Death Of A 'Hero'

BILL AND CAMILLE Cosby made a point of keeping their five children out of the meat grinder that can chew up the children of the rich and famous. But it's not like America didn't know their only son, Ennis. The joys and jolts of parenthood had always been a wellspring for his father's comedy, especially in his landmark sitcom "The Cosby Show." Ennis's struggles in school were fodder for the very first episode, in 1984. His triumphant college graduation was reprised in the show's 1992 finale by his TV alter ego, the sly but lovable Theo Huxtable. If Bill Cosby became surrogate father to a generation, Ennis was all in the family. Which is why his murder last week on a desolate offramp of a Los Angeles freeway cut so deep. When a remarkably poised Bill Cosby returned to his New York town house just after hearing about his son, he told the mass of hovering reporters: "He was my hero." The nation knew exactly what he meant.

But if young Ennis Cosby's life was full of promise, his death remains a mystery. Sometime around 1:30 a.m. last Thursday, Cosby, 27, pulled his emerald green Mercedes convertible off the San Diego Freeway near affluent Bel-Air with a flat front tire. It's a sparsely settled, hilly area with few street lights and little nighttime traffic. Police say Cosby made a cellular-phone call to a friend he was driving to visit. The friend--a 47-year-old would-be screenwriter from an old-line TV family--reportedly told police she drove her Jaguar to the scene to shine her headlights on Cosby's car as he fixed the flat. While she was waiting, she says, a white male in his late 20s or early 30s and wearing a light-colored knit cap suddenly appeared on foot brandishing a gun. The New York Daily News reported that the man tapped on her window; police would confirm only that the two came face to face. Fearing for her life, she told police that she drove off. When she circled back to the scene minutes later, the man was gone. The woman called 911--police logged a call at about 1:45 a.m.--and approached Cosby's car. The trunk and passenger-side door were wide open. The lug nuts and a wrench were still on the black pavement. Next to them lay Cosby, in a pool of blood. Police say he was killed by a single handgun shot to the head.

Despite an intense effort--the LAPD can ill afford another mangled case--investigators said Saturday that they were nowhere near making an arrest. The woman, who LAPD Chief Willie Williams described as "traumatized," took almost three days to provide a description for use in a composite drawing. Police also released a drawing of another man, possibly a witness, who was driving nearby. Robbery is the "most probable motive," police say, though they aren't sure if anything was stolen from Cosby's car. "The perpetrator was only there for a few moments or a few seconds, but we don't know what was on his mind," said Williams. The female friend is also somewhat mysterious. LAPD Cmdr. Tim McBride said she was "freaking out" at the prospect of being hounded by reporters or pursued by the suspect and has pleaded to have her name withheld by the press. (NEWSWEEK also decided not to publish photos of her.) But after police arrived at the crime scene, she lingered outside in a billowy fur coat, a miniskirt and stiletto heels--an odd outfit to wear to help fix a friend's car, even in Hollywood. A source tells NEWSWEEK that the Cosby family plans to hire its own investigators to probe the bizarre case. "We're not clear on who this woman is, and what the real story is," says the close family friend.

The irony of Ennis's high-profile death is that he worked diligently to keep his life free of notoriety. "The Cosbys were like black royalty. If you didn't ask his last name, he wouldn't tell you. He just sort of blended in with the rest of the guys," says Jerome Henderson, a classmate at Morehouse, from which Cosby was graduated with honors in 1992. Not that his famous father was invisible. Bill Cosby frequently visited his son at college and took him out to dinner. During the heyday of "The Cosby Show," they talked on the phone every week to work on Theo's Ennis-inspired story lines. "Ennis thought the shows that portrayed his struggle with growing up were great because it showed others what so many people go through," says Gary Barnes, another Morehouse classmate.

He was handsome enough to do some modeling, but Ennis decided to be a teacher. He was a Ph.D. candidate in special education at New York's Columbia University, where he had been scheduled to resume classes this week. Cosby's struggles in school were a longstanding source of his father's sweet-natured humor. (A favorite Cosby story: when Ennis was 14, he asked if he could have a Corvette when he turned 16. His father said he'd be happy to oblige, if Ennis improved his grades. "My son gets very quiet," Cosby said. "Finally he looks up at me and says, "Dad, what do you think about a Volkswagen'?") In college, Ennis was diagnosed with dyslexia. After he got therapy, his grades soared. He had found a career--working with reading-disabled students, especially those from impoverished backgrounds. He spent part of his last day in New York tutoring a student. Cosby had been required to work with the boy for only a few months; he'd stayed on for three years.

Press protest: The case has become another flash point in the public's love-hate relationship with the press. When CNN broadcast close-up photos of Cosby's corpse lying by his car on the afternoon of the murder, the network received hundreds of calls in protest. CNN quickly pulled the videotape and issued an on-air apology. Perhaps this is a backlash against overzealous coverage of the JonBenet Ramsey murder or the Richard Jewell case. After speaking to the Cosby family, the Rev. Jesse Jackson called a news conference to appeal for "dignity" from reporters, who had set up base camps outside the Cosby homes. And the family was trying to lead by example, keeping appearances brief and restrained. Hours after the murder, Bill Cosby released a statement saying, "This is a life experience that's truly difficult to share." Yet after decades of sharing his laughter, how can we help but feel his pain?