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Foul play suspected in death of disabled man found in house fire

Police searching for witness who tried to save victim

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Foul play is now suspected in the death of a man whose body was found Nov. 30 in a house fire on the Westside, according to the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office.

Firefighters said the fire in a trailer on Coach Park Drive, west of Firestone Road, started in the back bedroom and spread. They said the fire was burning strong when they arrived and took about 20 minutes to put out. They said the man, 58-year-old Michael Cook, was found dead in a bathroom.

Police said the initial investigation turned up no signs of foul play, but after the scene was processed and the autopsy was conducted, foul play was discovered. They are now investigating Cook's death as a homicide.

Neighbors said that before firefighters got there, a man grabbed a four-by-four, used it to break in a side door so that Cook's dog, a 3-year-old Australian terrier named Patches, could run out. 

Police are now looking for that man, because, they said, he is a witness. He is not a person of interest in the case.

Cook's neighbor, Terry Marie, said she lived next to him for years, and he was disabled and didn't get out much. She said she knew he was in the home when the fire broke out, and she tried to get in to help him but couldn't.

"I seen him just about every day. I heard something popping, and my brother was supposed to come over and help him do yard work, and that's what I thought it was," Marie said. "I woke up and saw the smoke coming out, so I ran, and there was fire coming out, smoke and fire. I tried to beat on the door and call his name, and the fire people came."

Helen Johnson, Cook's ex-wife, lives just a few yards away on the same street. She told News4Jax Monday that she had just gotten home from work when the fire broke out.

"All of a sudden, I heard some sirens and I'm thinking, 'My God. They seem awfully close.' Then I heard, 'bam, bam, bam' on the front door and one of my neighbors was yelling that the house up there was on fire and that Mike might still be in there," Johnson said. 

Johnson, who was still close with her ex-husband and took him to run errands because he didn't have a car, said she had a hunch from the beginning that the fire did not seem like an accident.

"It just didn't seem right. I mean, he was the type of person, he didn't let people in his house unless he knew them. So, I feel like it had to be somebody that he knew or was acquainted with for him to let them in the house," Johnson said. 

Johnson took in Patches, but she said she hopes the person responsible is found soon and taken into custody.

"It's been like a running nightmare. I feel like I'm in a bad dream and that I'm going to wake up sometime and I still haven't woke up yet."

Anyone with any information about this homicide is asked to contact the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office at 904-630-0500 or email JSOCrimeTips@jaxsheriff.org. To remain anonymous and receive a possible reward of up to $3,000, contact Crime Stoppers at 1-866-845-TIPS.

In addition, the State Fire Marshal’s Office encourages anyone who believes they may hold information regarding this fire to reach out to the Arson Tip Hotline by calling 1-877-662-7766. Callers can choose to remain anonymous and any information that leads to a prosecution may be eligible for a cash reward.