UPDATE April 12, 2018, 2:21 p.m. PT:
Authorities have found a car possibly linked to Rachel Cooke's 2002 disappearance, reports KVUE.
Austin American-Statesman reporter Tony Plohetski was told that this is a significant development because authorities believe they have located a car seen in the vicinity of Cooke's home at the time of her disappearance.
December 1, 2017:
Right now in America, more than 100,000 people are missing. Today we have the troubling story of one of those people.
When Rachel Cooke returned home to Georgetown, Texas over winter break from college -- no one would know that it would be her last trip home.
Her smile alone can light up the vast plains of Central Texas. But lovely Rachel Cooke has been silenced at the age of 19. It's almost as if the vivacious young college student had been sucked into a black hole, or plucked from the Earth. Even the sheriff at the time had no answers for anguished loved ones.
But sadly the mystery of Rachel Cooke remains just that.
When Janet and Joann Cooke visit a thriving "tree of life" in Georgetown, Texas, it brings them as spiritually close as they can get to their missing loved one.
Rachel Cooke had one particular passion: running.
"She got really big into cross-country, track," said Rachel's sister Joann Cooke.
"She could just keep going like the Energizer Bunny. She just kept running and running and running," said Rachel's mother Janet Cooke.
Rachel was a Lone Star stunner. But the eternal sunshine and whipping waves of the West Coast beckoned.
"She was always drawn to California," Janet tells Crime Watch Daily. "She thought it was the land of vegetarians and good music and beaches."
And off she went to the coastline near San Diego, where Rachel enrolled in community college. And most of all she wanted to be with Greg West, a man she met shortly after moving to the coast.
"I was like 'Oh my gosh, this is the real thing, this is it. This it what it feels like,' I mean, like butterflies," Greg West tells Crime Watch Daily. "We were so goofy together. It was incredible. She was amazing."
"She was with Greg and she was very happy with that relationship. It meant a lot to her," said Joann. "She was just talking to me about, like, 'I think that he's the one.'"
The couple made plans to move in together, and Rachel invited her California boy to Texas for the Christmas holiday in 2001.
Greg couldn't stay the entire trip. He had to get back to San Diego for work. Rachel planned to be with her family a few more days. But she would never make it back to San Diego -- at least as far as anyone knows.
Rachel Cooke disappeared on the morning of January 10, 2002.
"That morning Joann and I went to leave for work," said Janet. "Rachel was laying on the couch and I walked over and Joann said 'Mom, don't wake her up,' and I went over and I kissed on her and I said 'Love you, bye,' and grumbling is what her response was. She was sleeping, 'Leave me alone, mom.'"
Rachel's father Robert also left for work that morning, leaving Rachel with the house to herself.
"We know that her boyfriend, who was in California at the time, Greg West, talked to her around 9, 9:15, and she was talking about going for a run," said Williamson County Sheriff's Sgt. Jereme Brinkmann.
"She was fine. She was, you know, happy to talk to me of course," said Greg. "I said 'You been running yet?' She said 'No, not yet, but I'm gonna go.' I'm like 'OK, cool, well just call me afterwards.'"
Rachel shakes off the grogginess and suits up for her 6-mile morning run before planning to spend the rest of the day with her dad Robert.
"She was supposed to hang out with her father in the afternoon. He was going to take off early and they were going to go shopping. She had a wedding she was getting ready for," said Sgt. Brinkmann.
Rachel begins her run in the quiet, rural, familiar and crime-free neighborhood where she grew up.
"When she went running, she ran to the east of her house, and there was a gentleman working on a piece of equipment spreading dirt for a new home that was under construction, and he saw her run by," said Sgt. Brinkmann. "There was an elderly couple walking in the neighborhood that lived next door to Rachel Cooke, and they saw her as well."
Six different people saw Rachel running that day. Some even saw her finishing up, cooling down just two houses from her own. But that was the last time anyone would ever see or speak to Rachel Cooke.
"She disappeared within 100 yards from her home," said Williamson County Sheriff Robert Chody.
