Produced by Alec Sirken
When a Marine failed to show up for roll call at a naval base in Virginia Beach, friends and co-workers had a sense that something just was not right. Justin Huff was a good Marine, they say, and he would never leave without permission.
NCIS Agent Maureen Evans says it seemed that Justin Huff just disappeared. “It’s almost like he stepped out for a minute.” Huff never returned.
“And Justin Huff was a good person – he was a decorated Marine,” NCIS Special Agent Bill Elflein says. “He fought for his country in two tours in Iraq. He was a loving husband and a soon-to-be father.”
The investigation would uncover a videotape of Huff leaving his dorm in the middle of the night. Agents would also learn he got a visit from someone purporting to be an NCIS agent who wanted to talk with him about a sexual assault.
Soon the investigation would lead to Cooper Jackson, a Navy intelligence specialist. Jackson and Huff didn’t know each other but were connected in a way NCIS agents say they never could have predicted. There was a woman who called herself Samantha, who had built a persona by using suggestive photos of a petite blonde woman she pulled from the internet – to lead others on.
Jackson, NCIS agents found out, was smitten with Samantha.
Could Huff somehow have gotten caught up in that web of lies?
“We could not find a correlation between Samantha and Justin, and that’s what we needed to investigate,” says Elflein.
NCIS Special Agent Bill Elflein: In this job we see a lot of good, we see a lot of bad, but this one always takes you back to … why? Why would something be so random and so devastating?
Special Agent Bill Elflein: On January 2, 2006, NCIS, my office, got a call from the Navy Marine Intelligence Training Center that one of their Marines … Justin Huff, did not show up for roll call.
NCIS Agent Maureen Evans: We didn’t have any idea. He just disappeared off the face of the planet.
Agent Maureen Evans: When they went in the barracks room it didn’t appear as though Justin had left permanently. It’s almost like he stepped out for a minute.
PJ McGrath | Friend of Justin Huff: The first time that I heard about it was that he was UA. UA is unauthorized absence.
Steve Stelter | Friend of Justin Huff: Huff would never do something like that.
PJ McGrath: It was one of those things that every one of us looked at each other and we’re like that doesn’t make sense.
Special Agent Bill Elflein: And Justin Huff was a good person—he was a decorated Marine. He fought for his country in two tours in Iraq. He was a loving husband and a soon-to-be father.
Richard Zabka | Friend of Justin Huff: He would lay down his life for anybody … you didn’t even have to know the damn people. That’s just the type of person he was.
Special Agent Bill Elflein: We pulled surveillance video of the night before he went missing and we were able to see him … leaving in the middle of the night, his dorm room and leaving the building to go out of view.
Agent Maureen Evans: But the circumstances started getting more and more suspicious as every day went along.
Agent Maureen Evans Someone called him in his dorm room and asked him to come out and talk to him about a sexual assault, and that person was portraying himself as an NCIS agent.
Special Agent Bill Elflein: Our first investigative duty was to look into whether Justin Huff was under any type of NCIS investigation, and we quickly learned he was not.
Special Agent Bill Elflein: So we were wondering who this guy was that was posing as an NCIS agent and talking to Justin.
Special Agent Bill Elflein: Early in the investigation, we had another name, Cooper Jackson, but we didn’t know who he was, and we could not make any correlation between him and Justin because they did not know each other.
Don Marcari | Cooper Jackson’s lawyer: Cooper Jackson was a good looking young man. Kept himself in good shape, worked out all the time. …He was intelligence specialist in the Navy, which you have to be pretty smart, to do that.
Don Marcari: Very polite. Always, “Yes, sir, no, sir.” I mean, just to meet him, you wouldn’t think anything out of the ordinary.
Special Agent Bill Elflein: On paper, Justin Huff and Cooper Jackson seemed very similar. … Both all-American boys … One was a Marine, one was in the Navy.
Special Agent Bill Elflein: As the investigation continued, there was a very strange connection between Justin Huff and Cooper Jackson that we could never have never predicted.
NCIS Agent Maureen Evans: There was another individual that came into the picture by the name of Samantha. …Samantha wasn’t a real name.
Don Marcari: Oh, I saw the pictures of the young lady. …some of ’em, she was in a devil’s outfit, for Halloween. You know, some pictures were naked.
