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California and the West

'I Was Trying to Save My Baby'

Crime: Ventura woman cradled the stabbed 16-year-old while calling police; he died later. Search is on for youth seen knocking on doors.

June 26, 1997|FRED ALVAREZ and SCOTT HADLY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

VENTURA — From the second Gail Shirley spun around and saw her son crumpled in the doorway of their home, bleeding from stab wounds to his neck, arm and ribs, she knew he was in a fight for his life.

Minutes earlier, after returning from a morning of shopping, she and her son Jake realized that their home had been burglarized. The screen on Jake's bedroom window had been pried off, his television had been moved about two feet.

Shirley grabbed the phone and dialed 911. A dispatcher asked if the burglar was still in the house. Until that moment, she hadn't even thought about it.

So they split up to search the house. Carrying a cordless phone, Shirley headed to the living room. Jake, a lanky 16-year-old Buena High student, took the back of the house, eventually stepping into the den.

That's where it happened, quickly and silently. In a struggle Shirley did not see or hear, Jake was stabbed by an intruder who ran out the front door and vanished into the working-class neighborhood.

And Shirley, still on the phone with police, ran to cradle her only child, sweeping him up in her arms and begging him to stay alive. He died three hours later on an operating table at Ventura County Medical Center.

"I was trying to save my baby," she said Wednesday, biting her bottom lip and fighting back tears.

"I am not in denial, nor do I have any delusions about what happened to us yesterday," she said. "My son was taken from me. He was the center of my universe, my one and only. No family anywhere ever, ever deserves this kind of tragedy."

Ventura police detectives have not turned up any solid leads in the case and were continuing to look for a teenager who was seen knocking on doors along the street near Jake's home shortly before he was killed.

"It's still too early in the investigation to tell how strong some of these leads are," Ventura Police Lt. Don Arth said. "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."

Shortly after Jake died Tuesday, police released a composite sketch of the individual seen knocking on doors in the boy's neighborhood. The individual is described as a cleanshaven 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."

While detectives canvassed the neighborhood Tuesday, high school friends of Jake's and his parents dropped off roses and pink carnations at the family's home. The teenager's friends from Buena High School held a vigil after summer school classes.

"When I found out about this morning I was shaking," said John Novickas, an 18-year-old high school buddy. "I feel like a part of me went with him."

James "Jake" Bush was a boy blossoming into a young man. He had just landed his first job at a local movie theater and on the day he died had just passed his written exam so he could learn to drive.

He was to be a senior next year, preparing to take advanced placement calculus and computer programming. He was thrilled to be named co-captain of the varsity track squad. He was a triple jumper who hoped to leap 41 feet next year and who was just starting to consider college.

"All the pieces of the puzzle were starting to come together for him," said Shirley, who like her husband is a teacher at Balboa Middle School in Ventura. "He was finding some real direction in school, and he was taking some real direction for himself. He was really finding his way."

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