NORTH RIDGEVILLE - Armed with a Glock 9 mm handgun and wearing a bulletproof vest, Christopher Cole arrived early at Puritas Metal Products on Friday morning.
The ousted company president barricaded himself inside the Race Road factory and refused to come out when workers started showing up about 6 a.m., North Ridgeville police said.
The ensuing standoff was just another chapter in a long-running battle for control of the privately held company that has resulted in lawsuits, arrests and bad blood between family members.
Cole, 43, a South African national with military training living in Elyria, surrendered to police shortly before 9 a.m. Friday, but it took police calling county Common Pleas Judge Mark Betleski - the judge handling some of the lawsuits over control of the company - and the judge saying Cole shouldn`t be in the building to end the standoff.
Police said Cole told them he was frustrated at how long the legal process of determining whether his relatives had the power to fire him was taking. Betleski said Cole had come to his office Thursday and asked that he read a letter Cole had written about the case, but the judge said he didn`t talk with Cole and hasn`t read the letter.
Now Cole is in the county jail on charges of breaking and entering, obstructing official business, vandalism, inducing panic and carrying a concealed weapon.
Corporate civil war
Cole was fired from his job as head of Puritas on May 5, 2006, according to court documents, by the majority shareholder - a trust controlled by Barbara Cook - Cole`s cousin and the wife of the late Robert Cook, who left control of his 74 percent share of the company to the trust when he died.
But Cole, who owns 24 percent of the company, refused to go and the effort to fire him touched off a legal civil war within the company.
Over the next year, the two sides - both claiming to be the true leadership of Puritas - fought in the court system. In October 2006 Judge Betleski declared in a hearing that the status quo should remain until he could determine whether Barbara Cook controlled the trust and had the power to force Cole out.
"Mr. Cole contends that Mrs. Cook is not the valid shareholder," said John Keyse-Walker, who represents Puritas from the Cooks` side of the fight.
That status quo effectively meant that Cole would remain president of the company as long as the case was pending, Betleski said.
For months, that was the case until Cole left the country. When he returned in June of this year, he found the locks changed and himself out of a job. When he refused to leave the building, the Cooks had North Ridgeville police arrest Cole on a criminal trespassing charge, which was later dropped.
Cole found himself on the outside of Puritas and without health insurance. Cole has Marfan syndrome, a connective tissue disorder, that caused a tear in his aorta five years ago. At one court hearing, Cole told Betleski his medical conditions meant he would need to be closely monitored by doctors for the rest of his life.
Contempt & control
The day after Cole was arrested by North Ridgeville police in June, the Cooks dropped the lawsuit they had pending against Cole, effectively ending Betleski`s order to maintain the status quo.
But Cole and his attorneys now contend that because Betleski`s order was in place when Cole was barred from the plant, the Cooks were in contempt of court when they changed the locks. That complaint is pending before another county judge.
Betleski declined to comment on whether Cole had a right to be in the facility Friday because other lawsuits involving Cole, the Cooks and Puritas are still pending before him. But he said Cole could have made the same argument for arresting the Cooks - including Richard Cook, Barbara Cook`s son and the man currently serving as the company`s president.
"The same way this played out today could have played out in June," Betleski said.
But the bottom line, Keyse-Walker said, is whether Barbara Cook legally controls the stock she claims she does.
"If he`s right, I`m not sure who controls that 74 percent," Keyse-Walker said.
Cole`s attorney, Steven Beranek, said Cole ultimately wants to be returned to his position as the company`s president and awarded monetary damages.
Berenak said Cole recently heard the company terminated some employees and had plans to lay off more and that`s why he went to the factory.
"He never intended to hurt anyone, but merely went there out of true concern for what was going on with the company," Berenak said. "The gun and bulletproof vest was for his own protection because there have been threats made against him and his family."
Employees arriving for work called police after discovering a broken office window. Police said Cole used metal L-brackets to bolt all entry doors shut.
Police were able to see Cole inside the building, and he told them he was not leaving because he was the president of the company and had work to do. Cole, who has a concealed carry permit, told police about the loaded gun in his car, which was parked inside the building.
He eventually surrendered the weapon with two loaded magazines to police by sliding them underneath an overhead door. After Cole later surrendered himself, police found a spare box of ammunition and pepper spray in his car.
When Cole was arraigned Friday afternoon before Elyria Municipal Court Judge John Musson, his family said he appeared to be in good spirits as he sat in front of the video camera with his right hand bandaged.
"This was not the way I planned my day to go, but I support my husband," Cole`s wife Anna said after she and the couple`s children arrived in court. "Maybe now people will pay attention to the civil case and see what has happened."
Musson ordered Cole to undergo a mental evaluation and set a Dec. 5 hearing to listen to evidence on whether the case should be sent to a county grand jury.
"These alleged acts seemed to be very irrational and emotional in nature, and (Cole) seemed to have decided to take matters into his own hands," Musson said.
After the standoff, employees returned to work at Puritas but largely refused to discuss the matter, calling it "an internal matter that was handled by police."
"Someone broke into our building, the police was called, and they got the man out," a company spokesman said. "No employees were in the building and no one got hurt. We are back to business as usual."
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