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Friendly Words From a Man Later Slain

California and the West | MIKE DOWNEY

June 24, 1998|MIKE DOWNEY

Ennis Cosby was someone who said "Hello, friend" to the people he met--sometimes even to strangers.

He said it to his friend Phillip Caputo, the man Ennis played basketball with in the last hours of his life.

He said it to his friend Stephanie Crane, the woman Ennis saw in the last minutes of his life.

He might even have said it to the person who murdered him.

When his parents' green Mercedes blew a tire at 1 o'clock in the morning, Cosby was driving by himself. He was on his way to see Crane, a friend of just five days.

Cosby called her on a cell phone. Crane offered to come outdoors on a dark, dank January night and see if she could help him fix the flat.

Before hanging up, before grabbing a coat and shoes and a pair of gloves--she left in such a hurry, she didn't take a purse--Crane could have sworn she heard a second voice on Cosby's phone.

In fact, she did swear.

Tuesday in a Santa Monica courtroom, under oath, Crane testified that she overheard Cosby say, "It's OK, I'll be fine, thanks, I'll be OK," to someone there on Skirball Center Drive, some 400 to 450 feet off the 405.

"It was definitely apparent someone was trying to help," she said.

Perhaps a warmhearted stranger.

Perhaps a coldblooded killer.

One can only wonder if Ennis Cosby's last words were a hello, friend, or a thanks, friend, to someone who then pulled out a .38-caliber gun and shot him.

*

Tuesday morning in Courtroom L begins with the man defending Cosby's accused killer unable to see things very clearly.

Henry Hall fishes out some cash, then gives it along with a pair of broken glasses to an associate, steering her to a nearby Lens Crafters.

By morning's end, it is the eyesight of an eyewitness that Hall is questioning:

Exactly how good a look had Stephanie Crane gotten at a guy who appeared at her car's window at the scene of the crime? In her words, he was a young, thin, pale, nervous guy with a pointy nose, flawless complexion and high cheekbones who sprang from the darkness and said, "Open your door or I'll shoot."

Did the defendant, Mikhail Markhasev, fit a description that she gave a police sketch artist? (Yes.) Was the wool cap entered into evidence--a two-toned Georgetown collegiate cap, with a bulldog logo--the same one she'd described seeing on the suspect's head? (She couldn't be sure.) Had she picked Markhasev out of a lineup? (No.)

Near the end of her testimony, Crane is shown a sheet of paper with six mug shots.

"Do you see the man who was at your car window?" she is asked.

"No," she says.

"Are you sure?"

"Yes, unless [one of the men pictured] changed a great deal," Crane says.

On an easel near the witness stand, two blown-up photographs from a police lineup picture Markhasev--with cap and without--wearing the numeral 5.

Hall asks, "Is this the person who approached your car window?"

"I don't know," the witness says.

The prosecution in the Cosby trial could certainly have fortified its bid for a conviction had Crane been able to make a positive ID. As it is, Anne Ingalls, the deputy DA who's handling the people's case, still claims to have compelling evidence. She says DNA evidence in the cap matches Markhasev's DNA. She feels handwritten letters implicate him in the murder of Bill Cosby's 27-year-old son.

In court, one such letter is reproduced four feet high, for all to see. An equally large diagram of the crime scene is accompanied by four words: "A Robbery Gone Bad."

On and off the easel these blowups go.

A third one displays photographs of the victim. Phil Caputo is on the witness stand. The last time he saw Ennis Cosby, it was after basketball, when he invited Ennis home to use the phone.

"And that's Ennis' body by the car, yes?" Ingalls has to ask Caputo, directing him to look.

There lies his friend, dead.

"Yes," the witness says, choking back tears.

*

A week before the murder, Stephanie Crane didn't even know Ennis Cosby. In his last hours, she says, they spoke on the phone at least eight times, maybe 10 or 12.

By 1 a.m. on Jan. 16, 1997, it was as if they were old friends.

When she got to his car, "Ennis bent down and hugged me and said, 'Hello, friend.' "

He returned to his tire. She returned to her own car, to get out of the cold. He didn't get to say goodbye.

Mike Downey's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Write to him at Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053 or phone (213) 237-7366.

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