Defending Their Son: The Speakers Speak

TB patient Andrew Speaker's parents and in-laws explain their decisions.

June 4, 2007 — -- For the first time the parents and parents-in-law of Andrew Speaker, the man with tuberculosis who is isolated at a Denver hotel, spoke out about their role and the difficulties the family had faced during the incident.

Cheryl and Ted Speaker, Andrew Speaker's parents, and Robert and Betsy Cooksey, the parents of Andrew's new wife, Sarah Cooksey, sat down exclusively with ABC's "Good Morning America" anchor Diane Sawyer to explain their view.

Some people have questioned how family members, knowing Andrew had a contagious disease, could allow him to board trans-Atlantic flights. Others have raised questions about Robert Cooksey's connection to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and wonder whether it influenced any decisions. Robert Cooksey is a tuberculosis researcher.

"I think the best way to explain it for myself and my family, my friends: 'We're in hell, and we want to get out of hell,'" said Ted Speaker, Andrew's father.

Cheryl Speaker said she wanted the world to know she and her family did not believe their acts were reckless.

"We are not people of reckless behavior," she said.

Everyone went to Greece for the Speaker-Cooksey wedding without any worries about any contagious situations, said Betsy Cooksey, Andrew's mother-in-law. .

"And do you think that this man who is an expert in TB, do you think that this man, if he had thought that there was any danger whatsoever to his only child and his only grandchild, that he would've allowed this to happen?" Cheryl Speaker asked about Robert Cooksey, Sarah's father.

"We were told that these -- induced sputum [PH] tests that he had had were … were negative to that point. And so, by the guidelines, he was not considered infectious," Robert Cooksey said.

Taped Conversation With Health Officials

Questions exist about a meeting with local health officials before the trip to Greece. Officials say they told Andrew Speaker he would put others at risk by traveling abroad for the wedding and then returning home on a commercial flight.

"We asked him [the official] repeatedly during that meeting, 'Is he contagious?' All times they said, 'No, you're not contagious,'" Ted Speaker said.

Other family members agreed that no ambiguity had existed about whether Andrew Speaker could pass the illness along to others.

"Then he said of course, 'I prefer you not to travel. I prefer you just say here,'" Ted Speaker said. He said the official never gave a reason why.

"Well, are, are you just saying this to cover yourself?" Ted Speaker said he asked the official. "And he said, 'Yes,'" Ted Speaker said.

Ted Speaker says he has an audiotape of the conversation with health officials in which they clearly say that his son was not contagious. He plans to release the tape at some point and says he believes it will confirm the family's side of the story.

"They said on tape it was not contagious," Ted Speaker said.

Ted Speaker said he taped conversations as part of his natural routine, partly because of hearing loss he sustained during his time as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam. Previously, Andrew Speaker indicated that the conversation was taped as a protective measure and that it served as a record.

Ted Speaker said he never thought about telling them the conversation was being taped. But, he said in hindsight that he would have alerted them.

Letter Arrives Too Late

After that conversation with officials, Andrew Speaker left for Greece. Local health officials say they should have delivered a letter to him before he departed for the trip and explained to him that he should not travel.

"My name's in the phone book. [The Cookseys'] name's in the phone book," Ted Speaker said. "Why don't they just come and present me with a letter? No one did. No one bothered."

The parents agree Andrew Speaker would have canceled his travel plans if he believed he was putting others at risk.

A week later the CDC called Andrew Speaker and told him that his strain of TB was the most drug resistant. Officials told him to isolate himself in Rome.

"You will need to turn yourself in to Italian authorities and face quarantine until this is cured," Cheryl Speaker said the CDC told her son.

But the family believed Andrew would get better treatment in the United States.

"We don't know that there's a cure. They are doing experimental stuff in Denver," Cheryl Speaker explained as his reasoning to come back into the country.

'We Had Nothing'

The parents say the CDC simply walked away, offering no assistance to help Andrew Speaker return home. The CDC now says it was going to help.

"I can assure you, if we had had one ounce, one ounce, one smidgen that there was anything, any plans to bring them home, that's all we needed," Betsy Cooksey said. "That's all we needed. We had nothing."

The family said it tried reaching high government officials and Congress members. Instead, David Kim, an officer of the CDC, told the family the only recourse was $100,000 of its own money to rustle up a plane quickly.

The Speakers said they told Kim they didn't have that type of money.

What Did Robert Cooksey Think?

"It's the height of irony that I happen to work in TB research," Robert Cooksey said.

He said that he didn't think Andrew Speaker's contraction of TB had anything to do with his research.

"That was one of the first facts that we established, that I've never had tuberculosis, and I never gave him or anyone else tuberculosis," Robert Cooksey said.

He said that even though he was unsure of what he would have done if he were in Andrew Speaker's position, he probably would have done the same thing.

"[It was] established early on that if he thought he was putting a single person at risk, not the least of which is his new wife, then believe me, he wouldn't have been on a plane," he said.

Cheryl Speaker said she believed this entire incident wasn't a coincidence, but a trial in faith.

"I wrote Andrew a note a few days ago. And I said to him, 'I don't believe that God made this happen, but I believe there's a higher purpose here.  I'm not sure what it is, but I know that when God has a special mission -- mission, he chooses the very best he can find.  And he has chosen the very best you can find, and that's Andrew Speaker,'" Cheryl Speaker said.

The Family Tested Negative

Andrew Speaker's parents, wife and in-laws have all been tested for tuberculosis.

"Everyone we know that has been tested is all negative," Ted Speaker said. "We worked together practicing law every day, at night, weekends -- negative."

Robert Cooksey said the family would still be followed for a period of time.

"They'll retest us," he said. "And I think at some point, they will determine that we're basically in the clear."

So far Andrew Speaker has no symptoms. He hasn't coughed.

And though his new wife, Sarah Cooksey, said she hadn't kissed her husband since their wedding, her parents do not believe it. In fact, kissing is not considered a significant mode of transmission, but coughing is.

Betsy Cooksey said even if her daughter had contracted the illness, she believed the treatment in Denver would work well with her, as it had with Andrew Speaker.

"I'm not worried," she said. "And I'm not worried about my grandchild either."

The Cookseys said some of the feedback they'd heard about Andrew Speaker had been negative. And as the details of the story continue unfolding, Andrew's sister Kim Speaker said it becomes scarier.

"The only thing I can say is I'm so disappointed because as we've learned more and more about Andrew's diagnosis, the danger to Andrew has increased," Kim Speaker said. "Not to me, not to anyone else, not to anyone sitting here, anyone around him, but the danger to Andrew has, has increased. And that's a very scary thing."

Cheryl Speaker still offers hopes and prayer for her son.

"Help him to get well," she said. "This, he's an experiment to them. And so, that's tough."