As friends and strangers alike dropped off sympathy cards and flowers for the family of slain Buena High School student James “Jake” Bush, detectives fanned out across the Montalvo area Wednesday looking for his killer.
Police have no solid leads, but are continuing to look for a teenager who was seen knocking on doors near Jake’s home shortly before he was killed. The teen in question has not been declared a suspect.
“It’s still too early in the investigation to tell how strong some of these leads are,” said Ventura Police Lt. Don Arth. “But I don’t think I can say we have anything really solid right now. Our hope is that we’ll turn up some sort of physical evidence that will help.”
Jake, 16, was stabbed at least three times Tuesday after coming home with his mother and confronting a knife-wielding burglar. He died from his wounds less than three hours after the noontime attack.
More than 20 police investigators and criminologists searched the victim’s home and surrounding area Wednesday looking for clues. But no weapon was found, and police failed to turn up any witnesses.
“We still do not have anyone who can identify a suspect in the home or running from the home,” Arth said.
Shortly after Jake died Tuesday, police released a composite sketch of the teenager seen knocking on doors in the neighborhood. The individual is described as a clean-shaven Latino in his late teens, about 5 feet 6, with a slender build and close-cropped black hair.
“He is not a suspect,” Arth said. “He was seen in the area and we would like to locate him and talk to him.”
After news reports of the fatal stabbing, several residents called police saying they may have seen the teenager in the area, Arth said.
Neighbor Rosa Falcon, who lives directly across from Jake’s home, said the teen in the composite sketch had come by her home twice asking for a man with a Latino name.
The second time the teen came by, Falcon’s 11-year-old daughter was alone in the house.
“I didn’t open the door but talked to him through the door,” said the frightened girl. “He asked for somebody named Daniel Garcia and then left. I saw him put on a hat and go across the street” to Jake’s house.
The teen had also talked to Paul Synder, who lives three doors down from Jake’s home. Synder said the youth asked for a woman with the last name of Gonzalez.
Jake was stabbed in the neck, in the upper arm and just below the chest after he and his mother, Gail Shirley, stumbled upon a burglar in their Swift Avenue home, police said.
When the two arrived at the house, they noticed something was not right, and Shirley went to the back of the home while Jake looked in one of the bedrooms, Arth said.
In an interview Wednesday, Shirley said she was on the phone with police to report a prowler when the attack occurred, and heard nothing until her son gasped that he had been stabbed.
She never saw her son’s attacker, she said.
When Shirley walked to the front of the house, she saw her son staggering from a bedroom mortally wounded.
As detectives questioned neighbors Wednesday, high school friends of Jake and his parents stopped to leave flowers at their home.
“When I found out about [Jake’s death] this morning, I was shaking,” said 18-year-old John Novickas, holding a bouquet of roses and pink carnations. “I feel like a part of me went with him.”
Novickas handed the flowers to a police officer standing guard at the home--still cordoned off with yellow crime scene tape. He also gave the officer a poem written for Jake titled “My Dear Friend James.”
Earlier in the day under a fir tree in the Buena High courtyard, Novickas and about 15 other friends of Jake’s held an informal memorial.
The gathering was not entirely somber. The friends opened a cooler full of Dr Pepper, Jake’s favorite drink, and toasted him. They put a can of Spam, Jake’s favorite food, next to a wreath and roses.
There were all sorts of reasons to look up to Jake, the friends said.
He was smart. As a junior, Jake took senior-level calculus. He bragged about the high score he got on his final exam in physics.
He was a computer whiz who aspired to become a computer programmer and designer of video games. Jake wowed friends by pulling games like “Mortal Kombat” off the Internet and programming them into their calculators.
Jake’s circle of friends called themselves “The Empire,” a self-described group of outsiders and nonconformists.
The friends liked to talk about their passions--the Internet, video games, “Star Trek” movies, and rock groups such as Nine Inch Nails.
They would sit under the same fir tree--which they dubbed “The Jake Bush Bush"--on campus at lunchtime and talk about the latest science fiction books and games.
“He was the emperor of this little group,” said Daniel O’Halloran, 16. “It was the oddball group. People who weren’t afraid to be different. . . . He wasn’t afraid to be different.”
Jake was also an athlete. One of the school’s best triple jumpers, he was voted to be co-captain of the track team next year.
“He had such a strong vitality,” recalled teammate Joel Levin, 16. “Whatever he did, he did all out.”
Track coach Ray Seay said Jake’s competitive spirit and leadership made him stand out.
“Every year we look at 10 or 15 of the seniors and find the athletes that are the best role models and leaders,” Seay said. “James was that type of person.”
Jake’s death took an especially hard toll on Jennifer Weaver, 14, a friend who had planned to go to the movies with him Tuesday afternoon.
Just last year, another one of Jennifer’s close friends, 15-year-old Jenniffer Rose Vernals, disappeared while shopping in a Ventura thrift store. Her remains were found in a remote canyon in Santa Barbara County several months later. No arrests have been made in connection with the case.
“I’m shaking. I can’t stand still for more than five minutes,” Jennifer said. “It’s some weird fate.
“We’re a great group,” she said as she stood in the school courtyard with Jake’s other friends. “We opened our hearts to everybody. He was the drummer, and we’ve lost our beat.”
Hadly is a Times staff writer and Chi is a correspondent. Correspondents Regina Hong and Scott Steepleton also contributed to this story.
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Formal services for James “Jake” Bush are scheduled for Friday and Saturday. The family has planned for a viewing of the body Friday from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Ted Mayr Funeral Home, 3150 Loma Vista Road. Funeral services will be held Saturday at 11 a.m. at the same address. There are no graveside services planned.