A shot in the dark
- Jennifer Anderson
- Portland Tribune - News
A sleeping child is struck by a single bullet and dies Ñ who did it, and why?
It was before dawn on a balmy summer morning, and the back of the house was lighted in an eerie glow.
Someone used the dim light to slip silently, like an apparition, into the back yard of the small cottage in the Brentwood-Darlington neighborhood of Southeast Portland.
The assailant entered through the open rear door and fired one shot Ñ either accidentally or deliberately Ñ into the back of an 11-year-old boy sleeping in a makeshift bedroom just off the entryway.
As the killer melted back into the shadows, Joshua Jeffries, a curly-haired, rosy-faced boy who would have begun sixth grade that fall, stumbled through the house and uttered his final words to his guardian: 'Auntie Gayle, someone came into my room.' Then he collapsed.
The boy's chilling death Ñ still unresolved 18 months later Ñ is as inexplicable now as it was the morning of Aug. 10, 2001.
Portland police have made no arrests and, as in most cases, have said little to the public or the boy's extended family about leads, evidence, motives or suspects they have pursued. They say they want to protect the integrity of the case.
One of the most revealing public statements that police have made about the shooting death was provided by Detective Shirley McLoughlin, the lead investigator in the case, during a November 2001 news conference.
'The possibility exists that somebody else was the intended victim,' she said.
While police have named no 'person of interest,' Joshua's family and neighbors say there is no lack of suspects in the neighborhood of the house Ñ located in the 6500 block of Southeast 48th Avenue, a few blocks south of Southeast Woodstock Boulevard. Police and residents acknowledge that the area is known to have a high number of methamphetamine users and dealers.
Left without information, family members and neighbors have been doing their own detective work and have come up with various theories: Joshua saw something he shouldn't have; the killer was startled by something and panicked; the killer was a drug dealer who intended the bullet for someone else.
While the truth is unknown, one thing was clear: Joshua was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
'He was just a baby,' says Patricia Jeffries, the boy's birth mother. 'How can they walk the streets right now, knowing they got the wrong person and killed a child?'
Mature beyond his years
The slaying was a tragic end to a life fraught with impermanence. At 11, Joshua was a sensitive child who barely knew his father but had an abundance of maternal figures in his life.
When his birth mother went to jail when he was young, Joshua was placed into the protective arms of his mother's friend, Gayle Hoefert, a hairdresser.
Throughout his life, he bounced among Hoefert's home and those of his mother and aunt so the state's child protective services agency would not take him away. In his last year, he lived at Hoefert's home, along with her roommate, Diane Lovett; Joshua's sister, Leanna Jeffries, now 18; and Hoefert's daughter, Shannon, now 23.
Hoefert's 24-year-old son, Shaun, who hasn't lived at the house for the past 2 1/2 years, has especially struggled with the boy's death, she says.
Joshua dealt with his circumstances with a maturity that belied his youth.
'Auntie Gayle, when I grow up, I want to buy you a house and take care of you,' Hoefert says the boy often told her.
While the 42-year-old Hoefert's own life has been difficult, including dealing with congenital heart disease and diabetes, she always has considered herself the proud lioness who protects her cubs, and she loved Joshua as one of her own.
She didn't let Joshua go to certain houses in the neighborhood; she has never allowed drugs or guns in her house; and she made sure Joshua was home by 5:45 nightly for dinner. The watch he wore to remind him of his curfew now hangs on her car visor and still beeps at every quarter to the hour. Hoefert thinks it's a sign from Joshua.
'It's not a person; it's a monster,' she says of the killer. 'It is a priority. I want him caught now. Actually, I want him caught Aug. 10, 2001.'
A lazy summer day
It was 95 degrees that day, and Joshua found relief from the heat on a Slip'N Slide at a friend's house down the street.
He got home at 5:45 p.m. for dinner on the barbecue, went back out to another friend's house to play and came home at 8:30 p.m. He changed his clothes, watched 'The Mummy' on TV and had a snack.
At 10 p.m., Joshua went to bed in a room at the back of the home that originally served as a laundry room and back entryway.
'We always say, 'I love you,' and 'Good night, see you in the morning,' ' Hoefert says.
She and Lovett went to bed shortly thereafter in the bedroom in the front of the house Ñ farthest from Joshua's room. Leanna says she went to bed close to midnight after returning from the movies. Her room was closest to Joshua's bedroom, separated only by a small kitchen.
A screen door was shut but unlocked, and the outside door was left open to cool the house and allow the dogs to go in and out. 'It was hot, and we left it open,' Lovett, 42, says of the door. 'Now we wish we didn't.'
The door also was left unlocked for Shannon, who had been living in a camper at the far end of the back yard. She was asleep in the camper that night.
The house was quiet, except for the buzz of a fan in Hoefert's room.
At 3 a.m., Hoefert remembers rising to use the restroom; at the same time, Leanna was getting a drink of water. They returned to their rooms.
