub.

Detective Rubin secured the apartment once again and called for evidence detection officers to process the scene. As they worked to remove the body from the tub, they realized that the victim had been bound and gagged. What they originally believed to be arson was now also a homicide.

As investigators worked, Christine Bush returned home to find her apartment in chaos and her roommate missing. Detectives asked her when she had last seen Lindsey, and she said they had spoken at around 2:30 the day before. Christine had been out of town that weekend, so she didn’t know much about her friend’s plans, but it seemed likely that Lindsey Bonistall was their unknown victim.

On May 2nd, the day after the fire, a call came into 911. An anonymous caller, who was clearly trying to disguise his voice, told the dispatcher that Lindsey’s murder was connected to two other break-ins that happened the week prior. The caller also mentioned specific phrases that had been written on the walls of the apartment and said, “And I guess they tied the girl up and killed her.”

This call set off alarm bells for investigators. Very few details about the crime had been released to the public at this point – all that was being reported was that there had been a fire and that a woman was dead. This anonymous caller knew the victim’s name and details about the crime scene that only someone who had been there would know.

On May 3rd, the Delaware Medical Examiner’s Office publicly identified the victim as 20-year-old Lindsey Marie Bonistall. Her cause of death was strangulation, and it was officially ruled a homicide.

On May 4th, Newark Police announced that they believed Lindsey had been murdered by a stranger during a home invasion, the same man who had likely been responsible for several other recent break-ins. They released a sketch of the suspect, which made the rounds through local news media. Captain William Nefosky told the Wilmington News Journal that they wanted to be transparent with the public without compromising their investigation. “The public has a right to know if there’s a threat. We haven’t caught or identified the guy. There is some threat, but I don’t think it’s cause for major alarm.”

As word spread throughout Newark, university officials increased the number of campus police patrols and urged students to take extra precautions, reminding them to lock their doors and windows and travel in pairs. There was a lingering sense of fear throughout the community as they waited for answers.

Meanwhile, Lindsey’s family made the three-hour drive from White Plains to Newark to try and make sense of this tragedy. Lindsey’s apartment had been destroyed by the fire; all they were able to salvage were a few pieces of clothing and jewelry and some notebooks that had been left in her car. Her father later told The Review, “I was hoping to find something that might have been concealed from the damage that would have some connection to her… We’d trade in everything to have Lindsey, but just having little pieces of her is important to us.”

As the Bonistall family made funeral arrangements for their youngest daughter, investigators were hot on the trail of their main suspect. Detective Rubin began digging into the recent string of burglaries and assaults that had plagued Newark in the last few months, and he believed they were all connected.

On March 8th, two months before Lindsey’s death, there was a burglary at 208 Murray Road, less than half a mile from the Towne Court Apartments. The suspect entered the home through a bathroom window, stepping onto the toilet and then onto the floor. They left a boot print on a roll of toilet paper. Investigators had preserved the boot print, but they had nothing to compare it to at the time.

On April 26th, just after 1am, Cheryl Harmon returned to her apartment in Towne Court to find that someone had written all over her walls with red fingernail polish, strange phrases such as “Don’t mess with my men” and “we’ll be back”. The intruder had entered through the living room window by prying the lock open. They took several DVDs and two rings from Cheryl’s jewelry box. This burglary took place just yards away from Lindsey’s apartment.

On April 30th, there was a second burglary at the home on Murray Road. The intruder entered through the same bathroom window as before. Just 45 minutes later, the intruder hit another home at 209 West Park Place, half a mile away. This time, someone was home.

Amalia Cuadra awoke to someone shining a flashlight in her face and demanding money. Terrified, she gave the intruder the small amount of cash she had on hand, but he wasn’t satisfied. He said, “Give me your f***ing credit cards or I’ll kill you.” Amalia handed over her cards, but when the intruder told her to take off her clothes, she knew she had to fight. She screamed for her roommate and grabbed her cell phone to call 911. The intruder snatched up her backpack and ran from the house.

Detective Rubin had been the responding officer that night. It appeared that the intruder had entered through the back door by removing an entire pane of glass. Amalia gave Detective Rubin a description of the man, as much as she could see in the dark house – a light-skinned black male around 30 years old, short in stature with a husky build, wearing a dark hoodie and wool hat and gloves.

Amalia contacted her bank later that morning and learned that someone had tried to use her card at an ATM in Newark just hours after the break-in. Detective Rubin was able to obtain video footage from the ATM that showed a man wearing a dark gray hoodie and wool gloves attempting to use Amalia’s card.

