It's been four months since the CEO of an Irvine drug company was shot in what police describe as an elaborate assassination attempt. But while the case has faded from public view, the gunman remains at large and the victim struggles to pull his life--and the company he helped build--back together.
In his first interview since the February shooting, Biofem executive James Patrick Riley said Wednesday he remains haunted by a masked assailant who fired a bullet into his face as he arrived for work.
The wound left a scar on his upper lip that he now conceals with a mustache. The emotional trauma, however, remains.
The businessman has adopted a low profile--hiding for a while in a hotel under an assumed name. He screens his telephone calls, makes sure his security alarms are working and keeps a loaded gun beside his bed.
Riley has also had difficulty coming to terms with the police theory of the case: that his longtime business partner, Dr. Larry C. Ford, masterminded the plot to kill him. Riley, 58, said he still cannot fathom that anyone--let alone a friend he recalled as eccentric but endearing--would want him dead.
"I went through some very black days," he said. "It's a disturbing thing, really, to think that someone wanted to kill you--planned to kill you. It's beyond bizarre."
Frustrated that his attacker is still at large, Riley said he is coming forward now only in an effort to help authorities crack the mystery. He is offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the gunman and will appear this weekend on the television show "America's Most Wanted."
"There's a certain comfort in being anonymous . . . but the cops really believe it will help," he said. "I want these guys caught."
The shooting triggered one of the strangest and most complex investigations in Orange County history, sending authorities on a trail that stretched from Irvine to South Africa and involved everything from medicine to biological weapons.
The chain of events began Feb. 28, when Riley pulled his dark purple Audi into a parking space in front of Biofem's Irvine Spectrum office. It was 9:45 a.m. Other businesses in the complex were filling with employees behind the tinted glass windows that rose up before him.
Riley recalled Wednesday feeling "on top of the world" that morning. He and Ford were working on a female contraceptive they hoped would protect women from sexually transmitted diseases--including the AIDS virus--and make the two men rich. The company's research was going well. They had just acquired millions of dollars in funding. The future seemed bright.
Riley got out of the car. He saw nothing unusual but inexplicably turned away from the building in front of him just as the single shot was fired.
"That saved my life. I heard the explosion in my face. I didn't have time to be afraid. I didn't have time to flinch," he said.
Recalling Awful Moments After Attack
A bullet tore into Riley's upper lip and severed two facial arteries before ripping through his left cheek--just above his jaw--and shattering an office window beyond him. A hooded gunman clad in black fled past him, through the office complex.
"All of a sudden, because you're supposed to fall down on the ground when you're shot, I fell," he said. "I felt I was dying. I remember saying a prayer."
He tried to begin a personal prayer but could not concentrate on the words. As he struggled, he became irritated.
"And then I said to myself, 'Hey! Wait a minute! I'm breathing. I'm alive. I'm bleeding--a lot. And if I don't get up and get help, then I'm going to die.' "
Riley struggled to his feet and ran to a deli in the complex where he asked a stunned employee to call 911. He sat down outside the cafe and remembered he had his cell phone. He called his business partner.
"Larry came down. He looked upset, but I wasn't concentrating on him," Riley said. "I was pretty lucid about things but disoriented."
Surgeons sewed up the damaged arteries and patched the bullet holes in Riley's face. He recalled the shock at seeing his scarred features for the first time in a hospital mirror. It took weeks for the swelling in his cheek to subside. And though hardly noticeable today, the wounds continue to cause Riley pain.
"It still hurts when I eat," he said. "It hurts when I swallow. I can't whistle anymore. I can't spit. These aren't great tragedies, but they're reminders."
As Riley recuperated, events surrounding the attempted murder were taking on a life of their own. The day of the shooting, police arrested a Los Angeles businessman and longtime friend of Ford as the suspected getaway car driver. Two days later, detectives searched Ford's home. On March 2, Ford shot and killed himself.
Local authorities then evacuated more than 200 Irvine residents as police dug up a cache of illegal weapons and explosives and removed cholera- and typhoid fever-causing bacteria from Ford's Woodbridge neighborhood home.