Just before 4:23 a.m., when the 911 call came in, Hoefert said Joshua opened her bedroom door and said clearly, in his normal voice: 'Auntie Gayle, someone came into my room.' Then he released his grip from the filing cabinet next to her bed and collapsed on the floor.
'He crunched up his little face, picked up his little arms, and down he went,' she says.
It was dark, and Hoefert didn't understand what had happened; she thought he might have been walking in his sleep. When she turned on a light, she saw the pool of blood oozing from his side onto the floor. Not having heard any noise, she thought he had been stabbed.
'From there, everything went crazy,' she says.
She called 911, then hung up while directing Lovett to apply pressure to the boy's wound. When she called again, she told the dispatcher that the boy had been stabbed. She then called the home of Rhetta Jeffries, Joshua's aunt, where Patricia Jeffries was staying, to tell them to meet at the hospital.
An ambulance rushed Joshua to Oregon Health & Science University Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 5:02 a.m.
Dogs didn't bark
An autopsy found that Joshua died of a single gunshot wound Ñ the bullet entering through his upper back and exiting just under his left arm, Hoefert says.
In retrospect, she says, she was surprised to find that he'd been shot: 'I thought he got stabbed; I couldn't figure out why I didn't hear any gunshot.'
Alex Ross, who lives across the street, says he heard the muffled sound of a gunshot when he was working on his computer around 4 a.m. He looked at Hoefert's house and saw lights blink on, then heard screaming.
Other neighbors, including Ruth Miller, who lived in the house directly behind Hoefert's at the time of the incident, wonder why they didn't hear the family's dogs bark.
Shannon, sleeping in the camper, said she didn't hear anything.
Anyone walking on the property today will be greeted first by Roswell, a Rottweiler who lets out a threatening growl and barks ceaselessly at strangers as she jumps against the 4-foot-high, chain-link fence. Sema, a dachshund, also demands attention with her high-pitched barks, while a third dog, an 11-year-old basset hound named Winston, is content to lie on the ground and roll in the dirt.
'I'm convinced that it's a family friend, because the dogs would've wakened me up,' said Miller, their closest neighbor. 'There's three dogs who bark at everybody, including me, all the time. There's no way someone would've gone into that house as a stranger, without my having known it.'
Hoefert said detectives wondered the same thing. She says Roswell, who was 9 months old at the time, was sleeping inside that night. She remembers because the dog was right next to Joshua as he lay dying. The dachshund also was asleep inside, she says.
Hoefert says it's possible that the killer escaped by way of a narrow, hidden path behind the wooden fence at the rear of the long driveway that snakes around neighbors' back yards and leads directly to a dead-end road at Southeast 49th Avenue, one block north.
Hoefert's home is a bright spot in a neighborhood of small, derelict homes with littered yards and chain-link fences. Potted silk flowers hang from the front porch, there's a row of rhododendron bushes, and rainbow-colored whirligigs twirl in the breeze.
A day after Joshua's death, several relatives and neighbors held a vigil and lighted red candles on Hoefert's front lawn to remember the boy. A small bouquet of flowers sat at the base of the tree, and a circle of American flags, left over from a Fourth of July celebration the month before, dotted the yard like a sad salute.
'On a back burner'
To Joshua's family, the lack of resolution in the case is maddening.
They worry that with no fewer than 37 new cases falling on the homicide division's desk since his death, 13 of them still unsolved, catching Joshua's killer is no longer a police priority.
'We feel it's totally at a standstill, that they put us on a back burner,' Hoefert says. 'We don't have anyone else to lean on.'
Police say Joshua's case remains open, and they are committed to seeing it resolved.
'It's still viable,' says Portland Police Bureau Cmdr. Jim Ferraris, who oversees the detective division. Still, he says, 'it's going to take someone coming forward and giving us information.'
The victim's young age is another motive to have the case resolved, he noted.
When Ferraris was appointed as commander of the detective division last February, he made a pointed pledge to clear Joshua's case as well as two other high-profile cases with young, innocent victims.
Police haven't solved the May 29, 2001, slaying of 21-year-old Catherine Johnson. But five months after the Dec. 13, 2001, rape and murder of 14-year-old Melissa Bittler, police arrested a Northeast Portland man who was indicted on the charges. Ladon Stephens, 33, has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trail.
Closing the Jeffries case depends on help from the public, Ferraris said.
'Our heart goes out to the family,' he said. 'But we don't just manufacture leads. The information people have needs to be brought out.'
Joshua's loved ones say they've tried to do just that. They've considered hiring a private detective but say they can't because of a lack of funds. They've tried to generate public interest in the case, but their letters to television's 'Unsolved Mysteries,' the 'Sally Jesse Raphael Show' and the 'Montel Williams Show' have gone unanswered or were rejected.
Every day the case remains unsolved, they say, is salt rubbed in the wound.
No shortage of theories
As their grief has turned to anger, Joshua's family and neighbors have come to their own conclusions. Among the theories:
• Was Joshua killed because he heard or saw something he shouldn't have? One neighbor said detectives told her they would return to interview her 14-year-old son, who walked his dog every afternoon with Joshua that summer. She said the detectives, who might have gleaned some information about suspect activity in the neighborhood by doing so, never returned.
