MOTHER-SON LOVE TAKES LETHAL TURN : SON'S DARK WORLD.
Lois O'Donnell divorced when her son, Sean, was just a baby. She spent the next 15 years trying to make it up to him, to overcome feelings of guilt by giving him everything he could ask for.
Despite pleas by family and friends that she provide some discipline, the 51-year-old mother insisted on indulging Sean, a virtual shut-in for much of his life.
``Whatever makes him happy,'' she would say. And happy she tried to make him by doting on him and showering him with a Pentium computer, elaborate stereo equipment, remote-control, gas-powered cars - and even $1,300 in hydroponic equipment to grow marijuana inside their home.
But rather than inspiring greater understanding and love from Sean, her guilt ended up leaving her blind to the depth of his troubles.
It cost her her life.
After she sat down to a Taco Bell dinner in their Covello Street home Oct. 11, police say, Sean Alexander O'Donnell fired three bullets from behind, killing his mother. He then fled to Washington state with a friend who police say had nothing to with the killing.
``Sometimes, I can't help but think he loved her so much he hated her,'' said the slain woman's brother, Melvin Langston, 54, who, from his home across the street, wearily watched his sister's struggle to raise her son alone.
``She just over-loved him,'' he said. ``She needed to protect him and hold him in his own domain. As long as he stayed within this compound, she felt he would never be hurt or anything.
``She didn't realize that she could be hurt,'' he said.
Friends and family recalled how the single mother devoted countless hours at a Burbank aerospace lab, often rushing home with takeout food for Sean's lunch, comforting herself that he seldom went beyond her front porch.
When problems surfaced at school, she let Sean study at home. She bought him the computer, stereo gear and remote-control cars. It never seemed enough for Sean.
A year ago, when she decided to renovate the Covello Street house where she was raised, Sean got to transform his room into a virtual Gothic chamber, complete with dark gray walls and simulated black marble tiles.
A perplexed friend of the mother asked the boy about the room. Sean replied: ``It fits my mood.''
At the boy's insistence, his mom signed the $1,300 check for hydroponic gardening equipment he found advertised in High Times magazine, then allowed him to grow marijuana in their home.
As Sean's demands grew more outlandish and expensive, his mother grappled with what to do. She sometimes confided in friends and family, but then angrily dismissed their advice, saying she knew what was best for Sean.
``Anything Sean wanted to do, Lois would let him do it,'' said Stephen Eaton, a friend who knew the mother and son for a dozen years. ``Everybody who knew Lois told her not to do that.
``But she said, `It will make him happy, whatever makes Sean happy' - whatever Lois thought would make Sean happy. She failed somewhere, just trying to let him do whatever he wanted to do,'' Eaton said.
``She did overcompensate for being a single mother. She couldn't limit him.''
Langston found O'Donnell's body four days after the shooting, a day after Sean turned up broke and alone at a motel in the tiny town of Castle Rock, Wash.
Police say Sean left home in his mother's sky-blue Hyundai and used her ATM card to get more than $500. He was traveling with a friend who police have cleared.
Colleen Wilcox, a social worker in Kelso, Wash., said Sean first gave his last name as McDonald and said his mother died of a heart attack at work. Although his information didn't check out initially, Wilcox found the boy to be ``kind of personable, not a kid, I thought, who had murdered his mother.''
The District Attorney's Office is seeking to try Sean for murder as an adult. A hearing is set for Wednesday in Sylmar Juvenile Court.
Los Angeles police say they are no closer to a motive than they were the day Sean was arrested.
``The family members have no idea why this happened, and we don't either,'' said Detective Charles Uribe of the Los Angeles Police Department's North Hollywood Division.
Only Sean knows, his uncle says.
``Maybe he thought this was his escape, that the only way he could get away from her is to kill her,'' Langston said. ``I don't know, I have no way of knowing.''
With his mother's help, Sean Alexander O'Donnell lived in a a dark world.
At the center of that world was his room inside the family's remodeled Covello Street home. Besides the dark gray walls and black simulated-marble floor, there were black curtains and a black bedspread on a black wrought-iron bed.
Concealed from visitors was another room, where police found the hydroponic equipment, complete with grower lights.
Eaton said the apparatus recently broke and Lois O'Donnell told her son she could not afford the $300 repair bill. So she gave him money to buy marijuana, he said.
On the walls of the marijuana room were scrawled the names of metal rock groups, Megadeath and Slayer. Inside a closet, investigators found writings typically associated with the occult, such as ``666'' and upside-down crucifixes. In the closet of another room, police found a pentagram.
Even as a 5-year-old, Sean was withdrawn and never wanted to play with kids at preschool, relatives said. By 12, he tried to commit suicide with a razor blade and later made other suicide threats his mother took seriously.
As a teen-ager, Sean spent nearly all of his time at home. He was enrolled in a home-study program through City of Angels School, where he was in the 11th grade at the time of the killing.
``He was some sort of an alienated kid, a loner, didn't have many friends,'' said Deputy District Attorney Richard Taklender. ``I've known kids like this. When I was a kid, I had friends like this. They shut themselves in their room.''
But family members said there was a flip side to Sean, who could be very animated and conversational. He is intelligent, they say, and intrigued by fantasy and space travel.
Melvin Langston thought his nephew just needed better direction. Working for a digital photography company, Langston tried to get Sean interested in computers and digital photography. They played computer games at Langston's house and developed a rapport, the uncle said.