NCIS Agent Maureen Evans: She portrayed herself as blonde hair, blue eyed, five feet, gorgeous young lady. …what Samantha was doing is what we now call “catfishing” … and it basically involves creating a persona that you’re not.
Don Marcari: And then Cooper became smitten with her.
Special Agent Bill Elflein: They were romantically involved in a phone relationship, but they had never met.
TJ Murphy | Friend of Justin Huff: It didn’t sound real– the whole story—it sounded fake—like that’s movie TV stuff you know?
Steve Stelter: I mean the whole thing started as a lie.
Agent Maureen Evans: That lie kept getting bigger and bigger and I don’t believe she knew what could have happened or what did happen.
Special Agent Bill Elflein: we could not find a correlation between Samantha and Justin, and that’s what we needed to investigate.
Don Marcari: I think Samantha was the catalyst for this whole tragedy. But for her, none of this woulda happened.
A MARINE GOES MISSING
Special Agent Bill Elflein: You can look back on most crimes and there are innocent victims out there every day, but they might have been targeted for a reason — they drive a nice car or they’re involved in a relationship and it’s an act of jealousy. Justin had no involvement in this; he was an absolute stranger to these people.
The disappearance of Marine Justin Huff made no sense to NCIS agents, who began investigating the day he went missing from his barracks in January 2006.
Agent Maureen Evans: There was a lot of things that were left in the room and I believe the only thing that was missing was his wallet.
Agent Maureen Evans: They were able to get hold of Justin’s wife Becca, and the last time she had spoken to him was the night prior around midnight where he said he was going to bed.
And the bizarre circumstances that led to identifying Cooper Jackson as a person of interest still baffles everyone involved in the case.
Don Marcari: Cooper was from a small town in southwest Virginia, grew up in the country. His dad was quite a bit older. He had passed away. Kinda isolated, but he wanted to kinda see the world, and that’s why he joined the Navy.
In the fall of 2005, a woman who called herself Samantha connected with Jackson.
Agent Maureen Evans: Sometime in November, Samantha called a phone number, which she randomly did.
Agent Maureen Evans: She had been doing this for about three years — meaning the catfishing. She’d just call numbers outta the blue to try to establish relationships over the phone.
Special Agent Bill Elflein: She was able to get the companionship that she wanted in someone without the risk that they would know exactly what she looked like and being judged –
Agent Maureen Evans: — for her appearance.
Don Marcari: She had had other relationships with guys in the Navy, and so there was a certain prefix that she could call the barracks … And so it was that random. She just happened to pick out, that evening, the room that Cooper was in.
Agent Maureen Evans: Cooper Jackson, he answered the phone, basically they both said, ‘wrong number’ and he hung up. Cooper Jackson calls her back and basically says, “she sounds kinda cute.”
Don Marcari: Cooper said, well, you know, she had a very attractive voice, very nice. And so they start talking.
Agent Maureen Evans: And this relationship developed from there. They were telephoning, talking on the phone numerous times a day, hours into the night.
Special Agent Bill Elflein: She was portraying herself as this unknown individual female that she pulled off the internet. But she was able to get photographs … and send those to Cooper Jackson.
Don Marcari: She told Cooper that she was five foot, 100 pounds, blonde. She was a art history major from a rich family in Texas that owned three houses in the Outer Banks.
Samantha lived in North Carolina, two hours south of where Jackson was stationed in Virginia.
Don Marcari: And she would send him pictures … of this beautiful girl. And she was beautiful.
Don Marcari: Cooper was a little bit socially awkward, I think, particularly with girls. Never had, from what I found out, a very lasting, long-term relationship. And now he had this beautiful, rich girl that was interested in him, that would talk with him for hours a day. And I think he just became in love and infatuated with her.
Special Agent Bill Elflein: As much as Cooper Jackson was buying into this persona that Samantha was putting forward, he stated several different times that he was aware that she may not have been truthful.
Don Marcari: I think he started questioning whether she really existed, or whether she wanted to have this relationship, ’cause he was in love … after about a month of telephone calls, and all these texts and messages.
Agent Maureen Evans: Samantha would agree to meet Cooper and Cooper Jackson would pick a time, pick a place.
Don Marcari: She never showed up where she was supposed to be. She said she was in a car accident. She was in the hospital. One time, she was supposed to fly in to meet his family over the Christmas holidays. He went to the airport for, like, 13 hours, and she never showed up.
Agent Maureen Evans: Cooper was getting obsessed trying to find her. …So the entire time Samantha’s lying to him about where she lives in North Carolina.
