Joe Cooper, the former Shelby County official who wore a wire for the FBI in some of the Memphis area’s highest-profile political corruption cases of recent years, has died.
He was 76.
In a long and colorful career, he performed marriages of hundreds of people and did business with celebrities including Jerry Lee Lewis and Jerry Lawler.
He had served on Shelby County’s main governing body in the 1970s, but left after his conviction on bank fraud charges.
After that, he ran for office many times, but never won. Even after he was convicted in a second case in the 2000s, and as his health worsened, he hoped for a return.
“I’m a different person than I was many years ago. I love Memphis and Shelby County,” he told The Commercial Appeal in 2020 as he contemplated another run.
“He lived, I think, for politics. And when he was not in the midst of it all, he felt like a fish out of water,” his wife, Elizabeth Cooper. said Tuesday.
He became ill on New Year’s Day and was taken by ambulance to a hospital, where he tested positive for COVID-19 — he wasn’t vaccinated, she said.
He died on Jan. 30 during the second of two lengthy hospital stays that month, his wife said. Doctors had diagnosed multiple medical problems and it wasn’t clear if the virus was the primary cause of his death, she said.
Cooper’s death attracted little notice.
His wife said she and her husband had lost contact with most of their friends and family members, and she doesn’t know how to reach his two sons from a previous marriage. She said she lacked funds to hold a service, and that the county government took charge of his body for burial.
She contacted The Commercial Appeal this week to draw greater public notice to his passing.
“The Marryin’ Squire”
Joe Cooper called her Betsy, rather than Elizabeth, and they would have celebrated their 37th wedding anniversary in June, she said. Both had been previously married, said Elizabeth Cooper, now 84.
Joe Cooper had been elected to the Quarterly Court, predecessor to today’s County Commission, in 1972.
Members of the body were known as squires. Cooper was known as the marryin’ squire because he performed hundreds of marriages, The Commercial Appeal reported in a 1992 profile.
He’d helped win funding for the Libertyland amusement park and the Criminal Justice Center.
He was forced to give up his county government seat after he was convicted in a federal bank fraud case in 1977. He later went to a prison camp for four months.
Later, he was active in Democratic politics and held government jobs, including in the assessor’s office and criminal court clerk’s office.
Cooper ran various business ventures, including selling cars and working with star musician Jerry Lee Lewis in 1993 to launch a short-lived Beale Street nightclub.
He worked with wrestler Jerry Lawler in 2010 on plans for a wrestling-themed restaurant. Lawler later withdrew plans to use his name and likeness.
Myron Lowery, the former Memphis City Council member and former mayor pro tem, cooperated with Cooper on a project in the 1990s.
“He recommended building a casino on Mud Island which would be owned by an Indian tribe,” Lowery recalled recently.
“And I supported that move. Nothing became of it. But Joe always had novel ideas on how to create new revenue streams for the city and a county.”
Lowery, who now serves as City Court Clerk, also recalled Cooper’s lobbying work.
“He was a wheeler-dealer. He put together deals for people. He lobbied the City Council for various projects.” Many of those projects involved billboards — Cooper worked for years for billboard magnate William B. Tanner.
In 2006, federal agents approached Cooper and confronted him with evidence of his participation in a scheme to help drug dealers buy Cadillacs in other people’s names. Cooper agreed to become an informant in a sting operation called Operation Main Street Sweeper.
Wearing recording equipment, Cooper gave cash to City Council members Rickey Peete and Edmund Ford Sr.
Peete later pleaded guilty — it was his second bribery conviction in office.
Ford took his case to trial. The case focused on payments totaling $8,900 that Ford had allegedly taken in exchange for political favors.
Videos of cash changing hands were played in court.
Ford testified the money was a business loan for his funeral home, not a bribe.
Jurors found Ford not guilty. He currently serves on the City Council.
Cooper was later sentenced to six months in prison.
Life at home
Cooper’s widow calls this time in her husband’s life “very painful.”
“Not only for him, but for me, and it turned our lives upside down. It’s really rather, in the past.”
His widow said her husband could show a nasty side, but she remembers his generosity. “As most couples married or not married, we had our ups and downs, our fights and whatever.
“But bottom line, we loved each other dearly. And we shared a lot of things. He was always bringing me for flowers when he came home from work or bringing me something from my garden. He was very thoughtful and considerate.”
In recent years, he had continued selling cars on his own, she said. (He’s not to be confused with another local car dealer named Joe Cooper, the founder of Joe Cooper Auto Sales who died in August.)
Her husband suffered a stroke in 2017, and stopped selling vehicles, she said.
After he died, his wife said she asked one of his few remaining friends if the friend could help arrange a memorial service, but she said the friend declined. “It was just a very, very sad ending,” his wife said.
The county government confirmed Joe Cooper died Jan. 30 and was buried in the county cemetery for the indigent at 5790 Raleigh-Millington Road.
His wife said no funeral is scheduled.
Investigative reporter Daniel Connolly welcomes tips and comments from the public. Reach him at 529-5296, firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @danielconnolly.