Although they now had a solid lead, they weren’t fast enough to catch the thief, and by the next morning, Lindsey Bonistall was dead.

By now, Detective Rubin was convinced that the man on the ATM footage was the same man who had committed all these burglaries and had brutally murdered Lindsey. The houses and apartments involved were all within a half-mile radius and had some similar characteristics: entering through windows or glass doors, taking only a few items, and leaving strange messages behind. As the break-ins became more frequent, the intruder became more brazen: his actions had escalated from robbery to murder.

The theory was solidified when two more anonymous 911 calls came in on May 7th. Both times, the caller disguised their voice and gave detailed information about three of the recent home invasions – information that had not been released to the public.

Investigators papered the town with wanted posters, the sketch of their suspect prominently displayed. This time, they also had the images from the ATM footage, and tips began pouring in. They followed up on every lead, but the weeks passed with no arrests. Their suspect hadn’t struck in Newark since Lindsey’s murder, but detectives knew it was only a matter of time.

On May 31st, Newark Police received a tip from the manager of a shoe store in College Square Shopping Center. The woman was certain that one of her employees, a man named James Cooke, was the same man she had seen in the ATM photos.

According to court documents, the manager told police that she had hung the first wanted poster – the one with the sketch – in the window of the shoe store just days after Lindsey’s murder, but someone had taken it down. A few days later, James Cooke didn’t show up for his scheduled shift. He claimed his mother was sick and he needed the day off, but after that day, Cooke stopped showing up for work altogether.

When police began handing out updated posters with the ATM photos, the store manager knew immediately who it was. She even asked one of the store’s training supervisors to weigh in, and he confirmed her suspicions – it was definitely James Cooke in the photos. Both the manager and supervisor told detectives that they recognized Cooke’s gray gloves as the ones he wore to work in the stockroom, and the photos clearly showed a man walking on his tip-toes, something that Cooke always did – he claimed it was the result of a childhood injury.

Armed with this information, Newark detectives began digging into James Cooke’s background, and they uncovered a long history of criminal offenses. Cooke had been in and out of the New Jersey prison system since his early 20s. He had multiple convictions for theft and drug offenses and had served time in several state prisons. It’s believed that Cooke moved to Delaware in late 2004 even though he had an outstanding warrant in New Jersey at the time.

In the spring of 2005, when the home invasions took place, Cooke was living with his girlfriend and their three children in Newark. Their apartment was within a half mile of each of the crime scenes. In fact, Cooke could see the Towne Court Apartments from his back door just 200 feet away.

On June 1st, detectives knocked on Cooke’s door, but he wasn’t there. They tried again and again over the next few days with no success. However, they did speak with Cooke’s girlfriend, Rochelle, several times, and she allowed them to do a cursory search of the apartment. She told detectives that she hadn’t seen Cooke in a few weeks, but had talked to him on the phone.

According to Rochelle, she and Cooke had been together for about 10 years. He was the father of her three children, and they had another on the way. She told detectives that Cooke was home on the night of April 29th, that they had been watching tv with the kids. She had eventually gone upstairs to bed, but when she woke a few hours later, she found Cooke in the living room holding a backpack. It had a tag with the name “Amalia”, and as Cooke sifted through it, he pulled out a cell phone, a pill container, and some credit cards. He said he had come across a car accident and had grabbed the bag when no one was looking. Rochelle told him he needed to return it, but Cooke ignored her. He wanted to use the credit cards before they got canceled. Rochelle told him to get it out of her house and not bring it back.

When detectives showed Rochelle the footage from the ATM, she confirmed that it was Cooke in the photos. The ATM he had used was just a half-mile from their apartment. Detectives also played part of the anonymous 911 calls for Rochelle. She said it sounded like the voice Cooke used when he was playing with their children. He had tried to disguise his voice, but she was pretty confident it was him. Rochelle also gave detectives a sample of Cooke’s handwriting and a pair of gloves that he often wore.

On June 7, 2005, James Cooke was arrested at his sister’s house in Wilmington. He was charged with first degree burglary for the April 30th home invasion on West Park Place. Once Cooke was in custody, Detective Rubin was able to interrogate him about Lindsey’s murder. At first, Cooke insisted that he had never met Lindsey, but when presented with the evidence, he quickly changed his tune.

According to court documents, when Cooke was arrested, police found a dark gray hoodie at his sister’s house that had strands of Lindsey’s hair still on it. Cooke’s DNA was found under her fingernails and was a match for the semen taken from her rape kit. When he heard this, Cooke said that he had met Lindsey; they had smoked marijuana and had consensual sex on the night of April 29th. Someone else must have broken into the apartment on the 30th and killed her.

