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Danger signs lined young man's past.

Byline: Winston Ross The Register-Guard

COOS BAY - No one but Henry Levi Cozad knows exactly what happened March 12 in the teenager's Bunker Hill home. What's clear is only this: Linda Foley took her last breath inside that house that day, and Henry most likely will never be able to tell the truth about why he beat and kicked her to death.

Last month, Coos County Circuit Judge Martin Stone ruled Cozad responsible for Foley's demise, but instead of a prison sentence and a murder or manslaughter conviction, Cozad got a one-year commitment in a state-run group home, after which the 18-year-old will be re-evaluated annually to see if he should be let out. Prosecutors decided that Cozad was unfit to stand trial on the charges he originally faced, but that he had proven himself a danger to society when he killed Foley.

During the three-day hearing that preceded the sentence, through the testimony of a dozen or more witnesses from Cozad's school and his life outside the classroom, something else became clear, too: Cozad was a danger to society a long time before he bloodied the woman he called "Mama."

And that raises an important question in the wake of Foley's death: Could it have been prevented?

A violent life

Fred Cozad took a long draw from his Gold Coast cigarette and propped his weathered elbows on the rusting hood of the tow truck he recently abandoned repairing, one of a dozen such halted projects scattered about his 15 acres atop Bunker Hill, a southeast Coos Bay neighborhood.

"I have to be careful what I say," Cozad said, pronouncing even those words with a little extra precision, as if to emphasize his point.

Indeed he does. Cozad is facing criminal neglect charges filed after Foley's murder in March, a death that came at the hands of his youngest son. Fred Cozad has been advised by his attorney not to talk to the news media about what happened that day or how he cared for Henry.

But Cozad has plenty to say, about the death of Linda Foley, his boy and the district attorney who now wants him confined, too - behind bars.

Fred Cozad remains convinced that his girlfriend's death was an accident - he believes she fell on a welder - and that his son is a meek, innocent child who would never hurt anyone.

But in his own cluttered living room are piles of papers strewn this way and that, painting an entirely different picture of Henry, one of a child who from a very young age was lashing out violently at his South Coast Education Service District teachers.

To Cozad's father, the papers document a conspiracy of people determined to take his son and the $1,400 a month in disability and caregiver payments he and a neighbor received from the federal government and social service agencies.

To the teachers, it's a ream of evidence that provokes a compelling query: If young Cozad had been removed from his father's custody sooner, would Foley still be alive today?

The easy answer: Of course. Had Henry Cozad been committed to state care in, say, January, he wouldn't have had the opportunity to beat Foley to death with his bare hands.

But it's also a complicated subject, one that reveals the challenges involved when educators and government officials grapple with the prospect of intervening in the private affairs of a family; of the hard-to-discern difference between poverty and neglect; of the near-impossibility of proving abuse when the potential victim can't speak a comprehensible sentence.

Special needs

Henry Levi Cozad was born July 28, 1990, at Bay Area Hospital, to Fred and his then-wife, Daveda. Henry was the youngest of four children, and from an early age - his pediatrician would later testify at a hearing to have him committed - it became clear that the boy was mentally deficient.

By the time Henry was 4 months old, Coos Bay physician Donna Rabin said she decided to refer Henry for tests to determine his mental acuity. His intelligence quotient came in at below 50, and a regional autism specialist labeled him autistic - a diagnosis that turned out to be false.

By age 6, Henry was having problems in school, Rabin said in court. He was pushing, shoving and hitting his classmates.

Children with special needs such as Henry require a consistent home environment, Rabin said, so they can understand their expectations, the consequences of bad behavior and a schedule for sleeping and eating.

"He never received consistency at home," Rabin said.

Until he was 12 years old, it was Foley, the woman Henry later killed, who accompanied the boy to his appointments with Rabin, she said. As he grew larger, it became more and more difficult to contain his violent outbursts, to get him to follow instructions.

Fred Cozad soon began attending Henry's visits, which seemed to help him comply. The boy's father couldn't be around all the time, however. Especially not at school.

"Kicking radius"

From early childhood to 18 years of age, Henry attended classes overseen by the South Coast Education Service District, which contracts with several school districts on the coast to care for students with special needs. In June 2008, Marshfield High School bestowed an honorary diploma on the boy, but not because he was equipped for the outside world.

One by one, teachers and instructional aides testified in court that Henry had punched, kicked, pinched and slapped them repeatedly. They didn't wear their hair in ponytails, because he'd grab them. When he dropped to the floor in protest of something, it was best to avoid his "kicking radius," as he'd spin around in a circle and aim for the shins of anyone nearby. They never turned their backs on him.

Despite their defensive tactics, Henry found a way to injure a dozen or more different instructors and family friends. Cora Handsaker, Fred Cozad's former girlfriend, testified at the commitment hearing of a time Henry put his arms out to give her a hug. When she approached, he slapped her in the face, hard enough to leave a handprint and a bloody lip.

