A High School Gunman's Days of Rage

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It all came to Jeffrey Lyne Cox as he lay on a hospital bed in the psychiatric ward of the Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center, quietly devouring a worn paperback about violence, high school and shattered myths.

He was 17 that November, 1987, and would miss the next two weeks of his senior year at San Gabriel High School while doctors tried to talk him out of the recurring urge to fire a .357 Magnum down his throat.

The book he had discovered was a Stephen King novel called "Rage," a disturbing tale of a teen-ager who takes his algebra class hostage and shoots two teachers before being gunned down.

Cox, a bright, well-liked debate champion pained by a broken family and a thwarted romance, felt the story lift him from his depression.

During the drama of the siege, the students are stripped of their defenses. They turn not against their demented captor, but against the one All-American student in class who represents the hypocrisy and boredom of their stifling small town.

He read through the 163-page story again. And again. And again and again and again. The message was his, too, he decided.

But when Cox stormed his fourth-period humanities class brandishing a semiautomatic rifle on April 26, 1988, he succeeded only in terrifying about 60 classmates, who, after listening to his plan to demand $1 million and flee to Brazil, jumped him and wrestled the gun loose. He also landed a prison sentence, which a Pasadena Superior Court judge last week ruled would not exceed 10 years.

The story that emerges from court testimony, and from interviews with friends, family, teachers and Cox, is one of a complex young man, bubbling with humor and wit, yet aching inside.

Although the steps he took to cope with his pain were extreme, the conflicts of his adolescence appear ordinary.

"I didn't do it for love or money or sex or drugs or rock 'n' roll," Cox said from the Hall of Justice jail in downtown Los Angeles, where he has been held in lieu of $100,000 bail since the assault.

"I had a message I wanted to get across . . . of unmasking people, of disrobing the images everyone puts on, of making people real. I still think I had the right idea. But that was the wrong way of doing it. It was very foolish."

Jerry and Barbara Cox's marriage had come unwound while she was pregnant with Jeff.

His father, an Orange County landscape architect, is a successful man of high standards and strict discipline, Jeff says. Jerry Cox saw promise in Jeff and made him dress the part--button-down oxford-cloth shirts, corduroy slacks and penny loafers.

"Dad thought I should be getting straight A's, go to Princeton and become God someday," said Jeff, who stayed with his father from ages 6 to 14. "I wanted to live life. I was never into that 9-to-5 mentality." Jerry Cox declined to comment.

Back in San Gabriel with his mother, a busy bank manager who often worked late, Jeff faced another extreme. She first ignored him, then lashed out in anger.

"Jerry wanted total control and I had totally no control," Barbara Cox said. "I said some really hateful things to Jeff. I really didn't know how to help him."

A slender, almost mousy boy with trim black hair and a gangly neck, Jeff sought acceptance elsewhere. He shed his corporate uniform for Levi's, Nikes and surf-theme T-shirts. He made friends with a popular, partying crowd, and went to late-night espresso bars, cruised trendy Melrose Avenue and discovered the numbing embrace of Bacardi 151 rum.

At school, teachers noted his intelligence, even when he was doing poorly. "He had a lot to say and knew how to say it," said Doug Campbell, San Gabriel High's debate coach. "He saw things that other kids didn't see at his age."

None of that, however, was enough to stop the downward spiral that wrenched his insides. He would get drunk and feel even lower.

Then one day, drinking at the house of a friend whose father collected guns, Jeff picked up a .357 Magnum, put one bullet in the chamber and pointed it at his throat. Click. He eventually did it on more than a dozen occasions before a friend told his school counselor, and Jeff was hospitalized for 17 days.

"I think he believed there was something better than what was here," said Cathy Forrest, the counselor. "It was like a mature adult saying he was going to take a trip to Europe, only it wasn't a trip to Europe. It was to some place in his head where he thought there would be peace."

There was quiet in Room R-7, Julie Rivera's humanities class, as her students busily answered essay questions about a William Wordsworth poem. Jeff Cox was outside the door, pulling an AR-15 assault rifle and 200 rounds of ammunition from a cardboard box.

"It seems to me we have a problem here," he said, swinging the door open with one hand and gripping the rifle with the other.

He hadn't been to class for nearly three weeks, and Rivera half expected the gun to squirt her with water--his way of jollying back in without an excuse. He asked her to leave. Some students began to giggle.

But when he squeezed the trigger, a .223-caliber bullet ripped across the room and lodged into the back wall. There were screams as heads ducked under desktops. He asked Rivera to leave again, and this time she did.

"It was all like a movie," Jeff recalled. "It was like I was following myself around with a camera, watching the back of my head, but not able to intervene. It was just something that had to be done."

He put a Van Halen song on a portable tape deck. Did they want anything, he asked? Food, drinks, smokes? They did, so he called the school office. Someone will die, he told the secretary, if a carton of Camel Lights, four large pepperoni pizzas and two six-packs of Coke and 7-Up--diet and regular--aren't delivered within 20 minutes.

Then he turned to the class with a chuckle and told them not to worry, that he didn't think he could shoot anyone. If his demands weren't met, he would just fire into the ceiling to make it appear that he was in control.

