BELOVED WEST BLOCK RESIDENT LEAVES LAUGHTER, FRIENDSHIPS IN HIS WAKE
San Quentin resident Gary Cooper found freedom at the age of 74. A parole board found him suitable for parole while he struggled to maintain his health. He paroled from San Quentin to Veterans Reentry housing at Marina, California.
Cooper’s arrest in 2000 for second-degree murder followed the killing of his wife. “I am sorry for what I did to my wife … I robbed her from seeing her children grow up and from meeting our grandchild,” said Cooper.
“She will never have the opportunity to have a holiday with them, to be a mother, or grandma. There will always be an empty chair at the table during the holidays.”
Reflecting on the day that the board found him suitable, and coming out of the boardroom, Cooper’s heart went out to his wife’s family. “I still feel guilty knowing that I got a good chance of going home when I took her life,” said Cooper.
SQ resident Kevin Brinckman, a clerk for the Veterans Group of San Quentin (VGSQ), recalled how Cooper’s positive attitude and support network had sustained him. “It gave him his pride back as a veteran,” Brinckman said, adding that as a veteran there is a lot of shame involved because Cooper felt that he betrayed his community and his country.
“I met Cooper in 2015 at the VGSQ. He immediately greeted me and made me feel welcome,” said Brinckman. “He took me under his wing and got me into groups and welcomed me into the veteran community.”
Cooper’s positive attitude and humor brought light into the life of many incarcerated men. At every tier he climbed, he stopped to take a breath while waving to everyone who headed up to the fifth tier or down to the first floor of West Block.
According to Cooper, he suffered from leukemia from Agent Orange and from water he used when he served as a marine at Camp LeJeune. But he still did not qualify for a compassionate release.
Prior to his parole hearings, San Quentin medical personnel helped him with an application for compassionate release because they considered him as having less than a year to live.
“Mental Health is what really kept me going. It took 11 years for me to get it right,” said Cooper. “I got my meds and they have been helping me out.”
Cooper encouraged others to seek help with groups like AA and NA. He believes that those groups are important if one is serious about change.
Cooper said that prison is a dark place and that he found ways to cope with it by being what he called “a true soldier, always making sure that no one was left behind.” During the pandemic, he said that he struggled to stay alive, yet made sure to check up on others.
Cooper was happy to go home but felt bad for the many incarcerated persons denied parole even after rehabilitating themselves.
Prior to paroling, he was hoping to visit his brother Bill before he died, and he was eager to taste a steak at Denny’s for dinner.
“I am going to miss many guys. I can’t imagine all the help they extended to me. Blacks, Whites, Hispanics, and even the youngest stepped up to help me. Everyone helped me.”
As an elderly patient, he noted that every doctor who handled his medical treatment had different methods for his care. In the beginning, he had good doctors, but they kept shifting personnel and complicated his treatments.
Before the pandemic, he was able to walk. But later he struggled with every step. He refused to move to a lower tier because he felt that he needed exercise to stay alive. He could not walk long distances and needed a wheelchair.
Cooper’s spirit is a testament to the struggle to stay alive. He understood the impact of his crime not only on his victim but also on his children, grandchildren and the rest of his late wife’s family.