'She Sensed Her Death' Drugs Cost Her Family, Life

Posted: April 28, 1988

That was my heart and it is still hurting me. I asked God Almighty, "Where did I fail?"

- William Jeter, Mary Jeter

"Cookie" Mathis' father

I cried so hard . . . I didn't want it to be her. I loved her, I love her right now, today.

- Douglas "Sonny" Mathis,

Cookie's husband

She was involved in the church and one of the most cooperative parents we have ever had. When there was a problem with the kids, she'd be right there.

- Sister Denise Ware, principal of St. Elizabeth's School

Nothing else in the world would have caused her to leave her children except something she couldn't control. I understand that is what that drug (cocaine) does to you.

- Phylis Hilley, childhood friend

*

The news pouring out of William Jeter's scratchy radio stopped him in mid- step.

Six-and-a-half blocks from his North Philadelphia home, the rotting or skeletal remains of seven women were being removed from the "Death House" of Harrison "Marty" Graham.

A "sick feeling" of doom raced through his body, halting all thoughts but one: His daughter was among the dead.

That premonition about Mary Jeter Mathis - or "Cookie" as she was called - consumed him as he listened that Sunday, Aug. 9, 1987.

The last time Cookie had stopped by his house, about two weeks earlier, she had asked for $3 to buy something to eat. And she had said something that had disturbed him to no end.

Don't worry about me, Dad . . . Worry about the others.

Jeter felt his daughter, in the grip of cocaine addiction, was telling him to look out for her children.

"I really think she sensed her death."

In the days that followed, the grim discovery also was closely monitored in the West Philadelphia home of Louise Baker, who, like her ex-husband, suspected with dread that Cookie's was among the bodies discarded in Graham's back-room mausoleum.

Baker had last seen her daughter in late July, about a week after Cookie's 36th birthday. She had taken her from a homeless shelter.

Baker and Cookie's three school-age daughters had shampooed Cookie's hair, tied it into a pony tail and combed out bangs, changed her clothes and fed her a chopped barbecue sandwich. Cookie left soon after.

That had been about two weeks earlier. With each passing day, Baker and her granddaughters grew more distracted with worry.

Douglas "Sonny" Mathis was at his desk at a drug rehabilitation center in North Philadelphia three days after the bodies were discovered. He, too, was consumed by a feeling of ill fate about his wife as he watched a TV newscast.

A familiar shirt projected on the television screen jolted him.

Though soiled, the short-sleeved shirt, decorated with a red rose and French writing, was just like the one he had bought his wife the last time he had seen her, on Aug. 5, four days before the bodies were discovered.

"I couldn't work and I couldn't eat that day," he said. After talking with a few co-workers, he called homicide detectives.

As Phylis Hilley got out of bed in her Yeadon home Thursday morning, she heard on KYW news radio that her longtime friend, Cookie, was the first of seven female victims of serial-killer Graham to be identified. She had been strangled.

"I was just wiped out . . . It was just a shock."

Five days after Cookie's decomposed body was identified by the medical examiner's office, friends and family assembled before her closed casket at Freeman Hankins' Funeral Home in West Philadelphia.

They wept for her as the sun set over the city:

We do not lose the ones we Love,

They only go before;

Where there is everlasting Life,

Where sorrow is no more.

Whatever Cookie had on her mind the day before she died, one thing was certain: She knew she would have to get high.

The days of scrupulous loving and caring for Sonny and her children had ended in April. Her pursuit of the American Dream - the notion that hard work and sacrifice would bring her family a comfortable life - also had died.

Cookie had taken to feeding her cocaine addiction obsessively, at odd hours, in strange places.

On that hot, sticky day, Aug. 5, she slipped into one of her eldest son's tight sleeveless T-shirts and a denim mini-skirt and pulled her naturally straight, thick brown hair into a pony tail.

She forever left behind the family home on North Corlies Street, devoid of more than just the furniture she had sold earlier. One son was in jail, and her three daughters were living with her mother. Her husband had left about nine months earlier, and eventually ended up in a drug rehabilitation program.

Only the oldest child, 18-year-old Douglas Jr., remained, and he ran streets of his own.

Cookie walked the sweltering streets of Strawberry Mansion to meet her estranged husband on his job.