But then he delivered a different message. He was really there to ask for $1 million, he said. He didn't want to hurt anybody, but if he was forced to, he would first shoot the people he didn't know very well--without regard to sex, race or creed.

"He kept on, like, changing," Regina Archibeque, who was 18 at the time, later testified. "He kept on telling us that he didn't want to hurt anyone. But he made it sound like if he had to, he would. . . . I was scared."

They all were. It wasn't a classroom full of fictional teen-agers experiencing a spiritual cleansing while rigor mortis set in on their algebra teacher. There wasn't anybody to snap at the Big Man On Campus, as one of King's characters does, saying, "Don't you realize this could be the most meaningful experience of our lives?"

In fact, when there was a chance for heroics, Ruben Ortega, a husky 18-year-old, quickly seized it. He caught Jeff off guard, with his rifle between his knees, and bowled him over like a linebacker. Four or five others piled on top.

This was real life, and President Bush said as much when he awarded Ortega the Young American Medal for Bravery last September.

In a half-hour taped interview at the Alhambra Police Department on the evening of the assault, Detective Dennis Hamby asked Jeff why he did it.

"As I like to tell everybody, it's the money," he said. "But, in fact, I really don't know. All that I knew was either I was going to exit a very wealthy man or a very dead man."

He was wrong on both counts. With public sentiment already aroused over campus violence and the availability of assault rifles, the Los Angeles County district attorney's office decided to try to put Jeff behind bars for life.

He was charged with 21 felonies, including false imprisonment, assault with a deadly weapon, burglary and the most serious of the charges, kidnap for ransom.

During an eight-day trial in Pasadena Superior Court last month, Deputy Dist. Atty. Carol A. Rash described Jeff as a rational, alert young man who planned every minute of the assault down to the last detail.

She told how he waited until his 18th birthday, April 8, 1988, to buy the rifle, lying about his hospitalization on the application and telling the owner of the shop that the gun was a gift for his father.

She showed the five elaborate escape plans that he had jotted down, interspersed between notes from science class. In one scenario, he would have taken a girl hostage, dyed his hair blond, put on a false mustache and hidden out in Disneyland for a week.

Ultimately, he hoped to make it with the cash to Rio de Janeiro, where he would send for his girlfriend, Pam, marry her and hire pop star Elton John to sing at their wedding.

"Maybe his plans were immature. Maybe they were stupid," Rash told the jurors. "But does that excuse what he did? . . . This is a person who knew exactly what he was doing."

Jeff's attorney, Deputy Public Defender Arthur P. Leone, conceded nearly all the details of the case. But Leone asked jurors to dismiss the seven kidnaping charges, each of which carried a life sentence, arguing that Jeff never intended to harm anyone and did not truly believe he would escape with $1 million.

If anything, Leone said, it was a twisted suicide attempt, in which Jeff hoped a police sharpshooter would do for him what he could not do himself.

On the last day of testimony, one of the jurors fell sick and didn't come back from lunch. An alternate, a retired actuary named Harry Church, who spent his career calculating the risks of pension plans, took his place two hours before deliberations began.

Everybody but Church thought Jeff had done all of which he was accused. Church sided with the others over the 11 false imprisonment and burglary charges. But he just couldn't swallow kidnaping and assault with a deadly weapon.

The seven-woman, five-man jury spent nearly four days thrashing it out. Church, 64, of Arcadia, went sleepless. The other 11 wrote a letter to Judge Terry Smerling accusing one of their fellow jurors of failing to uphold his oath. But Church wouldn't budge.

"I wasn't an unrealistic juror; I tried," Church said. "But we're talking about a boy's life here. It's an awesome responsibility. You can't tell me there's not some doubt that he ever intended to do all those bad things."

Having come within one man's conscience of a life term, Jeff agreed to Smerling's offer of a sentence of no more than 10 years, eight months, in return for a no contest plea.

For now, he complains about the food in jail, how he has lost more than 20 pounds, how he smokes too much and drinks too much coffee. For most of the last 1 1/2 years, he has been held in what is known as the "soft tank," a part of the jail reserved for diminutive, nonviolent offenders who would probably be eaten alive by more hardened criminals.

He reads everything he can get his hands on, including "Rage." On his cell wall, he has drawn a giant mural of Batman, one of his favorite comic book characters. He dreams of writing a coming-of-age novel or opening a cafe near a high school, where he could be the paternalistic proprietor counseling youths through their identity crises.

But most of all, he thinks about getting out, returning to school, of getting a second chance.

"I had all this energy inside me . . . like, there he is: Superman," he said. "But I was going too fast, in too many different directions. If I could have just focused it into a nice, even stream, I could have done some amazing stuff."

NEXT STEP

Jeffrey Cox will face a maximum sentence of 10 years, eight months, in state prison when he appears in Pasadena Superior Court, Department D, on April 6. Judge Terry Smerling offered that sentence in exchange for a no contest plea on charges of kidnaping and assault with a deadly weapon, which could have carried a life term. Smerling said he would base his decision on the conclusions of a 90-day diagnostic exam, which Cox will undergo at the California Institution for Men in Chino.

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