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The Fractured Life of Jeremy Strohmeyer

Once a promising honor student, he began to slide into a darker world. Now, he stands accused of killing a little girl in a Nevada casino.

July 19, 1998|NORA ZAMICHOW | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was supposed to be a brief stop at the Primadonna casino, 43 miles south of Las Vegas, but one poker game led to another. By 3 a.m. May 25, 1997, Jeremy Strohmeyer and David Cash were tired of hanging around the arcade, waiting for David's dad.

Bored, the two 18-year-olds decided to urinate on two coin-operated games. David chose Big Bertha, whose polka-dot dress flared when players hurled balls into her gaping red mouth. Jeremy selected a helicopter game. Then a wall socket. He and David laughed.

Jeremy, wearing baggy shorts and a backward UCLA Bruins baseball cap, struck up a conversation with a 16-year-old girl. He showed off the phony ID he had used to buy a whiskey Coke and beer. He stuck out his tongue, pierced by a steel rod. He pulled up his oversized navy blue T-shirt so she could see his nipple rings.

Creepy guy, thought the girl. Nice body, Jeremy thought. She avoided giving him her beeper number and lied about where she lived. As the two chatted, a wadded-up wet paper towel hit Jeremy.

Nearby, a 7-year-old girl named Sherrice Iverson was playing with a little boy. They pelted each other with paper wads. Jeremy picked up the fallen missile and tossed it at Sherrice. He chased her, and she sprinted away, her blue sailor dress swinging and her black cowboy boots padding along the carpet.

For the next 11 minutes, they dodged around the arcade, loping up one aisle and down the next, amid the din of galactic wars, race cars and battling superheroes. A tall blond teenager from a wealthy Long Beach family playing tag with a small black girl from South-Central, whose dad was on disability. She weighed 46 pounds and stood just under 4 feet. He was nearly 2 feet taller and outweighed her by 100 pounds.

Sherrice darted into the ladies restroom at 3:47 a.m. Her 14-year-old half brother, Harold, was talking with the teenage girl. Jeremy went to the water fountain. He swallowed, inhaled deeply on his Marlboro and followed the little girl into the restroom.

'He Was in the Top 1% in Terms of Just Being a Good Kid,' Teacher Says

Like students elsewhere, kids at Woodrow Wilson High School divide themselves into cliques. There are dorks, surfers, jocks and druggies. Jeremy Strohmeyer entered Wilson in 1996, midway through 11th grade. He had returned to Long Beach after a year in Singapore, where his mother had worked for a computer company. He was initially considered a dork.

He maintained a 3.5 grade point average without studying hard, took Advanced Placement classes and hoped to attend West Point or the Air Force Academy. He had built his own computer as a sophomore and wrote poetry. He had a passion for flying, a hobby he shared with his father, and talked of being a pilot.

Jeremy's family was well-to-do, which was unusual for Wilson High. His parents' income was in the six figures. They took cruises and traveled. A maid cleaned the house. They owned a single-engine, four-seater airplane and four cars, including two BMWs and a 1980 Jaguar. When Jeremy's older sister, Heather, was into show riding, they joked about being "horse poor."

Jeremy wore an expression that ricocheted from irreverent to ingenuous. He was self-conscious about his short brown-blond hair, which tended to stick up. When he concentrated, he'd furrow his brow and suck in his lower lip. It gave him an air of fierce intensity.

"Of the 4,000 or 5,000 kids I've taught," says John Crutchfield, Jeremy's favorite teacher, "he was in the top 1% in terms of just being a good kid."

Although Jeremy had begun to act out in Singapore--he started drinking and mouthing off--Winnie and John Strohmeyer thought of him as sensitive, kind, funny. He was the type of son who presented his mother a rhinestone necklace on Mother's Day, and charmed a neighbor into giving an old German piano to his family. Everyone could envision him as a lawyer, a doctor, an astronaut, a politician.

But in his year and a half at Wilson High, Jeremy began to live a sharply divided life. He harbored secrets. Things he didn't tell his friends, like being adopted. Things he hid from his parents, like his increasing use of tweak, or amphetamines. And things he kept almost entirely to himself, like his collection of child pornography and his desire to dress his girlfriend as a schoolgirl in a uniform and pigtails.

Jeremy compartmentalized with such finesse that those who knew one side scarcely fathomed the other. By 12th grade, his friends thought Jeremy was going through "senioritis." His parents assumed it was adolescent rebellion.

Sure, his classmates viewed him as a hard partyer who occasionally drank too much. So what? Lots of kids do. Yes, he had a violent temper that could sweep him along like a child in a flood channel. Like when he'd had too much tequila and spit in the face of one of the school's jocks. Or when he uncorked a stream of profanities after a hostess asked him to leave a party.

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