On June 13th, James Cooke was officially charged with the rape and murder of Lindsey Bonistall. That same day, police in Atlantic City, New Jersey, charged Cooke with five counts of armed robbery. When Cooke left his job in Newark and disappeared after Lindsey’s murder, he had allegedly been burglarizing homes just 100 miles away.

At a press conference at Newark City Hall, Lindsey’s father expressed his relief to finally have some answers in the case. He told the News Journal, “One of the most important things for me was to have this animal off the street… I don’t want anyone else to have to go through this pain.”

While the Bonistall family awaited their day in court, they were determined to not let Lindsey’s memory fade. They started a foundation in her name, dedicated to promoting safety on college campuses. On the one year anniversary of her death, the family planted a beautiful dogwood tree on the University of Delaware campus with a plaque that read, “May she be remembered with peace and love.”

Finally, in February of 2007, the trial of James Cooke began. The defense claimed that Cooke was mentally ill, that he was in a compromised mental state at the time of Lindsey’s murder. But the state’s evidence against him was overwhelming, and the details of what Lindsey went through made a huge impact on the jury.

According to the prosecution, Lindsey arrived home shortly after 1am on May 1, 2005. Not long after that, James Cooke climbed up to the balcony of her apartment, leaving impressions from his gloves on the railing. He then forced open the balcony door and entered the apartment. There, he beat Lindsey and tied her up with an electrical cord, gagging her with a white t-shirt. He sexually assaulted her and then strangled her to death in her own bed.

Cooke then took a bottle of bleach from the hall closet and poured it on Lindsey’s clothing, presumably to get rid of any DNA evidence. Then, he dragged her body to the bathroom and placed her face-down in the tub. He piled items on top of her, including several pillows, a basket, and her guitar. Before he left, he grabbed a blue marker and wrote on the walls, cryptic phrases he hoped would send police in the wrong direction. Finally, he set fire to the pillows on Lindsey’s body and left the way he came. A neighbor later testified that she saw a man resembling Cooke ride by on a bicycle a short while before she heard sirens.

After four weeks of testimony, the jury found James Cooke guilty of all charges. He was sentenced to death.

Lindsey’s family spoke with the News Journal after the verdict was read. Her mother Kathleen said, “We’re just thankful that justice has prevailed.” Her father agreed, saying, “When you consider everything, it’s just another chapter that we want to be finished with so that the memory of Lindsey is exactly that, a memory of Lindsey and nothing else.”

However, their journey was far from over.

In 2009, the Delaware Supreme Court overturned Cooke’s conviction on the grounds that his defense attorneys had violated his constitutional rights. According to court documents, Cooke had been vocal about his desire to plead not guilty from the very beginning. He had not wanted to plead guilty but mentally ill; his attorneys had entered that plea against his wishes. The Supreme Court ruled that Cooke should have a new trial.

By the time the second trial began in March of 2012, Cooke had fired two more sets of attorneys, claiming that they were working against him. He finally decided to represent himself. But during the trial, Cooke was disruptive and aggressive, at one point threatening the judge and getting himself barred from the courtroom. The judge declared that Cooke had forfeited his right to represent himself and assigned a public defender to take over the case. In the end, the jury found Cooke guilty again and he was sentenced to death.

Kathleen Bonistall told NPR, “The verdict I think was fair, it was proven twice now that Lindsey was an innocent victim and that she was killed by a career criminal. The way that Lindsey died was undeserving of any human being.”

James Cooke appealed his conviction in 2014, but it was upheld by the Delaware Supreme Court. He has continued to file appeals as he sits on death row at the Vaughn Correctional Center.

James Cooke’s victims and their families were able to find justice, but it doesn’t undo the hurt he caused. Lindsey Bonistall should still be alive, making her family laugh and pursuing her dreams of becoming a journalist.

I’d like to close this episode with words from the Bonistall family, sent to the University of Delaware just days after Lindsey’s death.

“Part of [Lindsey’s] message, we believe, is one of ‘taking risks’—perhaps trying to see how high your wings will take you, once you realize that indeed you do have wings. If you knew Lindsey, you understand that she ‘unfurled her magnificent wings’ through personal aspirations, program commitments, campus activities, and community involvement. She dared to rise above whatever real or imagined limitations impeded her ‘flight’ and accomplished remarkable results in a short period of time. We are proud of the daughter and sister we knew for too short a time. She is emblazoned on our minds and hearts and will be forever our shining star.”