Allison Pex, a school program administrator, said in court that Henry's aggression was a daily occurrence. "Occasionally, he would spit in someone's face," Pex said. After one incident at a sandwich shop, he lashed out, and injured her eye and neck. "On a regular basis, I was kicked in the shins."

Powers Police Chief Rhett Davis, who worked with Henry at the school district, testified that Henry grabbed him by the throat with both hands. When Davis went to twist away from the grip, Henry started kicking him.

Educational assistant Michelle Jones described Henry throwing rocks at her, chasing her around a desk, and choking her. Carolyn Breedlove said Henry put her in a neck hold until she nearly blacked out. Rose Jameson said Henry pulled her around the room by her hair in 2004, injuring her neck. To this day, she said in court, "Doing right turns, pulling out of the driveway, is not real good."

Two other instructional aides told the judge that Henry left them permanently disabled. Craig Hirshman, who limped into the courtroom, had surgery to remove two discs in his back after a scuffle with Henry in 2005.

Henry had grabbed him by the throat with one hand, by the hair with another, then slammed Hirshman against a chalkboard and a computer table, at which point "I heard a loud `pop' in my lower back," he said. Hirshman has been unable to work since.

Instructional aide Tim Waits' doctor recently cleared him for "light duty." He scuffled with Henry in February 2008, when the boy "grabbed my hair from the front, pulled my head back, wrapped his arm around my throat and tried to wrap himself around me," Waits testified. "He rammed me against the wall and was ramming me into things. I passed out."

Waits needs back surgery, he testified, but his doctors tell him that other health conditions make that too risky.

Limited solutions

The repeated incidents at school were something Henry's teachers learned to tolerate, but educators say there were few options for actually solving the problem.

School officials recorded attacks, at times referring the cases to Child Protective Services, an agency that is somewhat limited in the options it has for responding to such situations, the state's program manager said.

"When teachers and other professionals that work with kids have concerns, and consistently report those concerns, and we don't see a change, of course it's frustrating," said Tenneal Wetherell, director of support services and school improvement at the South Coast Education Service District. "But it's dangerous to assume automatically that someone or some group did something wrong."

The state's interest with someone like Henry Cozad is in protecting the child, not his teachers, said Stacey Ayers, program manager with Child Protective Services.

There was some testimony in court that Henry showed up with various bruises and scratches, which he'd sometimes explain by saying "paw," his word for his father, and "pow," his word for punching.

Coos County District Attorney Paul Frasier said he examined whether abuse occurred, but ultimately decided that there wasn't enough to make a case.

"If you're going to have a prosecutable case for physical abuse, the victim has to come in and be able to testify in court, or you have to have an eyewitnesses who says, `I saw so-and-so do this to Henry,'" Frasier said. "Henry wouldn't even make the stand."

Where crimes such as assault are committed, it becomes law enforcement's job to decide how best to respond, Ayers said, in the interest of keeping the public safe.

Yet, among all the attacks described by the teachers who spoke in court, only one, involving Waits, was referred to police. When the file reached the county's juvenile department, officials there decided to handle it informally, enrolling Henry in a program sponsored by Davis, the police chief who took the stand last month to describe how the boy attacked him, too.

A danger to society

The main problem with Henry's violence is this, Frasier said: In order to convict someone of a crime, they must be mentally competent enough to understand the charges against them. Even after Henry killed Foley, Frasier had a tough time knowing what to do with him. At one point, it appeared that the likely outcome would be for Henry to be deemed unfit, at which point he'd be released as if nothing happened.

Stumped, Frasier sent out an e-mail to a listserve with other Oregon district attorneys, to see if they knew of any other options. One suggested the kind of civil commitment the prosecutor ultimately employed. It required that Frasier prove that Henry is a danger to society and that he can't be adequately cared for at home.

In June, a judge agreed that Henry should be committed, but the law only provides that he stay in state care for a year, at which point he could be released. He will undergo annual evaluations, and should he continue to be deemed unfit, he will remain in a group home.

Henry most likely will need adult supervision for the rest of his life, Rabin testified.

"This was the first time I'm aware of in Coos County that this particular statute was used to commit somebody who's mentally retarded and dangerous," Frasier said. "I'm not sure anybody here knew this process existed."

But even though the judge agreed that Henry killed someone, and that he's in no shape to be among the general public, the teenager could be free in a year. Frasier said he has reached out to several state legislators for a fix to that problem, but the only idea that's come about so far is an extension of the commitment to three years.

After Waits' attack, he said, he made it clear to police and to officials at the school:

"It's my opinion this kid is going to kill somebody," Waits said. "I mentioned it to anybody who would listen."
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Title Annotation:City/Region
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jul 12, 2009
Words:2012
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