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A High School Gunman's Days of Rage


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.

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