When he saw Sean eyeing his classic Mustang, Langston said, he offered it up as incentive.
``Why don't you help mom, do something around the house, help in the yard, do better in school?'' Langston said he asked Sean. ``If you do that, maybe we can work out a deal.''
Later, after the shooting, Langston looked through Sean's things and found the boy's daybook. The June 21, 1996, entry read: ``Kill mother, uncle, aunt, take Mustang and prepare for trip.''
Sean O'Donnell sometimes vented his hostility in the back yard, slashing and carving up the Chinese elms there.
``He just had a lot of anger - this kid was a piece of dynamite and nitro, ready to blow,'' Langston said. ``He destroyed the back yard, chopping stuff up.''
Mother who gave too much
In contrast to her son, Lois O'Donnell was a vibrant, outgoing woman who had worked 25 years for Glendale-based Courtaulds Aerospace and was assigned to the company's lab in Burbank. Courtaulds makes high-tech sealant and coatings for high-performance aircraft.
``She was a hard worker, she liked doing things for people,'' Eaton said.
She brought that trait home with her.
``For the many years that I've known her, she was trying to overcompensate for not having a father in the house - like many single parents do, but some do not go to that extreme,'' Eaton said.
``For instance, this school business,'' he said. ``He says he would always have trouble at school. He said the other kids would beat up on him. Instead of her dealing with that, she would keep him home for home study.''
While O'Donnell worked long hours, she was always ready to act on the whim of her son.
``He'd call her up, `Mom, can you bring me a hamburger from Jack-In-The-Box?' She'd go get it, take it home, then sit down, then back to work.''
Juggling a mortgage of about $800 a month, bills and the gifts she bought for her son, O'Donnell was getting deeper into debt. Recently, she had become depressed by her debts and even considered suicide, Eaton said.
``During the last part, she started thinking that way,'' he said. ``There were financial problems, . . . Sean.''
Still, Sean, who had a tenuous relationship with his Florida-resident father, appeared to be devoted to his mother.
``He loved his mom very much. He cared about her, he wanted to see her happy,'' Eaton said. ``He thought, maybe if I was out of here, she'd be happy.
``I tried my best to talk to her about doing things about Sean, either getting help, or have her family come in and just talk to him, or give (her brother) some control or whatever. No. She wouldn't hear about that.''
She did sometimes discuss the troubles she had, once asking Eaton: ``What can you do, ground him? He's in the house all the time. How can I do this?''
Eaton said the mother felt guilty.
``I think he needed help. She blamed herself, she thought it was because he didn't have a father. She said, `It was my fault. If I hadn't divorced his father . . .' ''
His sister wanted Sean to get help, Langston said, and the boy did get some therapy at 12, but the sessions soon stopped.
``It didn't last. He sniveled and cried. He didn't like it there,'' Langston said.
Lois O'Donnell was supposed to go through therapy herself, but the demands on her time were too great. ``From what I understand, she felt she needed to go to work,'' Eaton said.
A turning point for Sean came when his grandmother, Mae Langston, died in October 1994 at the age of 83.
``Since my mom died, a lot of things started changing,'' Langston said. ``He took care of my mom,'' Langston said. ``I guess my sister thought it was a good thing, to have him kind of watch over her.''
After his grandmother's death, Sean started hanging around with gang members in a Sun Valley park.
``We kind of wondered, what the hell is he doing? I couldn't believe it,'' Langston said. ``Why is he going up there?''
Meanwhile, Lois O'Donnell sank deeper into debt because of the renovations she financed after her mother died.
``She was up to her neck in debt, mainly for that kid. She gave him everything he wanted,'' Langston said. ``He had his own color TV, own game stuff. She bought him a barbell set, tools. The bed alone was $800. She bought his stereo, speakers, computer stuff.''
The hydroponic lamps proved a costly addition to the power bill, which sometimes ran $600 or $700, Langston said.
``The lights were going on, the air-conditioning on, and he's living the life of Riley at home while she's going to work. She might as well have put him up at the Hilton; it would be cheaper,'' Langston said.
His sister became more and more frustrated, Langston said. ``I can imagine, it was probably very difficult. No matter what you do is wrong. If you do it right, it's wrong.''
The signs of Sean's downward spiral were clear in the last year. He had been court-ordered to attend Alcoholics Anonymous, Eaton said. ``She took him to his first meetings. He had to do some type of probation,'' he said.
The youth had tried to break into a neighboring home, Eaton said. He had crashed his mother's car as he drove it around the corner, Eaton said.
Langston believes that his sister was partly culpable for what happened.
``It would be kind of nice if some young people could get a good direction. Sometimes it's not all the child's fault either,'' he said.
``I love my sister dearly,'' Langston said. ``But a lot of it I blame on her. Had she been a little more strict, told him to go to school instead of babying him . . .''
Now in custody, Sean wants to see his uncle.
``Maybe if I give him forgiveness, he will sleep at night,'' Langston said.
``I can't do that, he's going to have to sit there and think about what he's done. I feel very bad that he has done what he's done.
``I'm not going to hate him. I'm not going to take that with me. He has his own hell to live with; he's going to have to live with it.''
Photo: (1--color) Police say Lois O'Donnell was fatally shot at home by her son, Sean.
(2) Melvin Langston, 54, of Sun Valley, watched his sister struggle to raise her 15-year-old son alone from his home across the street.
David Sprague/Daily News