It seems unfathomable: A young woman in broad daylight in bright-colored athletic wear, seen by scores of neighbors, vanishes.
"Everybody has a theory, but there's no evidence to support anybody's theory -- including some of our theories," said Sheriff Chody.
"There were several people in the neighborhood that were residents there that saw her run by them, talked to her, waved at her, knew who she was because they'd lived there so long," said Williamson County Sheriff's Sgt. Jereme Brinkmann.
Rachel Cooke disappeared just 100 yards from her family's home in the rural Texas enclave of Georgetown while she was home from San Diego for Christmas break. The spirited young college student was never seen again.
"It was probably the most famous missing-persons cases in Central Texas," said Sally Hernandez, anchor-reporter with Crime Watch Daily affiliate KXAN-TV.
Robert Chody was just recently elected sheriff of Williamson County. He's the third sheriff to oversee the case of Rachel Cooke. It took Sheriff Chody on a dizzying journey involving a riveting cast of characters, all of whom will get a thorough reexamination.
Chody inherited the case from two previous sheriffs. And there are those who will tell you a veritable mess was thrown in his lap.
"What they told me is during my questioning is they truly think that she just took off with somebody," said Rachel's former boyfriend Greg West. "She's a young beautiful woman. I was like, How does that make sense? She's living her dream life in San Diego, having all these plans, and then to come back to Texas, to then run away?"
While it's common practice in many jurisdictions to wait 24 hours to begin a missing-person investigation, that wasn't the case in Georgetown.
"The 24-hour rule of reporting missing people, that's not true," said Chody. "And I don't know what the motivations were behind the administration prior for that."
Reportedly, then-sheriff John Maspero demanded the Cooke family not be questioned, according to former lieutenant John Foster, who worked Rachel's case.
"I was told that that was not going to happen, and that was per the sheriff that we were not to question the Cookes," Lt. John Foster said in a statement.
It's easy to understand why the Cookes began their own investigation even before the police. They called hospitals and friends.
"Robert went and started driving the route that she used to run," said Rachel's mother Janet.
They called the restaurant where Rachel picked up waitress shifts while in town. That call turned out be a cruel twist of fate.
"When I called, I said 'Is Rachel working there tonight?' And they said yeah. Well, I didn't know that that wasn't my Rachel. It was a different Rachel. There were two Rachels," said Janet Cooke. "So I lost time there."
By the time police did get serious, it was too late. Rachel Cooke's perplexing case went into an investigative deep freeze.
But former sheriff Maspero fiercely defends his record, telling Crime Watch Daily affiliate KXAN-TV in 2011: "I brought in the finest people I could think of, the Rangers, FBI, APD [Austin Police]. We went beyond the scope of what was called for, and I'm disappointed Rachel's case is still unsolved."
Maspero was forced out of office while being investigated for serious misconduct including allegations of sexual harassment in the workplace, crawling on the floor of a men's club barking like a dog then biting a dancer, and indecent exposure. Maspero died in 2014.
Sheriff Robert Chody has marshaled an army of veteran retired homicide detectives to start from scratch. Chody ordered new searches and is plowing through a staggering number of leads, new and old.
"We've had over 1,700 tips," said Sgt. Brinkmann. "We are still receiving tips today. We've probably had 30 or 40 in the last few months, so we're trying to track down every single lead."
How many persons of interest do they have in this case?
"Well over a hundred," said Sgt. Brinkmann.
It's not like Sheriff Chody needs the money or the pressure of solving difficult cold cases. One way Chody is unlike any sheriff in the country is he really did win the lottery.
"My wife won the lottery, but I get to partake in that part of it," said Chody.
In fact, $85 million worth of partaking. But for Sheriff Chody, justice for Rachel Cooke's family is far more worth its weight in gold -- and for Chody it's personal.
"I grew up in a domestic violent home," said Chody. "It was a police officer that literally saved the day for me and my family, and after that event, I had this drive and desire to serve in law enforcement."
Now Sgt. Chody and his team have got to make up for lost time.
