NY Insurance fraud witness gets more time

ALBANY — County Judge Stephen W. Herrick this morning accused the central witness in a mammoth insurance fraud case of lying on the stand and creating a situation where the jury discredited everything he said.

While Herrick said he believed Willie Cook testified “substantially truthfully” over the course of the trial, he cited two lies he believes the man told. While tangential to the charges in the case, the lies he said still destroyed the jury’s ability to take his testimony seriously.

“The relevance of this is that the jury believed that you were a liar,” Herrick said, adding later, “All twelve of them totally discredited you.”

The judge’s statements came as Herrick was poised to sentence Cook according to a plea deal he struck months ago, agreeing to testify against several members of the Houghtaling family in exchange for the promise of no additional jail time.

Cook, a close Houghtaling family friend, was one of eight people and the only non-Houghtaling implicated in the scheme, which prosecutors likened to suburban organized crime and said staged more than 20 car wrecks to reap the insurance money.

Cook pleaded guilty in March and ultimately testified against his alleged former confederates in a trial that lasted 11 weeks and ended with one dismissal, three acquittals, two felony convictions and a courthouse suicide bid by one of the alleged ringleaders.

But as Cook, 36, stood before the judge this morning, Herrick cited two instances where he believed other evidence directly contradicted Cook’s testimony.

Ultimately, Herrick allowed Cook to withdraw his guilty plea to felony insurance fraud, as planned in the plea deal. Cook then pleaded guilty to misdemeanor petty larceny. But rather than sentence the man to time served, Herrick sentenced him to a year in the Albany County jail. Herrick said Cook will still get credit for time already served and called the sentence a “modest additional period of incarceration.”

Cook was handcuffed and lead away in the custody of Albany County Sheriff’s Deputies.