Sonny was not surprised to see his wife that day. She had frequently come to his job unannounced to ask for money, or just to talk.

"Everytime she would ask me for money I would give it to her," Sonny, 38, said as he sat in the family home, where he returned after his wife's death. ''I knew she would get it somehow."

Mathis - a brown-skinned, muscular man who often gestures with large, scarred hands as he talks - had yearned to return home many times since he had walked out the door that last time. But he couldn't go back, not with the new

drug-free life he had found.

". . . I knew she would want to get on (high). I slipped and fell once, but I didn't do it no more because I could see how my wife was."

It was as though a "demon jumped into her body and took over."

Cookie had lost her buoyancy, a zest for life that had always energized the struggling family. Her infectious laughter and good humor were gone. She lost weight, dressed shabbily, and neglected the children.

She was a far cry from the 14-year-old girl Sonny had met more than 20 years ago.

"She looked so good," he said, remembering her shapely body, fair skin, beautiful long hair and big legs.

It was that image that gave Sonny the strength to fight for life when, at age 15, he lay bleeding on a sidewalk, shot in the leg and chest during a gang war.

"Damn, I'm never going to see that girl, Cookie, again," he remembered thinking.

But he did live to see her again, and she never missed a day visiting him in the hospital.

Sonny recuperated well, although he retained a limp. Cookie nicknamed him ''Crip," and he called her "Pie."

When Cookie's mother left for work each night, Sonny would throw pebbles at Cookie's bedroom window, signaling her to let him in. "Once her mother came home early and I had to climb out a window and run through the snow with no shoes on," Sonny said, laughing.

Their love blossomed, then grew hardy when bitter times came - Sonny's abusiveness and brutal fights, his drug addiction and his entanglements with the law. Their devotion to each other, which spanned two decades, also endured family disapproval and the isolation of friends.

"She dealt with me. She stuck in there with me," Sonny said as he wearily reclined into one end of a worn sofa.

The breakup began in 1984. By then, Sonny was free-basing cocaine, a drug he later introduced his wife to. Beaten down by years of struggle, Cookie, too, eventually turned more and more to drugs. Her addiction surfaced in the summer of 1986, the same year the couple's arguments started increasing in number and intensity.

Cookie would throw her husband out of the house. A few days later, tired of sleeping on benches and sidewalks, he would return home, only to be thrown out again.

The couple finally separated for good in early 1987.

Sonny's nomadic life ended when a volunteer from a homeless shelter talked him into coming off the street. In April, he moved into the shelter, signed up for welfare, and entered a seven-day detoxification program in Center City.

Sonny was on the road to recovery, but Cookie was getting worse.

Two months before her death, Cookie, in desperation, called in her chips and asked Sonny to come back home. She needed him. She loved him more than she loved her mother.

When he refused, she began to cry.

"When you were on drugs," she told him bitterly, "I didn't leave you."

Mary Jeter Mathis spent more than a decade growing up not far from where she stood with her husband on North Broad Street their last day together.

She was born July 21, 1951, in an apartment in South Philadelphia. Soon after, William and Louise Jeter, determined to give their family a better life, bought a three-story brick rowhouse on 16th Street near what is now Cecil B. Moore Avenue.

Jeter, then in his late 20s, was a dapper dresser and an outgoing, sociable man. He worked at Alan Wood Steel, in Norristown, earning $11.50 an hour. In the early 1950s that was a lot of money.

"I was very devoted to my family," Jeter, 64, recalled as he sat in his work clothes on a sofa in the tiny living room of his North Philadelphia home on Sydenham Street near Cecil B. Moore Avenue.

"I wanted all my children to have the opportunity to get what I couldn't," Jeter said. He provided "the best of everything" for Cookie and her brother, William Jr., who was born two years after her.

". . . If they wanted for anything, it was because they didn't tell me."

Jeter fondly remembered his little girl dolled up in frills and lace for Easter. She was the best dressed girl on the block.

Cookie and her brother had their own bedrooms, and the basement of the home was finished. Jeter drove a 1959 whale-tailed Cadillac, and his wife, Louise, had her 1956 Pontiac.

The family visited Cookie's grandmother in New York, took trips to amusement parks, and went on picnics.

"We did have it pretty good," agreed Louise, 57, who stayed home to tend to the family when Cookie was young.

