Every year around this time, when the Louisiana air finally feels crisp and the leaves begin to change, Stephanie Belgarde wishes she could skip over it - the beginning of fall, the month of October, the anniversary of her youngest daughter’s brutal murder.
“This month marks the 16th anniversary since my baby girl’s been gone,” Stephanie told Dateline. “Year after year, I have to relive it. I wish I could just skip over it.”
Stephanie remembers the last time she saw her 19-year-old daughter, Courtney Coco. It was Friday, October 1, 2004.
“It was opening day of squirrel season and we were going camping for the weekend,” Stephanie said. “Courtney was over at my house and I asked her if she wanted to go with us. But she didn’t want to go. She’s not really the camping type.”
Instead, Courtney, who lived in her own place just three miles away, agreed to watch her parents’ dogs until they returned home on Sunday.
By Monday, Stephanie’s world had come crashing down around her. On October 4, 2004, she received a heartbreaking call from an Alexandria Police officer.
“They found a body in Texas… wearing Courtney’s graduation ring,” Stephanie sobbed. “I thought I was hearing things. It couldn’t be her. Like maybe someone had stolen her ring. I just dropped the phone and fell to the floor.”
Stephanie told Dateline she remembers calling her husband, but the rest of the day was a blur.
“That call changed my life forever,” she said.
According to Alexandria Police reports, Courtney’s partially-clothed body was found in an abandoned building on the outskirts of Winnie, Texas, about a three-hour drive from where Courtney lived in Alexandria, Louisiana.
A man driving a backhoe past the building, which sat unfinished due to stalled construction, noticed Courtney’s body and called police, according to reports. Investigators suspect she had been dead for three to four days based on the decomposition of her body.
An autopsy conducted on Tuesday, October 5, 2004, could not determine Courtney’s cause of death due to the badly decomposed state of her body, but it was ruled a homicide and an investigation was launched.
A week later, on October 12, Courtney’s green 1999 Pontiac Bonneville was located in Houston, Texas. The individuals in possession of the vehicle were questioned, but investigators would not comment on whether or not they believe they were involved in Courtney’s death or why they were in possession of the vehicle.
Stephanie told Dateline her daughter’s belongings were still inside the car, including the white lab coat that she wore to her job as head receptionist at a dental office.
“She always worked hard to better herself and build her future,” Stephanie said.
Courtney was a 2003 graduate of Alexandria Senior High School and was enrolled at Northwestern State University where she was majoring in criminal investigation.
“She always noticed the details - and she was so organized,” Stephanie recalled. “In her car, we also found this binder of bills, everything just so neat and organized,” she added with a soft laugh.
“We also found a copy of a friend’s obit she had kept,” Stephanie said. “Shamekka. Her friend who was killed just months before.”
Shamekka Garnette disappeared from her home in Alexandria, Louisiana, on August 13, 2004. On August 17, just two days before her 21st birthday, Shamekka’s body was found in a ditch along Old Boyce Road, according to the Rapides Parish Sheriff’s Office. Her murder has never been solved.
Courtney’s mother believes the murders may be connected, but investigators would not comment on the cases.
Years passed and Courtney’s case turned cold.
But her family continued to push for answers, and in 2019, reached out to retired homicide detective and podcast host Woody Overton.
“When they asked me to take a look at Courtney’s case, I couldn’t turn it down,” Overton told Dateline. “Cold cases are my passion and I really wanted to get justice for this family.”
Following his retirement, Overton went into private practice as a polygraph examiner and defense consultant. He began a deep dive into Courtney’s case and shared his findings on his podcast “Real Life Real Crime” with the release of an 18-episode investigative podcast “Who Murdered Courtney Coco?” with the hope of bringing in tips and information. It worked. “There was an overwhelming response,” he said. “After countless interviews, a fresh look at the case and months of dedication, I believe we know who killed Courtney Coco.”
Overton said he believes Courtney was strangled at her house just after midnight on October 2, 2004, and that her body was stuffed in the trunk of her car before being dumped at the abandoned building in Winnie, Texas. He added that he knows the identities of the two people he believes to be responsible for Courtney’s murder. Overton's findings were shared with law enforcement.
Alexandria Police detective Tanner Dryden, the lead investigator on Courtney’s case, would not comment on Overton’s findings due to the case being an active investigation, but told Dateline he is "working diligently to keep this investigation moving forward."
Courtney's mother, Stephanie, told Dateline she met with District Attorney Phillip Terrell in November 2019, and she claims he told her that an arrest would be made within a few weeks. But nearly a year has passed and the family is still without answers.
"I know they are doing everything they can, but it’s time we had answers,” she said. “We will fight until the end for justice for Courtney, and we want whoever did this to be held responsible.”
Hugo Holland, a prosecutor with the District Attorney’s Office, told Dateline that they have met with the family several times and that they are dedicated to getting justice for Courtney.
“This case is very much at the forefront of important cases with the district attorney’s office and Alexandria Police and the Rapides Parish Sheriff,” Holland said. “We’re doing everything we can to bring justice for this family.”
He added that an arrest has not been made, but told Dateline they have identified the man they believe killed Courtney and are working with the law enforcement agencies to gather evidence to prove that beyond a reasonable doubt.
Courtney’s family told Dateline they don’t know why someone would kill Courtney, but believe she might have gotten into a bad situation where she knew something that she wasn’t supposed to know.
“She did not strip herself down and drive three hours to Texas,” her aunt Lynn told Dateline. “Someone did this to her. But for reasons we still don’t know or understand.”
Courtney’s family describes the 19-year-old as a kind person who loved people and helped everyone she came across.
“She just loved life,” Stephanie told Dateline. “She was very active - played softball and took gymnastics for years. She loved to travel and loved to shop. She was a fashion diva of sorts.”
The youngest of three siblings, Courtney also had two nephews she adored.
“Her sisters and nephews miss her greatly,” Stephanie said. “We’re a close-knit family and it’s been extremely tough for them. For all of us.”
Sixteen years have now passed since Courtney was murdered, but the loss is still fresh for her family. Her mother continues to push for answers and hopes by shining a light on the case, justice will be swift.
“I know nothing can bring her back,” Stephanie told Dateline. “As a mother, I want to fix this. Sadly, I can’t. But I kneeled at her grave and made a promise to get justice. And I’m keeping that promise. I’ll get justice and finally she’ll be at peace.”
Anyone who may have information regarding Courtney’s case is asked to call the Alexandria Police Department at (318) 449-5099. A reward of $10,000 is being offered for information that leads to the arrest and conviction of the person responsible for Courtney’s murder.