Classmates Recall 2 Sides of School Gunman

Times Staff Writer

He was a jokester, a former candidate for student body president, and a choir member who was known and liked by nearly everyone on campus.

But he was also a troubled young man, who liked to escape by withdrawing into Stephen King novels and get-rich-quick ideas--a moody, "off-the-wall" senior who made little secret of the family problems that forced him into counseling.

That is how classmates described Jeff Lyne Cox, 18, the San Gabriel High School student who walked into an English class on Tuesday, brandished a .223-caliber, Korean-made assault rifle, and held 70 students hostage for more than half an hour.

Cox--who reportedly demanded cigarettes, refreshments and $1 million--fired two shots into a classroom wall, injuring no one, before he was subdued by classmate Ruben Ortega and at least four other students, who wrestled him to the ground, school officials said.

He was being held Wednesday in lieu of $100,000 bail at the Alhambra Police Department Jail. Arraignment on 15 felony charges was scheduled today in Alhambra Municipal Court.

Charges include one count of burglary, four counts of assault with a deadly weapon and 10 counts of false imprisonment, Deputy Dist. Atty. William Holliman said.

"He was funny, well-liked. He seemed like the All-American kid," said senior Pei-chi Chang, a member of the English class. "He was a jokester. Everyone thought it was a joke," at first.

Although police and school administrators declined to comment Wednesday on Cox's possible motives, classmates said it was common knowledge that he was seeing a professional counselor for family problems.

Cox, an only child, lives with his mother, who is divorced, classmates said. He seemed to be affected by difficulties at home and, earlier in the semester, he stopped attending many or all of his classes, including English.

Last spring, the one-time honor student ran unsuccessfully for student body president, amusing classmates with a speech about his political platform.

"He said: 'I can't get up here and run off a list of things I've done, but I will try my best,' " recalled one employee in the school's student-activities office. "He was Mr. Personality . . . just a nice guy."

"Everyone admired him because he was really friendly," said freshman Trinh Tran, who said she knew Cox only from a distance.

But this year, classmates said, Cox stopped trying. He began to exhibit sharp mood swings from one day to the next, one friend, Rene Morales Jr., recalled.

"He would be real funny one minute, making jokes," Morales said. "And the next minute he would be real depressed. He would 'veg out,' like the 'Twilight Zone.' It was like there was nobody home."

Alhambra Police Detective Dennis Hamby said Cox talked about his motives during a 90-minute interrogation by officers Tuesday night. But Hamby declined to elaborate.

"He was very calm, responsive, quite articulate and very polite," the detective said of Cox.

Students Counseled

As life on the 3,200-student campus, on the border of Alhambra and San Gabriel, returned to normal Wednesday, school administrators and teachers met with reporters to talk about the incident and how it affected students. Counselors held a morning session with the 70 students who were taken hostage, hoping to ease any feelings of fear.

Meanwhile, administrators received a telephoned bomb threat that forced a temporary evacuation of most classrooms at about 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, Principal Jack Mount said. The threat turned out to be false. But it added to feelings of concern among students and parents, he acknowledged.

"The crazies come out of the woodwork when we have an incident" such as Tuesday's classroom seizure, Mount said. "Unfortunately, some people think that kind of phone call is funny. I think it is tragic."

School officials talked guardedly, if at all, about Cox, saying they did not want to violate laws of student confidentiality, or jeopardize the police case against the student.

Thought It Was a Prank

But English teacher Julie Rivera, who was supervising a writing assignment when Cox entered her classroom for the first time in several weeks brandishing a rifle, said she thought it was all a prank--until Cox ordered her to leave and then fired a shot into the wall.

"The rifle appeared to me to be a toy," she said. "I thought it was a prop. He kept asking me to leave . . . He asked me to leave about six times."

Witnesses said Cox was later jumped from behind by classmate Ortega, a senior described as very quiet and humble--not nearly as well known on campus as Cox.

A second shot was fired during the struggle but it also hit the wall, striking no one. Then other students moved in to help restrain Cox until police arrived.

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