But as Cookie approached her teens, a storm began brewing between her parents. The couple fought over money and the children.

In 1964, when Cookie was 13, the Jeters parted. Louise moved into a two- story rowhouse in Cobbs Creek with the two children and later remarried. Jeter remained in the family home, which he soon lost when the steel mill

closed.

Cookie kept in contact with her father, who still helped provide for the children. But life was different: She had new responsibilities while her mother worked long hours in a chicken factory.

One problem Cookie didn't have was making friends. She was a "very outgoing person, sweet and hard-working," Phylis Hilley, 36, said of her childhood buddy.

The two girls met shortly after Cookie moved to Cobbs Creek, while both were in their last year at William C. Sayre Junior High School. They developed a solid friendship, full of pleasant, amusing memories for Hilley: like the summer the two picked strawberries on a farm in South Jersey.

The girls were 14 and were between semesters at John Bartram High School when Cookie hatched one of her "bright ideas" to earn the two money.

"We had to be in North Philadelphia before God got up in the morning," Phylis laughed. A bus took them to a farm, where they picked berries for 15 cents a pint.

"And we were going to make all this money . . . I made about 65 cents before I got sick with sunstroke," Phylis said. It took her three weeks to recover.

"But Cookie went back a couple of times. She was physically a very strong girl."

In one of Cookie's later schemes, the girls got jobs at a motel as maids so they could buy matching coats to wear back to school in September.

"I cleaned about five rooms and then went to sleep on one of the beds," Phylis said. But Cookie cleaned her assigned 16 rooms and scolded Phylis for lying down on the job. How else were they going to get their coats if they didn't work for them?

Phylis ended up doing her share of work, and the two returned to school in matching coats.

"Cookie was industrious and could find a way to make a dollar," Phylis recalled. "She was able to put that kind of dedication into getting what she wanted."

When Cookie was about 14, Phylis introduced her to Sonny, whom she had known since grade school.

It was less than love at first sight.

"They cursed each other out a couple of times," Phylis chuckled. "But afterwards you could not part him from her mother's steps."

Sonny's growing demands and possessiveness and Cookie's outspoken nature began to drive a wedge between the two girls.

"Personally, I didn't care for the way he treated my girlfriend. But she let me know it wasn't any of my business," Phylis said sadly.

"They had a physical relationship and it was difficult for her family and friends to take. If you didn't like him - and Sonny was a hard person to like - she didn't want to be bothered with you."

Cookie loved Sonny, and when she had to choose between him and family or friends, she sided with Sonny. The growing closeness and volatile attraction of "Crip and Pie" began to isolate friends and family.

In 1968 Phylis married her childhood sweetheart. After she and Cookie graduated from John Bartram High School in 1969, they went their separate ways.

It was harder for Cookie's mother and father to distance themselves from their daughter and her devotion to a man both parents detested.

"Honest to God, I don't know why she took up with Sonny," her mother, Louise Baker, said. "But she had one boyfriend the whole time, honey - that Douglas Mathis." She spoke quickly, her words tinged with a South Carolina accent.

Baker said she would become enraged when people told her Sonny beat her daughter. But most of all, Sonny was a constant reminder that Cookie's bright future was in jeopardy.

A high school teacher, impressed by Cookie's brains and work ethic, encouraged her to go to college to become a teacher.

"I was banking on what the teacher said she was going to do," Baker said. ''But she got all tied up with him, and that was the end of that."

The year Cookie graduated from high school she also became pregnant.

Sonny Jr. was born in 1969, followed by Sterling a year later and Sharonia the next year. Cookie and her children collected welfare and continued to live with Baker. Sonny would come by to visit.

But Baker put her foot down when Sonny started bringing drugs into the house and kicking in the door. She told him he was no longer welcome.

Amid the growing tension in her mother's home and Sonny's violence, Cookie enrolled in Philadelphia Community College and earned a degree in practical nursing.

She began to do private-duty nursing in 1971 and shortly after moved into a second-floor apartment with Sonny on 60th Street near Pine - their first home together, and the first of many places they would live.

The couple's apartment was well kept: The three children had their own bunk beds, and Cookie scraped together the money to buy a washing machine, a big color TV, a refrigerator and a black, wrought-iron kitchen set.