Agent Maureen Evans: At some point in time, Cooper Jackson actually says that he ends up getting her address from her cell phone number … And Cooper actually had called Samantha on the phone and said, “Hey, I think I found you. I’m gonna go to this particular address.” And so at that point Samantha says, “Don’t go to that house, that’s my friend’s house, don’t bother them,” when in fact Samantha was actually inside the house. And she described to us that she was actually scared at that point because he was getting ready to find the truth.
Don Marcari: I think he became fed up. So they had a conversation, I think, on a Friday night, and he said, “Look, I don’t think you exist. I don’t think you wanna have this relationship. We’re gonna break up,” ’cause he considered her his girlfriend.
Samantha wanted to break it off, too. So she told him about a party she had gone to involving drinking and sex — which agents later learned was true. She was trying to push Jackson away, but it backfired.
Special Agent Bill Elflein: Samantha had a consensual relationship with somebody at the party. …she confessed to Cooper Jackson what she had done.
Agent Maureen Evans: I believe that at some point Samantha was like, “OK, I need to separate myself from this because it’s starting to scare me.” I don’t know that it was a matter of her feeling guilty because she had consensual sex with somebody … but I think it was also kind of a way to maybe tell him that, “I’m really not in love with you and maybe you should move on.”
Special Agent Bill Elflein: In Cooper Jackson’s mind, he was unable to accept that Samantha, his girlfriend, had a consensual sexual relationship and came up with the idea that she must have been sexually assaulted.
Jackson filled in the details in his own mind.
Agent Maureen Evans: “You were drunk, and you’re my girlfriend and I love you and I know you would never do this,” so that’s kinda I think his way of understanding what happened that night.
On the phone, Jackson kept pressing Samantha for information about what happened at the party, so she changed her story.
Agent Maureen Evans: Through his interrogation of Samantha, she breaks down and decides it is better just to agree with him on certain things than to keep telling him “this is not what happened.” At some point Samantha confirms that she was sexually assaulted to keep Cooper Jackson from badgering her about it.
Jackson believed that the party was on the base, and Samantha went along embellishing the tale to say Marines were there.
Don Marcari: And he had that mentality that he wanted to be a protector. And I think when he thought that she was threatened, he was gonna do whatever it took to protect her.
Now he had in his mind a villain who he believed had raped the girlfriend he had never met.
Special Agent Bill Elflein: He believes it’s a Marine and she provides him a description of a Marine that was involved. …Tall, muscular Marine. Dark hair, white.
Soon after, Justin Huff would go missing.
“A CHANCE MEETING”
Special Agent Bill Elflein: We had these three people — Cooper Jackson, Samantha and Justin Huff, and as far as we knew, none of them have ever met each other … We needed to figure out the connection between Justin Huff going missing and Cooper Jackson’s involvement with Samantha.
Huff’s wife Becca was living in California, pregnant with their first child. When his friends heard about his disappearance—they feared the worst.
PJ McGrath: It was one of those things where, it was like no — it didn’t make sense —like, no.
Richard Zabka: We go through two combat tours in Iraq, live through all that stuff and this is what happens? We’re supposed to be safe here.
Special Agent Bill Elflein: The strangest thing about this case is that Justin had no part in this at all. Absolutely not. He did not know any of these people.
Cooper Jackson had become obsessed with avenging the supposed rape of his girlfriend. And his mission was to find the Marine he believed had done it.
Special Agent Bill Elflein: He was walking around the base and he ran into Justin Huff…. And it was as simple as Cooper Jackson staring at Justin Huff, and Huff looking back at him inquisitively, like, “why are you looking at me?”
It was a brief encounter that would change the lives of both men forever.
Don Marcari: It was just a chance meeting. Huff may not even have been looking at Cooper, but he looked at him strangely. And in Cooper’s mind, now Huff was involved. It was just that chance meeting in a cafeteria, at the wrong place, wrong time.
Special Agent Bill Elflein: It’s hard to imagine, but that’s exactly how we believe it happened. He was looking for someone. Huff most likely fit the physical description that he made up in his own mind.
Special Agent Bill Elflein: And from there he was able to get Huff’s name because military members wear their name on their uniform. …And then from there, he imprinted on his name and went back to Samantha and kept pressing her with the name Huff. She’s never heard that name before, but she may have just caved and repeated that someone named Huff was involved.