Rachel Cooke's unsolved mystery is tainted by accusations of past shoddy police work.
"I want to know what happened. I want to bring my baby home and I'm not gonna quit," said Rachel's mother Janet.
Newly minted Sheriff Robert Chody is starting from scratch with a staggering list of 100 persons of interest. In essence, they are re-interviewing all of the people who were interviewed the first time.
"We were trying to," said Sheriff Chody. "There's some people who don't want to speak anymore for whatever reason, family members included."
So, are family members on that list? Remember, disgraced former sheriff John Maspero wouldn't allow the Cookes to be questioned.
"Maspero knew that nobody in my family or myself would have done it. We knew each other, you know, for years. From kids' kindergarten on up," said Janet.
But later, during the course of the investigation there was an intriguing event involving Rachel's father Robert. Remember, at the time of Rachel's disappearance he was planning to leave work early to take his daughter shopping. When Robert Cooke did eventually take a polygraph, it didn't go well."
"The father failed the polygraph test, which is true. But he failed one question," said Chody. "The one question that he failed was 'Do you know where Rachel Cooke is?' And his answer is no, and he fails that."
Robert's wife Janet offered an explanation.
"They asked him 'Do you know where Rachel is?' And he said no, and it came up as a false answer, and that's because we kind of thought maybe Rachel's dead, and Robert had transferred that into 'Rachel's in Heaven,' and that was his strong belief Rachel's in Heaven now, so if somebody asked you, you know, that question, well, yeah, you know, it's going to come up as a false answer."
Does Sgt. Brinkmann believe that?
"I do," said Brinkmann. "I do not believe her father had anything to do with it."
Robert Cooke became deeply immersed in the leading national missing-persons organization Equusearch. He even traveled to Aruba to work on the famed Natalee Holloway case. But Rachel was his priority.
"He dedicated the rest of his life to locating her, and I don't believe he did that to cover for being involved," said Sgt. Brinkmann.
Eventually his marriage to Janet failed.
"He became extremely driven about Rachel's case, and I couldn't," said Janet. "I had to have some separation from that, and he got to where he didn't treat me very well."
One hundred persons of interest no doubt crowds the field of suspicion.
"I told him, 'Yo man, you need to stop calling here, dude. She doesn't want to talk to you anymore. You gotta stop,'" Rachel's old boyfriend Greg West tells Crime Watch Daily.
"Thomas" was Rachel's previous boyfriend. And he was not about to give up without a fight, even pouring his heart out to Rachel's new man, Greg West.
"He sounded like an emotionally impassionate person, like not in control of his emotions, if that makes sense. I mean, this dude was crying," said Greg. "She was at this party and he showed up, and so it did not go well from what I was told. They had a huge blow-out fight."
"That person that you're speaking of was certainly somebody that we were interested in, still interested in, and until we can check that box to take him off the suspect list or person of interest list, then he remains on that list," said Sheriff Chody.
And then there were those mysterious young men in a white car, seemingly out of place in Rachel's neighborhood during her run.
"Somebody saw them in the area, that same time frame that they believe Rachel Cooke to be in that area, so we want to question those people," said Chody.
But the most chilling aspect of this case involves career criminal Michael Keith Moore, a convicted murderer who once sliced the throat of a 14-week-pregnant woman named Christina Moore as she pleaded for her life on her knees. Moore stunned investigators when he came forward and confessed to the murder of Rachel Cooke.
"He said that he was the one who kidnapped and killed Rachel and then dumped her body near the Houston area," said KXAN-TV anchor-reporter Sally Hernandez.
It was the break and the closure that cops, family members and an entire community had desperately hoped for.
"The sheriff's department had brought me in and talked with me and said 'You know, some of the things he's saying, it sounds like these facts are leading us to believe he's telling the truth,'" said Joann.
Moore was out of prison at the time of Rachel's disappearance and lived nearby. His involvement seemed plausible.
Finally the day of reckoning had come: Michael Keith Moore struck a deal with prosecutors to plead guilty to Rachel's murder.
