They had to say one last goodbye.
All spring long, Buena High’s runners and jumpers wore patches emblazoned with the name of track team captain Jake Bush, stabbed to death last June a summer away from his senior year.
Now, with Jake’s mother and stepfather looking on, they took the final step to honor the 16-year-old varsity triple jumper, who last year had been named the squad’s most improved athlete.
“He was the kind of person every coach likes to have on the team,” said head coach Ray Seay, unveiling a memorial award Thursday as hundreds of athletes and their families looked on.
Seay then told Jake’s parents, Bob and Gail Shirley, that the award goes not to the athlete who runs the fastest or the one who jumps the highest. It goes to the one who tries the hardest--the one most like their son.
“We’d just like to let you know how much we love you guys,” he told the couple, teachers at Balboa Middle School. “We want you to know how much we appreciate the job you did raising Jake. He was a fine young man.”
It has been nearly a year since the track team lost its captain, nearly a year since the lanky redhead was stabbed by a burglar hiding inside his family’s Montalvo home.
In that time, much of the shock and rage has given way to a dull anger: Why, after all this time, has this heartbreaking mystery not been solved?
There has been a search for answers, but none comes easily. People speak of moving on, but of course that comes hardest of all.
“This spring has been especially hard because of all the things that could have been and should have been but now will never be,” said Gail Shirley, who remembers all too well the day her only child was attacked, how she cradled him in her arms and begged him to stay alive.
“Somebody once told me that our children are loans from God, and the tears we shed are interest on the loan,” she said, her own tears flowing freely now. “Let me tell you, we are paying a heck of a lot of interest.”
In four days, James “Jake” Bush would have graduated from high school. He would have already lined up a summer job, hoping to earn some quick cash to help pay for college.
He would have been measured for his cap and gown and would have picked up his yearbook, its pages loaded by now with the kind of sappy, sentimental stuff high school students write to each other this time of year.
Instead, there is a page in the yearbook dedicated to Jake, three grainy black-and-white photos surrounded by kind words from close friends.
There is a new award in Jake’s memory for the track athlete who best embodies his spirit, a willingness to work hard and boost teammates along the way.
And there is a desire to finally push past this period, to let it go, to somehow come to terms with the awful thing that happened last summer, even if there is no good explanation for it.
“I know I have been looking for answers, but there are no answers for these things,” Balboa Vice Principal Lane Jackson said. The burly disciplinarian was so troubled by Jake’s death that he sought counseling last summer.
“Ventura is not Los Angeles--we don’t have that kind of violent crime,” he said. “This is the kind of thing you really start to believe doesn’t happen here.”
Much Evidence but No Suspect
Jake Bush was just hitting his stride. He was a whiz at physics and calculus, the top student for the entire school in both subjects even as a junior. He loved computer games and Dr. Pepper and for some reason had developed the ability to talk backward.
He was excited about his senior year and was starting to think about college. His friends called him a genius, a big-hearted guy filled with funny noises and goofy grins. His parents liked to call him a budding renaissance man.
“He just found that work ethic his junior year,” Gail Shirley said. “He was doing so well academically and athletically, he was going to have a heck of a senior year. It was going to be his time to shine.”
But all of that changed last June 24--a day that began with the promise of a great summer.
Jake and his mother had spent the morning together, first going to the Department of Motor Vehicles where he earned his learner’s permit. That was followed by a stop at a discount store for plumbing fixtures because they planned to fix up his bathroom over the summer.
They returned home shortly after noon, unaware that a burglar had crept into the house.
In a struggle Gail Shirley did not see or hear, Jake was stabbed to death by an intruder who bolted out the front door and vanished.
Despite an exhaustive investigation, detectives have been unable to find the killer.
They found the murder weapon, a foot-long serrated knife. It was recovered hours later in a driveway several blocks away. They have blanketed schools with hundreds of fliers bearing a composite sketch of a suspect.
There is a trail of physical evidence that will link the killer to the crime once he is found, said Ventura Police Sgt. Gary McCaskill. And make no mistake, McCaskill said: The killer will be found.
“This case will be solved, I know that for a fact,” he said. “I can’t tell you when, but I know we have the evidence that will ultimately lead to this case being solved. And I can tell you it will weigh on our hearts until that happens.”
Across the city, many people have taken similar ownership of the case. Jake’s slaying did more than tear apart a family. It tore at the community, prompting an outpouring of emotion and support.
Hundreds of mourners packed a Ventura funeral home for a memorial service. Community leaders issued a $10,000 reward for the capture of the killer.
Ventura resident Glenn Wilson was moved to write a letter to local newspapers, a personal message to Jake’s killer telling him he had nowhere to run and nowhere to hide.
“It just killed me that a kid with that kind of promise was cut down like that,” said Wilson, whose son and daughter were friends of Jake’s. “I want this person to understand he will never be safe, that we will not rest until he is found.”
Parents Find Strength in Work, Friends
In the meantime, Bob and Gail Shirley have tried to move on. They sold their Montalvo home months ago, getting away from the place where the worst thing in their lives happened.
And they both decided to return to their teaching positions at the start of the school year, to surround themselves with students and colleagues as a way of taking their minds off their tragedy.
“I needed to be someplace every day,” Gail Shirley said. “As hard as it was coming back to work, this place was my salvation. It made me do other things. And on the worst of days, my kids and my friends were the glue that held it all together. If it wasn’t for these people, we probably wouldn’t have made it.”
There are still good days and bad. And with all the talk of high school graduation and all the promise that lies beyond, it’s impossible not to think about what was lost a year ago.
On the Buena yearbook page dedicated to Jake are good words for a good kid, references only those who really knew him can understand.
“You’ve probably already broken into God’s computer system and found 5 ways to make it better,” wrote longtime friend Scott Radley.
Added friend Nick Larson, “You were the best of us, you were the emperor, the guy with the most promising future.”
Eighteen-year-old senior Dylan Novak was Jake’s best friend. They met in sixth grade at Balboa Middle School, and their birthdays were about a month apart. They spent lazy days playing video games together and long nights talking until parents forced them to pipe down.
They were so close that their parents had planned a joint graduation party for them. The party is still on.
“I’m not looking forward to June; I wish there was a way we could erase it off the history books,” Dylan said recently. He still has Jake’s phone number programmed into his watch, and he wound up with a lot of Jake’s belongings, including a souped-up calculator he keeps in a pocket of his camouflage pants.
“I miss a lot of things about him,” Dylan said. “We were practically inseparable, almost able to finish each other’s sentences. Every morning I used to reach for the phone just to see what he was up to. I’ve wanted to do that so many times.”
Bob and Gail Shirley have found strength in Jake’s friends and the way they have chosen to remember him.
Truth is, even though Jake was their only child, they have had many other children to lean on during the toughest of times. As teachers, they have nurtured an entire brood over the years. As parents, that circle widened as Jake made new friends.
Both groups were on hand Thursday at Buena High when the memorial award was handed out at the annual track banquet.
It went to senior Jaron Wilde, a relatively new friend whom Gail Shirley called a perfect choice. And afterward, Jake’s teammates formed a long line to talk to the Shirleys, to exchange hugs and say they were sorry--to let out one last good cry and move on.
“It meant so much,” Jake’s mother said, “to find out that he turned out to be the kind of person I wanted him to be.”