Coming home with his mother to be confronted by a knife-wielding burglar, a 16-year-old Buena High School student was fatally stabbed Tuesday.
James “Jake” Bush, a tall, sandy haired, lanky cross-country runner and scholastic standout, was stabbed at least once just below the chest during the noontime attack, police said.
Details of what prompted the attack were sketchy Tuesday, but Ventura Police Lt. Don Arth said Bush had just come home with his mother, Gail Shirley, a seventh-grade English teacher at Balboa Middle School.
The two immediately suspected something was not right, Arth said.
“They noticed there were things out of place,” he said. “It’s a very neat home, and a closet door was askew or something.”
Shirley checked the back of the modest single-story home, and Bush checked one of the front bedrooms.
“That’s when he is assaulted,” Arth said.
Police said they believe Bush was protecting his mother from the assailant when he was stabbed.
When paramedics arrived at the home in the 1900 block of Swift Avenue, Shirley was performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation on her son, who was covered in blood from his wounds.
“He was in pretty bad shape,” a police officer at the scene said.
Bush, who had just finished his junior year, was rushed to the Ventura County Medical Center where he was taken into surgery. Shirley and the teen’s stepfather, Bob Shirley, an eighth-grade history teacher at Balboa, thought the youth was going to be all right and for a brief time returned home to talk to police.
But less than three hours later, Bush died on the operating room table, according to a Ventura County coroner spokesman.
Police and neighbors said they thought the attacker ran out the back of the home, then through several neighbors’ backyards and into a vacant field. More than a dozen investigators scoured the area for clues, interviewing neighbors and looking in bushes for the weapon used in the attack.
Ventura Police Chief Richard Thomas, who talked to investigators at the scene, said his department would spare no expense at finding the boy’s killer.
“This is personal--a tragic, senseless act like this we take very seriously here,” Thomas said. “If ever there was one, this was an absolutely innocent victim. [Bush] was somebody I would have been proud to have had as a son.”
Sitting on the curb in front of Bush’s house, 14-year-old Jennifer Weaver said she and Bush were supposed to see the movie “Con Air” at 2 p.m. Tuesday.
She said when he didn’t show up, she called his house.
“His mom said he’d been in an accident and couldn’t tell me any more,” Weaver said. She said the two were close friends who talked about his struggles to find a steady girlfriend.
Bush would often walk Weaver home from summer school, she said. She described him as “intelligent, funny, a real great guy.”
Classmate Daniel Gonzales, who lives just blocks away, said Bush was a computer whiz who loved mountain biking. He said Bush talked frequently about becoming the captain of the jumpers on the school track team during his senior year.
“He talked about it all the time,” Gonzales said. “He loved track.”
Another friend described Bush as a clever and tolerant individual with a quick wit who wanted to pursue a career in the sciences and whose summer job was at a local movie theater.
“He’s just one of those people who’s a complete individual,” she said. “He’s just one of the greatest guys. He’s a terrific guy to hang out with. He’s really good in math and science, and he’s really good in track.”
Other friends and neighbors were shocked by the midday stabbing.
“They are a wonderful family,” said Beth Pallares, a family friend who works with the boy’s parents at Balboa Middle School. “Jake is a great kid. . . . He is really attached to his mother. I could see him standing up for her. He’s that kind of kid.”
Originally from Texas, Gail Shirley moved to the area with her son more than 10 years ago to teach at Balboa, where she met her second husband.
Both Gail and Bob Shirley are popular teachers at the school, Pallares said. Gail Shirley is known for the special attention she gives to students in her English class, and her husband for his engaging style of teaching, she said.
“They’re a real outgoing family,” Pallares said. “They go camping together a lot. I know that Bob is a big surfer and he’s taken Jake out a few times. . . . They’re just really special people.”
The family had moved into the neighborhood about two years ago and were excited because it was their first home together, Pallares said.
“They really love that house,” said Pallares, who taught Bush in the seventh grade.
Bush was close to his stepfather and, said Pallares, even started to look like him.
“It’s funny, he’s got that same sandy hair, tall rangy look to him that Bob does,” she said. “He’s a real sensitive kid--always willing to help somebody.”
The couple were often out gardening, and their son could often be seen mowing the lawn, said neighbor Sally Benevidez.
Benevidez’s grandson, Frank, 12, said Bush would come around and play basketball with him and his brothers.
Once when they were playing hide-and-seek, Bush counted off in Latin.
“He seemed like he was pretty smart,” Frank said.
Jim Tuttle, whose home is directly behind the Shirleys’ house, was working on his Volkswagen van when the stabbing occurred.
“My dog--Chelsea--started barking, and she never barks,” Tuttle said. “So I went back to tell her to be quiet. She stopped and then took off like she was following somebody. A few minutes later there’s a cop looking over my fence. They figure the guy probably ran behind our fence and into the open field.”
When Tuttle went around to the front of the house, he saw paramedics wheeling Bush out of the home with a huge bandage covering his torso.
Tuttle talked to Bob Shirley soon after the stabbing.
“He thought [Bush] was going to be OK and that they would be able to go back with the police when he came to and get a description,” he said. “This is just awful. That kid was real nice.”
Tuttle said two girls on bicycles saw a suspicious individual knocking on doors of homes along the street about 15 minutes before the stabbing. The girls were questioned by police.
Police released a composite sketch of the person based on descriptions from the girls and other witnesses. The individual is described as a clean-shaven Latino in his late teens, about 5 feet 6, with a slender build and shortly cropped dark hair.
Tuttle said that when he talked to Bob Shirley, Shirley speculated that the burglar knocked on his door, and hearing no answer went along the side of the house and broke in using a sliding glass door.
Listening to a radio news flash that Bush had died, Tuttle’s mother, Loretta, gasped.
“Oh, I don’t know if I’ll ever get over this,” she said.
Loretta Tuttle said she has lived in the neighborhood for more than 30 years and has never heard of burglaries or violent crime there.
“We all know each other, and everybody is pretty helpful here,” she said. “It’s usually so quiet here.”
Beth Brandt, who lives next door to the Shirleys, said she heard something just after noon but was on the phone at the time and let it pass. Brandt said she thought someone had come into the yard and even into the back of her home.
“But the cops were in here searching everywhere looking in closets, the cabinets and everything,” she said. “Maybe I imagined it, but it seemed like somebody was moving about down there.”
On the other side of the Shirley home, Tomma McDaniels said the first she knew anything was wrong was when police started looking over her fence for any sign that the attacker had gone that way.
When Kristin Reneau, 21, and Julie Busch, 20, who live next to the Tuttles, heard about the attack they climbed up on a pool slide behind the house to look for the attacker.
“I think if he would have run into that field we would have seen him,” Reneau said.
Police are hoping to question the person detailed in the composite sketch and are asking anybody who knows the individual to call Sgt. Gary McCaskill at 339-4482.
Times staff writer Daryl Kelley and correspondents Chris Chi, Nick Green, David Greenberg and Regina Hong contributed to this story.