Paul Woolverton The Fayetteville Observer, N.C.

LILLINGTON, NC — Eric Cook Jr., a Harnett County deputy, formally returned to duty on Monday more than 10 months after he was shot in the chest and the face while trying to locate a missing teenager.

Cook’s fellow deputies, local prosecutors and others from local law enforcement and family gathered for a news conference and ceremony at the Sheriff’s Office in which Cook was given a Law Enforcement Purple Heart Medal and pin. These are presented to law officers who are injured or killed in the line of duty.

Cook’s wife, Melissa, pinned the medal on him.

“It has taken a lot of determination and commitment over the last 10 months” to recuperate, Cook said. “I am happy to say I am back to work, full duty and able to continue serving the citizens of Harnett County.” Except from some permanent nerve damage, Cook said he is fully recovered.

Cook, a corporal in the department, is returning to patrolling western Harnett County.

He also plans to soon return to a second job he has as a part-time firefighter.

The shooting was on April 14.

According to Sheriff Wayne Coats and previous news coverage, Cook was looking for a missing 16-year-old boy and found him behind a shopping center off N.C. 87.

When Cook attempted to stop the boy and talk to him, the boy drew a .45-caliber handgun and shot Cook, Coats said.

One round was stopped by Cook’s bullet-resistant vest, likely saving his life. The other entered Cook’s cheek and exited next to his right eye. A scar is visible there. Cook also suffered a broken foot.

Cook credited God for his recovery and thanked the emergency responder and the medical personnel who treated and helped him. He also thanked the many people who supported him during his recovery. The community held fundraisers to help him and his family.

He said on Monday he does not know why the boy shot him.

“I don’t know what was going through his mind,” Cook said. “I don’t know why he done what he done. It’s just unfortunate, and I hate that he has made those decisions that he made this early in life. But he made the decisions; he has to answer for them.”

Cook was able to radio for help immediately after the shooting and a manhunt commenced that included law enforcement from neighboring counties. Law officers captured Mario Alexander Garza III and found a gun.

Garza faces eight charges in connection with the shooting, including attempted murder, felony assault and theft of firearms.

There was no question that Eric Cook would return to duty, Melissa Cook said after the ceremony.

“He’s been eager,” she said. “Since the day it happened, he was ready to go back.”

The past year was difficult, Melissa Cook said, and their son was just two months old at the time of the shooting, but the couple supported each other to get through it.

The Cooks have two children: a son who is now a year old and a 5-year-old daughter.

Eric Cook said he became a deputy in 2007.

He had been in the private sector, doing maintenance work, and was between jobs. He wanted something more stable and more satisfying, he said. Through his work as a firefighter he had gotten to know law enforcement and thought he might like it, he said.

Cook said he enjoys being on the road and working with the public and hopes to continue to do so as he advances in his career.

“I’m more of an out-in-the field type, dealing with people, than I am sitting behind a desk,” he said.

Staff writer Paul Woolverton can be reached at or 910-486-3512


©2019 The Fayetteville Observer (Fayetteville, N.C.)

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