Baker, who lived nearby, didn't visit often because of the friction between her and Sonny. Jeter didn't drop by often either, but clearly remembers one time he did make a call.

A neighbor phoned to tell him Sonny was beating Cookie and the police had come.

Filled with hatred for the man who had been abusing his daughter - his ''heart" - since she was in high school, Jeter set out to shoot Sonny. Armed with a gun, he arrived at Cookie's door.

With blood running from her mouth, Cookie stood outside the house assuring police everything was all right. The officers took an enraged Jeter aside, removed the bullets from his gun, and drove him home.

Jeter said he never again took up a gun against his son-in-law.

The rage he carried against Sonny finally came spewing out at his daughter's burial.

"I told him," Jeter said, his eyes narrowing, 'You should be going down into that hole instead of her.' "

Sherron, the couple's fourth child, was born in 1974. Cookie, forced to stop work as a nurse to care for her growing family, turned to welfare to pay the rent and food stamps to put meals on the table. She knew she couldn't depend on Sonny, who couldn't seem to hold a job for long.

But it was Cookie's unflappable love that kept the family together through the rough times, leaving Sonny with warm memories of those years.

Often, Sonny, Cookie and their four children would pile into their car and take rides to nowhere. They liked to get lost to see if they could find their way home without asking for help.

During Christmas, Sonny and Cookie would set aside a couple of days just before the holiday for marathon gift shopping downtown.

And Cookie, always the jokester, "used to call me silly little names and make the kids laugh," Sonny said.

The couple also taught their two sons how to shoot pool in the variety store they had opened - thanks to Cookie's ingenuity - in the mid-1970s on 19th Street near Berks.

Cookie ran the store, which also included pinball machines. But she lost it a year after it opened, unable to handle a small business and a home ruled by an abusive, jealous husband, her father reasoned.

"They had a love nobody else understood . . . They would fight and she would call the cops and they would lock him up. And she would always get the money and get him out," one relative said.

Of all the fights the couple had, one stood out as a dark sign that Cookie would never extricate herself from Sonny.

In a fit of rage, Sonny hit his wife with a GI Joe toy, severely injuring her left eye. Cookie was admitted to Scheie Eye Institute and needed surgery, but signed herself out a few days later. She told her mother she had to return home before Sonny sold the furniture for drug money.

Sonny and Cookie married not long after the GI Joe incident, on Dec. 31, 1975. It was a simple civil cermony, attended by a few family members. Her parents were not among the guests.

In the following years, Cookie worked on and off, short stints to keep welfare from learning she had a job. She did hair for neighbors, worked at fast-food outlets and got a job briefly in SEPTA's maintenance department. This allowed her to keep her children well dressed and cared for.

Cookie also tried to make sure her children got a good education. Sonny Jr., Sterling and Sharonia started in public schools, but Cookie soon grew disenchanted with the instruction. When the boys began coming home with their clothes torn from fights, she decided it was time for Catholic school.

" 'If I don't wear any clothes,' " Cookie's mother remembers her daughter telling her, " 'I'm going to make sure my children go to school in peace.' " Sonny Jr., Sterling, Sharonia and Sherron began attending St. Elizabeth's School, on 23rd Street near Berks, in 1979.

Two years later, Melanie, the couple's last child, was born. By then, the family had moved to the small rowhouse on North Corlies Street, the last of many homes they would live in together.

Cookie also launched what became her last major project to better the lot of her family - their conversion to Catholicism. Though she had been raised a Baptist, Cookie had always admired her aunt for converting to the Catholic faith.

Cookie and her four oldest children began classes to prepare them for conversion. For a year, Cookie studied an hour every Sunday at the church's rectory. Her children attended special classes during school days.

They were baptized and received the sacraments in 1985.

Sister Denise Ware, principal of St. Elizabeth's, supported the family through their conversion, and the school pitched in whenever it could to help Cookie meet the $760-a-term tuition for the children.

"She (Cookie) never had much," Ware, 35, recalled recently as she sat in the school office. "The kids always came first . . . But she would make ends meet and come up with the tuition.

"It was one of the worst families, at the bottom in terms of the poverty level. But others were poor, too, and eventually took their kids out of Catholic school. But Mary never did."