Agent Maureen Evans: I think that Cooper Jackson was so persistent with her … Samantha was going to agree to anything that he said. It was almost like you couldn’t shut the lies off and you couldn’t shut whatever Cooper Jackson was going to say about this alleged sexual assault. I believe … she was just at the point where, “he’s not gonna stop bothering’ me, he’s not gonna stop asking’ me … if I just agree to whatever he’s saying he’s just gonna leave me alone.”
Special Agent Bill Elflein: He made the decision that he was going to find this individual, interrogate them and get the details of what happened to Samantha.
On Jan. 2, 2006, when Huff went missing, NCIS jumped into action.
Agent Maureen Evans: We had all hands on deck. We probably had roughly 20 to 30 agents that were pulled in.
The investigation began when Huff failed to show up for class. Shortly after that, NCIS got its first lead.
Special Agent Bill Elflein: One Marine … Private First Class William Richard stood up and told his staff sergeant that he had a conversation with Justin Huff a couple days prior while they were bowling together on base.
Today, William Richard is a gunnery sergeant in the Marines, currently deployed in Iraq, where we spoke to him by Skype.
Gunnery Sgt. William Richard: He told me that an individual came … had a conversation with him about a rape and that he was possibly involved in the Thanksgiving time frame … he told me the guy said he was an NCIS agent doing an investigation.
Special Agent Bill Elflein: Justin Huff also told Richard that he did not believe it was an NCIS agent because he asked this person for credentials and the agent failed to produce credentials.
Gunnery Sgt. William Richard: He said at first … his attire that he was wearing wasn’t something you would normally figure for an NCIS agent …
NCIS Agent Maureen Evans: It was a little personal. Because we had somebody that was impersonating one of us … that was probably the biggest thing that hit us. We’re like, “What? Somebody’s impersonating an NCIS agent?”
Huff’s close friends who served with him in the Marines say it’s not surprising at all that Huff would help out — even someone he was skeptical about.
Steve Stelter: I’m imagining he probably heard something happened to this girl or whatever and he was like, “OK, well, how can I help you. I mean I’ll do whatever I can to get to the bottom of this.”
Agents would later learn, a dark parking lot is where Jackson, pretending to be an NCIS agent, had confronted Huff in the middle of the night.
NCIS Agent Maureen Evans: He wanted to clear his name or to see what he could do to help with whatever the allegation was.
Special Agent Bill Elflein: Justin Huff told him that he didn’t know what he was talking about.
Don Marcari: And Huff says, “Look, I’ve just got back from two tours in Iraq recently married. I have a child on the way. I don’t do anything but go bowling. I don’t know what you’re talking about, and I have no involvement in any rape.”
Special Agent Bill Elflein: And Cooper Jackson believed him.
The two men parted ways in the night. But it was not the last time they would meet.
“A MARINE’S MARINE”
In the days after Justin Huff went missing, NCIS agents examined his life looking for clues about his disappearance.
NCIS Agent Maureen Evans: Dam Neck Annex is the small sub-base of Oceana Naval Air Station, and both of them are located in the city of Virginia Beach. It’s probably, maybe, a 10-minute drive to the actual oceanfront, which is the resort city of Virginia Beach.
Agent Maureen Evans: It’s where the Navy Marine Corps Intelligence Training Center is.
Agent Maureen Evans: He chose to go into the intelligence community because he wanted to take his Marine Corps career a little bit further.
Agent Maureen Evans: Justin was a very good looking guy. He was 6’4″, very physically fit, very proud to be a Marine.
PJ McGrath | Friend: He was your ideal Marine. He wanted to look good, you know, Marines pride themselves on looking good in uniform — he was a Marine’s Marine.
T.J. Murphy | Friend: — one of the funniest guys I can ever remember meeting.
Steve Stelter | Friend: I’m pretty sure he woke up every morning was like, “Who am I gonna make laugh today?”
But after two tours in Iraq, the always upbeat Huff had had enough, his friends say.
T.J. Murphy: ‘Cause he was like, “No, I can’t wait to get out. Done.”
Richard Zabka | Friend: — and then Becca came around and it’s like — boom.
Richard Zabka: It flipped a switch in him. He’s like — there’s a future now. You know what I mean? Stop living day to day and then all of a sudden he sees her and it’s like whoa — there’s more to this life than just tomorrow.
