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FATHER KILLS WIFE, 2 GIRLS, THEN HIMSELF

Police tried to persuade Lois Cooke to leave her husband after her two teenage daughters accused him of molestation. She refused, fearing the judgment of her neighbors in this tiny town.

Less than 24 hours later, the entire family was dead. Authorities say it was a triple murder at the hands of James Cooke, who shot himself to death minutes before police arrived at his yellow ranch house Sunday.Police were alerted after Cooke called a son in California to tell him what he was doing.

Nicole, 14, and Holly, 15, were shot in the back of their heads as they slept in their beds. Lois Cooke, 48, was shot in the back while outside, then carried inside and stretched on her bed, Mower County Sheriff Wayne Goodnature said Monday.

Hours before he shot himself, Cooke washed the blood from the bodies, set out clothes for the girls to be buried in and laid their photographs on the kitchen table.

Cooke left a long, rambling letter apologizing for the killings, speaking lovingly of his family - and denying the sexual abuse charges.

Townsfolk couldn't remember such a tragedy ever hitting this quiet farming community of 280 people.

"It's pretty big news in this town if kids go to the gas station and swipe a pack of cigarettes," said Larry Ravenhorst, manager of Valu Mart Marine.

Cooke, 63, had learned of his daughters' allegation by secretly taping his wife's telephone calls. Police didn't say exactly how he did it.

Neighbors said Cooke liked to restore old cars and putter around his garden brimming with marigolds and chrysanthemums. He had held a variety of jobs, most recently milking cows for a farmer.

He often played basketball with his daughters, both high school honors students.

"Jim would talk about the way the world was going and say, `Those girls of mine, if anybody every hurt them, I don't know what I'd do,"' said next-door neighbor Ken Erickson. "There was not one shred of a clue that we'd see this coming."