The Blackout

updated 07/11/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/11/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

TO THOSE CLOSEST TO THE TWO VICTIMS, something had seemed amiss that New Year's Day in 1989. For two days, no one—not their two grown children, nor their friends, nor their colleagues—had heard from Dr. Lakshman Rao Chervu, 58, or his wife, Dr. Shanta Chervu, 51. Yet nothing prepared police in the New York City suburb of Larchmont, N.Y., for the macabre scene that would greet them Jan. 1 in the second-floor bedroom of the Chervus' Dutch colonial at 36 Lincoln St. Blood was splattered on the ceiling, the walls and the floors. The mutilated body of Lakshman, director of nuclear medicine at Albert Einstein Medical College in The Bronx, was lying on its back, 15 stab wounds piercing his face and body. The body of Lakshman's wife, a geriatric fellow at Montefiore Medical Center, also in The Bronx, was draped across his. She had been slabbed nine limes. Both their throats had been slashed. "What I saw was gruesome," says Shanta's brother, Narayan Basetti, 42, who arrived at her home that evening and, on noticing a broken door pane, summoned police. "It was like a war field."

Yet for 4½ years the grisly crime went unsolved while the Chervus' relatives nursed doubts that the traditionally starchy town of Larchmont cared about the death of two Indian immigrants. In truth, though, there were virtually no clues. No sexual assault or robbery. No murder weapon. And fingerprints found at the crime scene could not be identified. Then, on May 20, 1993, police arrested Paul Cox, a carpenter and recovering alcoholic, on a lip from Cox's roommate. Cox, then 25 and a member of Alcoholics Anonymous for 2 ½ years, had been confiding to her and other AA friends that he had been having persistent nightmares in which he murdered his parents. The dreams, he said, prodded dim memories, and he feared that during an alcoholic blackout he had returned to his childhood home and killed the Chervus. Later, Cox said he had thought the couple—who had bought the house from his family in 1974, when he was 6—were his own parents.

The state charged Cox with second-degree murder, to which he pleaded not guilty by reason of temporary insanity. Last week his trial ended with a hung jury. Eleven jurors voted to convict, but one woman held out for seven days for a lesser manslaughter charge. Finally the 11 could take it no more. "The jury is on the verge of a breakdown," they wrote to Judge James Cowhey. "We can't go on any longer with this juror's way of thinking."

From the start, the prosecution of Paul Cox raised unsettling questions about privileged information. When seven AA members were subpoenaed to testify against him, they balked, claiming that, like clergy, attorneys and psychiatrists, they were bound by AA principles to protect Cox's confidences. But Judge Cowhey ruled that state law does not extend privilege to self-help groups. All seven AA members were ordered to testify, though they were not required to disclose their full names in open court, and photos of them were forbidden.

Still, that breach of AA's code of secrecy was enough to unsettle AA members around the country. Frank Riessman, director of the National Self-Help Clearing House, an organization that helps start such groups, reports that his office has been fielding 70 calls a week about Cowhey's ruling. "People in self-help groups are very disturbed about it," he says.

Cox, of course, has his own worries, including a second trial expected to begin this fall. For him, the double murders were the culmination of a privileged life gone askew. Growing up in Larchmont, he was the fifth of seven children born to Frank Cox III, a vice president of the Chase Manhattan Bank, and his wife, Mary. Yet as early as first grade, Paul was in trouble, stealing money from his parents to buy candy for classmates. By third grade he was stealing from the kids themselves. A poor student—in part because of a long-undiagnosed learning disability, dysgraphia, which hampers handwriting and reading skills—he failed all but one class in his freshman year of high school and was sent to a private boys' school. The following February he attempted suicide by swallowing a bottle of Tylenol.

Two years later, a psychologist diagnosed his matricidal and patricidal tendencies. In court, defense attorney Andrew Rubin argued that Cox's rage toward his parents stemmed from their constant criticisms and from the humiliating way they handled his chronic boyhood bed-wetting. "We tried to encourage him," his mother, a part-time secretary for the Junior League, tearfully told the court. "I would get him up at night to go, and we had a chart on the wall. If he was dry, I'd put a star on it."

After high school Cox enlisted in the Air Force. When he threatened suicide, he was discharged. In 1987 he entered St. Thomas Aquinas College in Sparkill, N.Y. There he experimented with cocaine, marijuana and mescaline and won the class presidency on a platform of "partying and flunking out." The next semester he did just that. In 1988 he enrolled at Belmont Abbey College in Belmont, N.C.

He had just learned that he was flunking out when he went on a binge back home that Christmas. Following a long evening of heavy drinking on Dec. 30, he crashed his mother's Chevy into a guardrail. "He looked very upset," said his best friend, Gene Kelly, 26, who was with him. While Cox's buddies decided to head back to the bar, Cox walked the two miles to his childhood home.

In court, defense psychiatrists tried to explain Paul Cox's purported memory lapse. "Mr. Cox was in a severe alcoholic blackout," testified Dr. David Weber, a psychiatrist specializing in substance abuse. "Probably the most typical behavior during a blackout is finding the way home....It's almost as if he were going back in time and eliminating the people that he sought to blame for all his problems back when he was 7 years old."

The prosecution presented another picture altogether. It was of a smalltime thief with a lifelong record of petty crimes who broke into a familiar house to steal. Picking up a knife for protection, prosecuting attorney George Bolen theorized, Cox used it on Shanta Chervu after she woke up. "He panicked," Bolen said. "How many stab wounds later, at the realization of what he had done...he changed his mind. The last thing he wanted to do was to steal anything. He just wanted to get out of there."

Emotions ran high when the mistrial was declared. Cox, flanked by his parents—who had been in court with him each day—remained stony-faced and silent. But many frustrated jurors wept openly. So too did the victims' children. Arati Chervu Johnston, 30, a Canadian marketing manager, was bitter as well. "I find the defense ludicrous," she noted dismissively. "It's been a very difficult time for us," said Dr. Arun Chervu, 33, a Dallas vascular surgeon, sobbing as he thanked the jurors who voted for the murder conviction. "I am glad the AA members came forward and gave their testimony. It's not really a support for us. It's a support for what's right and moral. We still have faith in the justice system."

LORNA GRISBY in Westchester County

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