Gunnery Sgt. William Richard: He talked about his wife, how excited he was to be a father … He was really looking forward to it. You could just tell, when he talked about her and his soon-to-be-born child, he just lit up.
Steve Stelter: He met Becca, fell in love quick, they got married, and the next you know she was three months pregnant.
That’s when he enrolled in intelligence school.
Steve Stelter: I’m pretty sure he told me that it just intrigued him.
Richard Zabka: He was one of those guys, though. If he wanted to try something, he’d try it.
Gunnery Sgt. William Richard: He always said he wanted to help people, he said Intel was going to be the way he could help people.
PJ McGrath: I think it was just a better start for him … intelligence was something better.
Steve Stelter: You know, “I want something where I know I can take care of my family.”
Agents knew Huff had no reason to disappear. But they were still trying to figure out what happened to him.
NCIS Special Agent Bill Elflein: He was seen leaving without a bag, without a coat. It looked like he was just walking out of the building to go grab something from his vehicle.
They got another clue from Private Richard. Two days before Huff went missing, he had run into a man looking for Huff outside the main entrance to the housing complex.
Gunnery Sgt. William Richard: I overheard a conversation of an individual asking the lady at the front desk if she knew where Corporal Huff was at. I was like, “Are you looking for the Marine, Corporal Huff? He said “Yes.” I explained to him , “look we were on Christmas block, I wasn’t sure when he was supposed to get back because I wasn’t too sure” and he goes, “Oh, OK, thanks for the help,” then just started to leave.
Private Richard also gave NCIS agents a description of the man he saw.
Special Agent Bill Elflein: PFC Richard was able to provide that the individual was wearing a — the band Tool t-shirt, and a black biker jacket, leather jacket.
Gunnery Sgt. William Richard: I was leaving the building and saw him actually drive away. I just gave the description of the vehicle. …the key things in my head that actually stood out in my mind in that point I time was that it was a pickup truck and that there was a motorcycle actually in the back of the vehicle, specifically, and that’s what kind of really stood out to me.
Special Agent Bill Elflein: Private First Class Richard was instrumental to this investigation.
Agent Elflein spread the word of Richard’s description of the man he saw to the Marines on the base.
Special Agent Bill Elflein: That Saturday evening, the Marines that I’d been interviewing all week were out on the base and they saw a truck with a motorcycle strapped to the back. They went up to the vehicle, which was occupied by three men.
The Marines accused the driver of being responsible for the disappearance of their friend Huff—and he denied it.
Special Agent Bill Elflein: But they had the wherewithal to grab his identification and for the very first time we had the name Cooper Jackson.
Special Agent Bill Elflein: So I and the master at arms that I was working with went over to his room to talk to him and find out if he was indeed the person that had this run-in with the Marines the night before. And when I knocked on the door and identified myself, Cooper Jackson said to me, “Oh, I’m glad you’re here I want to talk to you.” So right away the master at arms and me looked at each other and said, “OK this is gonna be interesting.”
Special Agent Bill Elflein: One of the first questions I had for Cooper Jackson was did he know Justin Huff? And Jackson stated that he did not.
Special Agent Bill Elflein: So I decided to play a hand and bait him on a little bit of a ruse. And I asked him if he would be surprised to know that there was video and audio recording of … the barracks lobby.
Jackson didn’t know it, but Elflein was bluffing.
Special Agent Bill Elflein: When I informed him that there was a video recording of the lobby, he put his head down and he said, “Let me tell you a story.”
It was a dubious story involving a Marine with a name similar to Justin Huff — Jackson was trying to come up with a reason he had shown up looking for Huff.
Special Agent Bill Elflein: He told me that he was in a bar in Virginia Beach and there was a drunk Marine named David Hoff that came up to him and started bothering him … and he left his cell phone at the table … He then proceeded to tell me that he went to the lobby of the barracks on two occasions to try to return this phone to David Hoff.
Special Agent Bill Elflein: I then asked him what he did with the phone, and he said that he felt bad, that it looked like the appearance that he might have stolen it, so he threw it away. Which that story just supported that he was lying and that it was all made up.
The lies, impersonating an NCIS agent —Elflein was convinced Justin Huff was dead and they had their killer.
Special Agent Bill Elflein: The hair on the back of my neck stood up, like it is right now. ‘Cause I knew that I was sitting across from a murderer … I remember that moment and I was like, “What do I do now?”