Cookie continued to work odd jobs to keep the family in food and clothes, but her efforts were fading - fast. Sonny was falling apart: He was rarely home, and drugs had taken hold of his life. Cookie, too, found herself sinking deeper into her cocaine addiction as the summer of '86 unfolded.

The last job she held was at a lamp shade factory in Southwest Philadelphia, late that year. Cookie's mother would pick up her daughter from work in the afternoon, and Cookie would complain all the way home about how tired she was.

A few days before Christmas in 1986, Ware stopped by Cookie's to find out why she hadn't been to the church to pick up gifts for Sharonia, Sherron and Melanie, who had started preschool that September.

"She couldn't even button her coat, the kids had to help her," Ware said.

The girls began missing school after the 1987 winter term began. The boys - 17 and 16 years old at the time - had already graduated from the school, so they scraped together the money for weekly school payments for Melanie.

But Ware suspected the tuition money was actually the proceeds of drug sales, and refused it. Melanie could no longer attend school, so the older girls stayed home to care for her.

Cookie quit her job at the lamp shade factory in early 1987, but stayed away from home more and more, tending to her growing cocaine addiction. Her rage against Sonny also grew, and she began the ritual of throwing him out of the house until he left for good in early 1987.

Responsibility for providing food for the family and caring for their mother - when she was home - fell on the boys.

By the spring, the girls were calling Sonny, complaining that Cookie was neglecting them.

Ware, prodded into action, called Cookie's mother. "I told her, 'Either you do something, or I will.' That's when she came and took the girls."

Sonny tried several times to persuade his wife to get help after their daughters left. He had become a drug counselor himself, and hoped that through his example Cookie would pull herself together.

One time in May, his pleas ended abruptly when she began to loudly beg for money.

"I'm tired, I'm tired. I just don't care anymore," she cried out plaintively.

Sonny did manage to get through to his wife once. Shortly before her death, Cookie checked herself into a rehabilitation center to be detoxed.

But before the seven days were up - on the very day her welfare check was issued - she walked out, never to return.

Sonny usually didn't protest when Cookie dropped in on his job during her last summer, even though she sometimes created scenes.

But this day, Aug. 5, he did protest one thing: her shirt, so skimpy it revealed her breasts. Sonny offered to buy her another.

At a nearby store, he purchased a short-sleeved sweatshirt with the words ''Pour Toi" - "For You"- printed in French on the front. Cookie put it on immediately and walked to the bank with her husband.

As Sonny withdrew $30, he plotted ways to prolong the meeting. He talked her into going with him to get his hair cut. "I knew as soon as she got the money she would take off," he reasoned.

They walked to a barbershop on Cecil B. Moore Avenue near 19th Street, right around the corner from Marty Graham's home.

But the shop was crowded, and Cookie grew impatient.

"This day my wife was looking really cute," Sonny said, fondly remembering her new shirt and mini-skirt. "She had her hair in a little pony tail . . .

"But she was anxious to get the drugs."

So Sonny gave his wife the money and she fled.

He watched her for a few moments and walked away, but then circled back around 19th Street.

Cookie entered a nearby store; he couldn't see what she was doing, but did notice the man in the store give her change.

As Cookie emerged, Sonny approached her. Before he could say a word, though, she assured him she had just gotten change for the bus fare home.

He didn't believe her - he knew she had bought drugs - but he didn't question her, either. He had to go.

Marty Graham entered Cookie's life the following night, a chance meeting a block from where she had stood with her husband only the day before. She accepted Graham's invitation to return to his apartment to get high.

Cookie died of strangulation that night on a rotting mattress. Her body - still clad in the sweatshirt decorated with the distinctive phrase "Pour Toi" - was discovered four days later, sprawled against a wall in Graham's squalid apartment atop the skeletal remains of another woman.

Immediately after the funeral a lot of us were very mad at Sonny. But if ever he had a friend in the world, it was Cookie, and to have lost her . . . I know he is suffering.

- Phylis Hilley

I have to stand strong. I can't start going on a guilt trip. I want to get my kids back together. Sometimes, though, I do wish it was me instead of her.

- Douglas "Sonny" Mathis

Mommy, I pray for you. You'll be all right. We're gonna buy you a new house and put you in it. You'll be all right.

- Melanie Mathis, 5, talking recently to her Cabbage Patch Doll.

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