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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Lives Meet at Cross Purposes

Tragedy: Camarillo widow, 68, was depressed and determined to die. Guard put his life on line in bid to save hers.

November 17, 1998|MARGARET RAMIREZ and ANTONIO OLIVO | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Life was never the same for Camarillo resident Julie Light after her husband, Robert, died last year. Inconsolable, the 68-year-old former actress considered her life too much of a burden to bear.

Conrad Buchanan, a 26-year-old security guard, had never met Light but was willing to fight for the life she wanted to throw away.

A broad-shouldered, God-fearing father of two with a naturally protective nature, Buchanan fell easily into a job that involved shielding strangers from danger, watching over shoppers at the Sherman Oaks Galleria as if they were his own family.

Light and Buchanan's lives collided Sunday afternoon on a sidewalk outside the Galleria. Desperate to die, Light plunged from the sixth floor of the parking garage. Seeing the guard below, she tried to wave him away before she leaped.

Steadfast in his role as a guardian, Buchanan insisted on trying to catch her as she plummeted into his outstretched arms, breaking his neck.

Both were rushed to Northridge Hospital Medical Center, where Light died about 6 p.m., said coroner's spokesman Scott Carrier. Buchanan survived but remained in critical condition Monday and may be paralyzed from the neck down.

His family and friends stayed by his bedside in the intensive care unit Monday.

"The act is true to who he is," said Buchanan's minister, Pastor James Smith of the International House of Prayer in East Los Angeles. "That he would just open his arms and give himself like that . . . that tells you what he's about."

While Buchanan's family prayed for his recovery, Jon Light sat in his mother's Camarillo home wracked with sadness, anger and disbelief. He grieved not only for his mother, but for the man who tried to save her.

"What a nightmare," said the 41-year-old Camarillo lawyer. "If she knew what she did to this man, it would make her sick."

Light's husband, Robert M. Light, was a former head of the Southern California Broadcasters Assn. who died in March 1997. She met him as a young woman when she starred in commercials for the Hallmark card company during the 1950s, her family said, and they eventually settled in Sherman Oaks.

There, family and neighbors near the four-bedroom home the couple owned for 44 years described Light as a selfless woman with a ready smile.

"She volunteered for everything," her son said. "You name it. She taught phonics at my elementary school, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, PTA. She did everything."

Her reported attempts to clear the Galleria parking lot before she jumped were testament to Light's constant concern for others, friends said.

"She would have never hurt anybody in her wildest dreams," said Dorothy Bensussen, a close friend of Light for more than 40 years who remembers the hearty chicken soup Light made for her whenever she was ill. "She would have been devastated to learn that she hurt somebody."

Jon Light, who lived near his mother in Camarillo after she put her Sherman Oaks home up for sale several months ago, added: "That's the part that makes me sick. We appreciate [Buchanan's] efforts. But we're devastated that he's suffering for it."

With a Los Angeles County coroner's autopsy report still pending, it was unclear Monday exactly why Light killed herself.

Police say she suffered from terminal cancer, as mentioned in a suicide note found in her car. She said in her note that "she has been suffering from cancer and was in a great deal of pain," said Van Nuys Det. Stephen Fisk.

If she were sick, however, Light did not tell her family or friends. They all believed her deep depression stemmed from her husband's death, something she discussed often.

"I'm not aware of any cancer," said her son, who was planning to have dinner with her the night she took her life. "I spoke with her on Saturday and she seemed like her normal self.

"She mentioned suicide a few times," he said. "We were trying to help her. I thought she was doing better" since moving to Ventura County. "I guess not."

Suicide notes left by Light to her son, her daughter, Lisa, and her son-in-law, Robert, all stated how deeply depressed she had been during the past year.

"I can't cope anymore," one note read, according to Jon Light. "This will be easier for everybody."

At Northridge Hospital on Monday, Buchanan's mother, Norma, his wife, LaTonya, and his sister Melva kept vigil by his bedside. Buchanan opened his eyes but did not speak. The family minister arrived sometime after noon and remained hopeful.

"I spoke to him and he opened his eyes," said Smith, who also manages the building where Buchanan lives in West Los Angeles. "He seemed aware that I was there."

Vi Montes, a hospital spokeswoman, said callers had flooded the hospital switchboard with offers to help the family with medical expenses. Montes said the family was considering setting up a fund.

"I wish there was something we could do for that young man," said Dr. Uri Herscher, Light's next-door neighbor for 13 years.

"We rarely speak of the heroes of our time," he said. "I would count this young man among them."

At the Sherman Oaks Galleria, security officers who worked with Buchanan declined to comment, saying they wanted to respect the Buchanan family's privacy.

However, one guard said, "It's a shame this happened to him--of all people, why Conrad?"

Times staff writers Bettina Boxall and Andrew Blankstein contributed to this story.

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