POINT OF NO RETURN
Agent Maureen Evans: This story, it doesn’t make any sense … so many different twists and turns, because there were so many stories that were being told … there was a motive in Cooper Jackson’s head, but the motive was not true, it wasn’t real.
Agents were convinced Jackson was responsible for Huff’s disappearance and likely murder. But they needed more concrete evidence before they could make an arrest.
Special Agent Bill Elflein: Justin’s building and Cooper’s building were almost at the two furthest ends of the base, about a mile apart. They also happened to be the only residential buildings that have video cameras.
Special Agent Bill Elflein: On the night that Justin goes missing there was even more videotape evidence from Cooper Jackson’s dorm. Prior to Justin moving outside his dorm for the last time that we see him, Cooper Jackson is moving duffle bags from his room down the stairwell to his car.
Agent Maureen Evans [outside Jackson’s dorm]: We actually collected video footage of Cooper Jackson walking down that particular ladder well a little after four in the morning.
Special Agent Bill Elflein: He’s dressed in a suit. You could actually see in the video the imprint, in the small of his back, a glock firearm.
Agent Maureen Evans: We had enough evidence that we felt as though we could bring him in and interrogate him.
On January 12, 10 days after Huff went missing, NCIS agents arrested Jackson on base and brought him in for questioning.
Special Agent Bill Elflein: I told him that we were gonna put him in custody for the trip back to our office, and he agreed. And he did not look surprised at all.
For several hours, agents grilled him.
Special Agent Bill Elflein: And for the first two hours he denied knowing Justin, he denied any involvement in the disappearance of Justin, and then it was just good interrogation, that he decided that the lies weren’t working … and he had nowhere to go but to finally confess and tell us what he did.
Agent Maureen Evans: I really clearly think he thought he was gonna get away with this. But when he got caught I believe it brought some calm to himself to confess to it.
At that point, agents still didn’t know exactly what had happened to Huff or where he was.
Agent Maureen Evans: One of the things we discussed is the family deserves to bury the body, bury Justin. … And I think he agreed that that would probably be the best thing to do.
Special Agent Bill Elflein: He proceeded to lay out the entire story … of what happened and why.
Jackson admitted he had gone back to confront Huff for a second night in the dark parking lot.
Special Agent Bill Elflein: He was tormented by his mixing feelings of wanting to avenge Samantha’s sexual assault and believing that Justin Huff had nothing to do with it. So on the evening of New Year’s Eve, Cooper Jackson did some drinking in his room and he convinced himself over and over again that Justin Huff lied to him and that he did know what happened to Samantha.
He was convinced that Huff had raped the girlfriend Jackson was in love with, but had never met.
Special Agent Bill Elflein: He made up the story that Samantha was down in a hospital in North Carolina and that she was injured by the individual that allegedly sexually assaulted her.
Don Marcari | Cooper Jackson’s lawyer: He decides he has to get to the bottom of what happened. He calls Huff up and says, “If you wanna clear your name, you have to go with me.”
Even though Huff had doubts he was dealing with a real NCIS agent, he went along.
Don Marcari: So Huff being a good Marine says sure, gets in the car with Cooper, and they head off to the Outer Banks.
Special Agent Bill Elflein: And we believe of course, Justin had nothing to do with this, that he would willingly go to clear his name up.
Special Agent Bill Elflein: And Cooper Jackson handcuffed him and put him in his vehicle. Now they had a drive down to North Carolina, it was over an hour drive. Cooper Jackson is interrogating Justin Huff the entire way. Justin’s repeatedly denying any involvement with Samantha, and to Cooper Jackson’s own acknowledgement, he’s starting, again, to believe Justin, that Justin is not responsible for this.
But Jackson had reached a point of no return.
Special Agent Bill Elflein: And this is probably the saddest part of this sad story. Cooper Jackson picked out a kill spot in North Carolina off the main road in the woods and he drove Justin to this spot.
Special Agent Bill Elflein: He voluntarily agreed to let us take him to the death scene.
Agent Maureen Evans: We asked Cooper Jackson to re-enact the night that he killed Justin Huff.
Special Agent Bill Elflein: It was very disturbing to hear him tell the story so emotionless, like he was just reiterating activities of his day. I never really got the impression that he felt he was telling us the details of ending someone’s life in the horrific manner of what happened.
Don Marcari: He got Huff out of the car. He put him on the ground.