• Was it someone who acted on a drug-induced impulse? Jera Lyn Morris, 25, the girlfriend of Shaun Hoefert, says the neighborhood was full of people who could have acted irrationally.
'I can't narrow it down to just one person,' she says. 'There's just so many nasty crackheads up in that neighborhood. It's horribly drug-infested. There's just a lot of drug activity. The neighborhood's always been like this.'
Police agree. During a news conference shortly after the slaying, Detective McLoughlin conceded that the motive could have been drug-related.
'In that particular neighborhood, there have been ongoing drug-related problems involving marijuana and methamphetamines,' she says. 'There's certainly the potential that this is a result of a drug-related problem in the neighborhood. It's not something we could rule out at this time.'
Police have their work cut out for them, considering the neighborhood profile. 'If people connected to a homicide case have criminal records, there's a focus or criminal inquiry that needs to take place,' Ferraris says. 'It is more difficult for us to investigate.'
Hoefert says someone called and left a threat at her house a few months before Joshua was shot, but she doesn't want the person's name made public. She told police about the threat and identified the person who made the call, but she doesn't know if they investigated the incident.
• Was the killer an intruder who was startled by either Joshua or one of the dogs? Hoefert says either Joshua could have awakened or Roswell could have barked when the intruder entered, and the killer might have fired the gun in a panicked reflex. The back door, which they'd left open the night before, was shut the next morning. Hoefert surmised the intruder might have slammed the door on the way out to keep the dog inside.
• Are there links to relatives' pasts?
Detectives would neither confirm nor deny any possible links or problems between family members and/or outsiders.
Hoefert has no criminal history, nor does anyone else who was living in the house at the time of the slaying. Detectives questioned them extensively and they passed polygraph tests, Hoefert said. Detectives also interviewed both of Joshua's birth parents.
Patricia Jeffries, 34, has spent time in jail for various drug-related misdemeanors, including theft and forgery.
After meeting and living with Hoefert at a trailer park in Clackamas in the early 1980s, Jeffries gave birth to Joshua and had Hoefert take informal custody when she when to jail. Jeffries thinks that because she was rarely at Hoefert's home in recent years, nothing in her past has anything to do with her son's murder.
'I went back in my tracks to see if I'd done something bad to make someone kill my child,' she said, crying. 'All I can say is, keep an eye on your children at all times.'
After her son's death she started using drugs again and was kicked out of a treatment program, but she is again working on recovery and has been clean and sober for nearly eight months.
'How come my son's killer is not being caught?' Jeffries said. 'Because of my drug use?'
Another woman who took care of Joshua was his aunt, Rhetta Jeffries, who was going to take him to the zoo the night before he died.
'I was too tired,' she said. 'I told him I'd see him in the morning. The morning never came.'
Joshua's father, Leonard Brown, has had little contact with Jeffries and has seen his son only a few times in his life. His current whereabouts are unknown.
When Gayle Hoefert isn't on the clock at the Southeast 82nd Avenue hair salon she works at, she sits on a worn blue sofa, surrounded by images of Joshua. A few silhouettes show the boy fishing during a camping trip to Timothy Lake, three days before he died.
They went camping each year because Josh loved the mountains, swimming, fishing and hiking. He once asked Lovett, whom he called 'Auntie Di,' to buy a speedboat so they could all zip down the river together.
Now the lives of the boy's loved ones are marked by anniversaries. One year after his death, they held a news conference with Portland police, announcing a $10,000 reward from a California foundation for victimized children. That reward was not renewed after a year; however, there is a $1,000 Crime Stoppers award offered for information leading to an arrest.
The day after the news conference, the family took a trip to Hagg Lake, near Forest Grove, in Joshua's memory.
On what would have been Joshua's 12th birthday, April 14, Gayle Hoefert planted flowers at the base of a sapling in front of the school he attended, Lewis Elementary. A small plaque at the tree commemorates his life.
At Christmas, Hoefert hangs dozens of strands of bright lights inside and outside, 'to show Josh where his house was.' Inside there is a special ornament on the tree, a pewter angel with his photo in it. She hangs the ornaments Joshua made in school on the side of the tree facing the couch, so she can see them easily.
The memories flow freely. During the school year, he learned to play 'Mary Had a Little Lamb' on his violin for the school's string orchestra. He'd just gotten interested in girls and wanted to 'bulk up' to look better. During the summer, he went out of his way to walk his friends home.
And, relatives say, he was always the bright spot in the family.
'It's almost like you're living in jail,' Hoefert said. 'It is the worst. É I never thought I would bury one of my children. Especially to this. I can't even tell you when this person is caught, that our security will go back to where it was before. Because I don't think it will.'
To provide information on Joshua Jeffries' death, call the Portland Police Bureau at 503-823-0400 or Crime Stoppers at 503-823-4357.