The funeral home worker paused outside the chapel door Tuesday morning, his face a grim mask of composure.
“Remember,” he told Debra Wilcox and her clutch of family. “You can’t touch him.”
The body of her grown son — who just days ago had fallen victim to a killer’s bullet — had been autopsied but not yet embalmed. The situation was delicate, he cautioned.
“You mean I can’t kiss him?” the mother asked, her eyes wide open.
The door opened and Wilcox, a slight woman with long graying hair and a gray pinstriped suit, walked inside a place she never wanted to be, to see what she never wanted to see.
There inside a casket lay her second-oldest boy, Joseph Robert Wilcox. His face was chalky white, shrouded in soft linen that hugged his neck like a scarf, so only his visage was visible.
On Sunday, the 31-year-old was running an errand with a friend at a Wal-Mart here when he saw a man storm inside the store, firing his pistol into the air, announcing the start of a revolution. Wilcox, a quiet man who was legally armed, carrying a concealed weapon permit, acted almost instinctively, grabbing his gun to help make sure nobody got hurt.
But Wilcox died moments later, shot in the back by the gunman’s wife. The two attackers had launched a Bonnie and Clyde-style shooting rampage with a vaguely articulated antigovernment agenda and killed two police officers. By the time it was over, Jerad and Amanda Miller were also dead. Amanda Miller shot Jerad and then herself as police closed in at the back of the store.
And now Debra Wilcox was here, in this harsh industrial corner of the city made up of asphalt yards, loading docks and a strip club, the lots fenced off with concertina wire. She had 15 minutes to view the body. The worker at La Paloma Funeral Services had relented, saying it was OK to carefully touch him. Wilcox rushed to her son’s side. “I don’t want to touch him,” she cried out then, rocking back and forth on her heels. “I don’t want to hurt him anymore than he’s already been hurt.”
But she did. She wanted to hold him. She gripped the funeral worker’s hand tightly and leaned into her son for a final kiss — a peck, really — to say goodbye.
A mother’s grief at the death of her child is hard to witness, with its unanswerable questions, beginning with, “Why?”
But Wilcox knew. When the officers arrived Sunday to tell her, they called him a warrior, a man who ran toward trouble instead of running away. She had always known that about her son, who had long wanted to be a police officer. But she had warned him that the job was dangerous.
Wilcox is a single mother who raised her brood on a housekeeper’s salary.
They were all good kids: Jack, now 35; Angel, 32; and Joseph. Later, she had another daughter, C.J., 18.
Of all the children, Joseph was the quiet one — a bit of a loner, his mother says. The only time he opened up was when he and Jack went out together to shoot their guns. It was an act that relaxed him.
None of them had a real father; he’d deserted them, Wilcox said. Instead, their grandfather provided male guidance. Joseph was his grandfather’s namesake, and this year he’d already bought the older man a card for Father’s Day, which he signed, “Thank you, Grandpa.”
Joseph had gone through a succession of jobs: a grocery store, pizzeria and computer shop. But in recent years, he hadn’t worked. He’d set his sights on becoming a police officer. His mother would sometimes see him at the computer in their manufactured home a few miles north of downtown, looking at recruitment sites.
He wanted a chance to try out for the Las Vegas force. Wilcox was dead set against it. They had a playful argument that went something like:
He never applied. Wilcox wonders whether he might have backed off to protect her.
On the last day of his life, Joseph had gone to the Wal-Mart to return a modem. Then he was going to take Jack’s son swimming. He stood at the customer service desk with longtime friend Jeremy Tanner when the two heard gunfire.
“It happened so quickly,” recalled Tanner, 38, a beer delivery truck driver who had known Joseph for 16 years. “I heard the gunfire and realized it was serious, and when I turned back, he was already going around the corner.”
Gun rights advocates have long argued that arming the public can help people defend themselves, and this week, many remained adamant. “If this guy Wilcox was a cop, he could have gotten killed just the same,” said Larry Pratt, executive director of the group Gun Owners of America. “You cannot go through life without taking risks. I don’t think we can read anything else into this other than to say, ‘Darn.’”
Wilcox said her son would have intervened even if unarmed. “He was pro-2nd Amendment,” she said, “not pro-killing.”
On Tuesday, Wilcox fretted not about her son’s gun, but whether she’d be able to find the money to have him cremated. What she didn’t know was that a trauma intervention group had staged a donation rally at two local doughnut shops.
In just three hours, workers collected more than $10,000.
The family huddled over Joseph’s body. Wilcox had made her peace, and she wanted her daughter Angel to kiss her brother as well.
“I can’t,” Angel said through her tears.
“Yes, you can, honey,” her mother said softly. “He’s just cold, like he’s been out in the snow.”
C.J. walked away from the casket, doubled over at the waist, holding her stomach as though she’d been punched. She stared back at the body in longing.
Finally, Wilcox was done. She walked out of the chapel, stopping for a tissue to wipe her tears.
Outside, in the 100-degree morning heat, Angel broke down again.
“He needs to wake up,” she said, “and come home.”
Wilcox knew that wasn’t going to happen, that her son had walked open-eyed into a place from which there was no return.
“I just can’t believe that he’s not going to get up and come home with us,” she said. “He’s not going to act stupid and hug me and tell me he loved me.”
She paused. “He’s never coming home.”