COOPER JACKSON [Confession video]: I put one knee to his back … I instructed Corporal Huff to go down to the ground and I would release him….I identified who I really was and I showed him a pistol.
Don Marcari: He took out his 9 millimeter and said, “Hey, I’m not really with the NCIS. My name is Cooper Jackson, and you raped my girlfriend.”
COOPER JACKSON [Confession video]: … and I asked him for any true involvement that he had with Samantha.
Don Marcari: And Huff said, “I swear on my unborn child, I didn’t. I had nothing to do with this.”
COOPER JACKSON [Confession video]: I asked him to swear on his life and everything that he held dear to his life that he meant the truth, and he said he did.
Special Agent Bill Elflein: Cooper Jackson, realizing, by his own admissions again, that Justin’s not responsible for this.
COOPER JACKSON [Confession video]: I don’t think I ever truly planned to let him go, I wanted to, but I just knew I couldn’t get away with that.
Special Agent Bill Elflein: He felt that he took it too far, that he’s now impersonated a federal agent, he’s kidnapped somebody. And he thought that if he was just to walk away from this he knew that his Navy career would be over and he’d be in a lot of trouble
Don Marcari: And so that’s when he took out his knife and cut his throat.
COOPER JACKSON [CONFESSION VIDEO]: I tilted his chin up… I brought my knife around.
COOPER JACKSON [CONFESSION VIDEO]: and I looked…trying to discover a spot that I could drag his body to.
Agent Maureen Evans [at makeshift grave]: There’s a marker there… and then there is the big hole. This is the grave right here.
For Agent Evans, Huff’s makeshift grave brings back painful memories.
Agent Maureen Evans: You know, just kinda think back and remember, you know, it’s a very, very sad story.
Richard Zabka: This guy didn’t want to hurt a fly. I mean, he would do anything to protect anybody. But why in the hell would somebody do that to him?
Don Marcari: In this case Cooper pled guilty so there was no trial … But in the military we have a sentencing hearing and that was with a jury.
And that hearing would be the first time Jackson would lay eyes on Samantha.
Don Marcari: And even the jury found that Samantha was the catalyst for this whole tragedy.
CEMENTING THE CASE AGAINST JACKSON
Agent Maureen Evans: Cooper Jackson decided to plead guilty to the murder and then he chose to have his sentencing hearing decide what his fate was going to be, whether he was actually gonna be put to death or whether he was gonna serve life in jail.
Special Agent Bill Elflein: Cooper Jackson and Justin Huff are basically their own version of good versus evil. Cooper Jackson was evil. He committed a homicide and killed somebody he did not even know.
NCIS had his guilty plea, but they still needed to find all the evidence to cement the case against Jackson.
Agent Maureen Evans: You can’t go to trial just based on a confession alone. You have to have the evidence that supports what happened.
Agent Maureen Evans: The water on the lake at Dam Neck was low. And so we had some several individuals that were fishing that day and one of ’em noticed a silver item.
Agent Maureen Evans: This lake is where Corporal Justin Huff’s cell phone and wallet with his ID card was found shortly after he went missing.
And 16 miles away …
Special Agent Bill Elflein: The water in the Elizabeth River is in the 30s and the Pungo River Bridge is a brand new bridge at this point … so the waterway is filled with concrete and rebar and the visibility is zero. Navy divers, at our request, went down there and did an amazing job.
Agent Maureen Evans [at the bridge]: This is where Cooper Jackson disposed of the handcuffs, the knife and the shovel, all of which were used in the murder of Justin Huff.
NCIS recovered the knife — the murder weapon. And with all the other evidence in hand, they were ready to present it at the sentencing hearing, where prosecutors would seek the death penalty.
Don Marcari: Cooper’s mother called me, and she said, you know, “My son is being charged with capital murder, and the Navy’s seeking the death penalty, which they hadn’t done since the Kennedy administration.”
At the hearing, there would be one witness everybody wanted to see—Samantha. It would be the first time Jackson came face-to-face with the real Samantha.
Agent Maureen Evans: When she came in the back of the courtroom I do remember him turning his head to look.
Don Marcari: Well, when he first saw her come through the courthouse doors, I mean, he froze. … he couldn’t even look at her.
Don Marcari: In reality, Samantha was probably, you know, 5’2″, probably three or four hundred pounds.