"He confessed to the murder of Rachel Cooke," said Sgt. Chody. "That was all we needed."
It was a packed courtroom. The end of a painful journey. All eyes on Michael Keith Moore.
Just when police thought they would never find out what happened to Rachel Cooke, a convicted murderer behind bars said he had a confession to make. Four years after Rachel Cooke vanished, career criminal Michael Keith Moore was about to plead guilty to her murder.
"I couldn't believe it. I remember the first time I saw his face, see just pure evil," said Rachel's former boyfriend Greg West. "I don't know if I believed him or not, but what he did was disgusting by dragging us through that. He wrote a very detailed story about what he did. Just hearing those things is too much."
Moore voluntarily confessed, telling police he kidnapped Rachel Cooke, bludgeoned her with a hammer and dumped her body into the Gulf of Mexico.
"When he confesses to the murder and gives some detail of the murder, detectives have no choice but to believe what he's saying because who in their right mind would confess to a murder that they wouldn't do? And some of what he said made sense," said Sheriff Chody.
And then came that long-anticipated day inside a jammed Central Texas courtroom. Everyone assembles in the courtroom. Michael Moore has confessed to killing Rachel Cooke and he is going to enter into a plea agreement.
But there would nothing that resembles closure or justice -- nothing even close. What Michael Moore had planned was a sadistic hoax.
"The state versus Michael Keith Moore. You've been charged with murder as alleged, how do you plead?"
Moore's stunning reversal rocked the courtroom. The convicted killer, con-man and all-around bad guy delivered an emotionally lethal blow to the family of Rachel Cooke.
"Can you repeat that for me?"
"Why would you do that to us? It's sick. It's psychotic," said Greg West.
"We think something is going to happen, and it's just kind of ripped away from us, so I think a lot of people in my family, it was just kind of disbelief and anger," said Rachel's sister Joann.
"The fact that he admitted to it, and then denied it, shows you what type of personality and what kind of monster he really is," said Sheriff Chody. "He got a ride to the coast, he got to eat some cheeseburgers, because he was sitting in a cell in a Texas prison prior to that, so he got something out of the lie, if that's the case."
The district attorney could not pursue the case against Moore. There was just no evidence to prove he killed Rachel.
For Janet and Joann Cooke, there's no expiration date on the crushing pain they still feel. Joann isn't sure she even wants to hear the truth anymore.
"I think that's one thing that makes me very different than my mom, is because I think she feels like finding something out will bring closure and relief, whereas me, I feel like it'll just be those things that I don't want to see, that I don't want to know are true," said Joann.
There's another tragic turn in all of this. Rachel's father Robert passed after a long illness and most certainly a broken heart. Robert Cooke went to his grave never knowing what happened to his daughter.
"I know he felt like he had failed her. That he wasn't there, he didn't protect her, but I don't think that at all," said Joann. "I think he's done so much to try to help her out, and try to figure out what happened."
And despite the frustration, the setbacks and the missteps of previous administrations, Williamson County Sheriff Robert Chody vows to forge ahead.
"We actually have four investigators on her case. That's all they do is they're working the Rachel case," said Chody.
And Michael Keith Moore is also very well-placed on Chody's list.
"I think he's a strong suspect, yes, still," said Chody.
With 100 persons of interest but not a single eyewitness or speck of physical evidence, it's going to take more than aggressive police work. Chody wants the public to share the work load.
"I really do believe this is a solvable case," said Sheriff Chody. "We just gotta get that information."
"I think because somewhere someone down the line is going to mess up," said reporter Sally Hernandez. "I think they've kept this secret for so long that eventually they're going to mess up, and they're going to tell somebody, they're going to tell an ex-boyfriend, an ex-girlfriend, and that person's going to come forward and is going to say something, and finally the truth will come out."
The FBI and Rachel Cooke's family have teamed up to offer up a reward of up to $100,000 for information that leads to the discovery of Rachel Cooke. If you know anything about the case, call the FBI at (800) 225-5324 or submit a tip anonymously to Crime Watch Daily.