Don Marcari: Actually, once he stopped and thought, he realized how ridiculous this whole thing was, that he actually killed somebody over a girl that he never met.
Don Marcari: Well, he basically apologized to Huff’s family. You know, he apologized to his family. He apologized to the Marine Corps and said he was sorry that all this happened.
He told the court:
“There were signs along the way, signs that told me I was being deceived, that I was being too pig-headed to pay enough attention.
“Then there were coincidences that seemed to verify Samantha’s story and I believed in those coincidences because I wanted to believe in Samantha. We would be better off today had I used better judgment. Corporal Huff would be alive, his family much happier and not filled with this misery that I’ve instilled in them. Corporal Huff’s wife, she would never have lost her hope. And her child—his child—would have lived a life that would include his father’s love.”
Don Marcari: So they ended up ultimately giving him life without parole.
But Samantha’s fate would be much different.
Agent Maureen Evans: When Samantha was interviewed by the NCIS agents … She was told that Cooper Jackson murdered the person that he thought raped her … And she was really shocked by that. I don’t think she understood the magnitude of how this telephonic relationship she had with Cooper Jackson ended in … someone being killed.
She wouldn’t spend a single day in prison.
Special Agent Bill Elflein: Samantha was a pawn in this investigation. She’s a very sad part of it. …But she was not involved directly in the death of Justin Huff. This was not a conspiracy between her and Cooper Jackson to kill Justin Huff.
Agent Maureen Evans: Samantha didn’t commit a crime under the uniform Code of Military Justice. She was a civilian.
Don Marcari: Samantha was never charged with anything. The Marines were mad at her. The jury was mad at her. But like she said on the stand, “I didn’t tell anybody to kill anybody” so there was no law she broke.
Don Marcari: ‘Cause if there was a law that I thought she had broken, we would try to get somebody to charge her with that.
Steve Stelter [scoffs]: She walks away scot-free?
PJ McGrath: While she might not have done anything criminally wrong, there’s a higher law to this world than what we live by here on earth, and she’s gotta answer to that. …If she makes a different life choice in saying that “I’m not gonna randomly call guys and lead them on to believe that I’m somebody else,” we still all have our friend here, Jakie still has his dad, and Becca still has her husband. …you remove her from the entire situation this guy, whatever his name is, he might have gone off to do other bad things, but it wouldn’t have ended like this without her.
Samantha says her actions have ruined her life and she wanted no part of this story.
NCIS Director Andrew Traver: And I think the agents, of course, because they’re also human beings, they’re not just assets, they end up making emotional connections with a great deal of empathy and sympathy for victims of crime.
Agent Maureen Evans: During the course of this investigation I actually had a personal relationship with Rebecca Huff and his parents and his aunt.
Agent Maureen Evans: [emotional]: …might get a little teary-eyed here… These feelings and the sadness — they’re reminded every day about it because Rebecca was pregnant when Justin was killed. So they have a little boy now, and that little boy’s growin’ up. And Rebecca says every day he becomes and looks more and more like Justin.
Steve Stelter [emotional]: To have his life destroyed, his wife’s life destroyed, his son’ll never meet his dad, I mean —
Gunnery Sgt. William Richard: From talking to Becca, it sounds like he has the same exact personality as his dad.
Richard Zabka: I mean, he coulda had a whole career in the Marine Corps, look at the people that he coulda brought around him. How many great Marines could he made out of the Marine Corps? You know? They took that all away from everybody.
Gunnery Sgt. William Richard: It’s just — [bows his head, emotional] — sorry.
Richard Zabka: No matter where we were at, if Huff was there, the world was good. It was great… I mean, [laughs] that’s that grin, you couldn’t see past that grin. … he — he filtered out all the bad crap.
PJ McGrath: Might sound cliché, but if everyone — everyone in the entire world lived a little bit more like Huff … we’d have a lot better world than we live in right now.
Agent Maureen Evans: It’s really, really sad that this family suffered this loss so brutally. They have to live every day without him, and I think the world is not in a better place because I think he had a lot to do and I think he woulda done a lot and impacted this world.
“48 Hours: NCIS” is a series from the award-winning team behind “48 Hours.” Narrated by CBS’ “NCIS” actor Rocky Carroll, each episode reveals, step-by-step, how investigators with the real-life NCIS track killers, crack fraud cases, and how they hunt terrorists using street smarts and technology – the cases they can’t forget. Watch Tuesdays at 10/9c on CBS.