In Sarch of Justice

updated 07/06/1998 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/06/1998 01:00AM

At times of great loss, it is often the small gestures that mean the most. On the evening of Jan. 16, 1997, Loretta Thomas-Davis sat grief-stricken in the bedroom of her modest South Los Angeles home, surrounded by family and friends, when the phone rang. Earlier that day her 17-year-old daughter, Corie Williams, had been shot and killed while riding a city bus home from school. Now a man on the phone was saying he was Bill Cosby. At first, Thomas-Davis, 43, a school maintenance supervisor, thought the call was "a very bad joke."

Then she recognized the soothing voice. Cosby, whose son, Ennis, 27, had been murdered in Los Angeles the same day, was calling to console her and to see if she needed any help. "It's amazing he could think about me and my family," says Thomas-Davis. "I still can't get over that. I think he got as much out of it as I did."

Eighteen months later, Cosby, who turns 61 on July 12, is facing the full horror of his only son's murder once more. As the trial of Ennis's accused killer—a 19-year-old Ukrainian immigrant and street tough—unfolds under the cold fluorescent lights of windowless room 202 in the Santa Monica courthouse, the question remains: Will the matter of the People v. Mikail Markhasev bring a measure of closure to the Cosby family's anguish?

In the early courtroom maneuvering between deputy District Attorney Anne Ingalls and public defender Henry Hall, the case appeared anything but open-and-shut. But whatever the outcome, the Cosby family will no doubt press on with their lives with the same dignity and strength they have demonstrated since losing Ennis last year.

Cosby and his wife, Camille, 54—who have four daughters, Erika, 33, Erinn, 31, Ensa, 25, and Evin, 21, all of whom, like Ennis, were given names beginning with E, for excellence—appear to have been holding up remarkably well. Two weeks after the murder, Cosby helped an old friend, jazz musician Benny Golson, cut an album at a New York City recording studio. Cosby, a longtime jazz fan, had agreed to play the cowbell. "I hugged him," says Golson, who wrote the theme music for the current TV show Cosby.

"He was hurting, but the man is a brave soul. We all know we have to pick up and go on with our lives, but he did so with great determination." When Golson asked how Camille was doing, Cosby replied quietly, "She's coming along."

For Cosby himself, there has been the additional burden of having to grieve for his son under the lens of public scrutiny and a scandal: A young woman, Autumn Jackson, claimed he was her father and was later found guilty of attempted extortion. As Cosby told Jane Pauley in an interview with NBC's Dateline on the anniversary of Ennis's death, "Yes, it will always hurt. Yes, there will always be that scar, and yes, I do have my moments. Understand that. But those are my moments, and hopefully they will always be private. But we are healing, as everyone has to."

Cosby has apparently found solace in his work. In addition to his various television projects, including a pilot for a comedy series about a cop with three teenage daughters, he has made frequent stand-up comedy concert appearances—including one, at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach, Fla., just two weeks after he buried his son. Wearing a sweatshirt bearing the words "Hello Friend," Ennis's trademark greeting, Cosby gently moved his audience to tears and then straight on to laughter. "He was as warm as he'd been every other evening," recalls John Wilkes, then the center's chief operating officer, who had put on several Cosby shows over the years. "He was the same Bill Cosby. Afterwards, he said, 'I knew I had to do this evening.' "

Having been robbed of his beloved son, Cosby seems determined not to lose his own identity. Several weeks after the murder, Cosby met at his home in Pacific Palisades with producers of his TV show Kids Say the Darndest Things. Among them was Art Linkletter, 85, whose program Art Linkletter's House Tarty in the 1950s and '60s featured a kids' interview segment with the same name. Linkletter lost his own daughter Diane in 1969 when, at age 20, she jumped from her West Hollywood apartment window after taking LSD. Sitting on the front steps of the house where Ennis had spent his last days, the two fathers began talking about Cosby's son. In a revealing moment, Cosby told Linkletter that a few weeks after the murder he had been in a car in New York City when some fans had recognized him. At first they had waved and smiled, but then, to Cosby's dismay, they had suddenly looked very sad. " 'I appreciate their sympathy,' " Linkletter says Cosby told him. " 'But I am a humorist and I'm funny. I don't want to establish myself as a tragic figure, though I loved my son desperately.' "

Says Linkletter of Cosby: "His basic philosophy is that these things happen. You cannot let them either ruin your life or taint the lives of the people around you."

In the first weeks after the murder, Cosby kept in close touch with Los Angeles Police Department officials, who assigned the investigation to the robbery-homicide squad. According to an LAPD source, detectives initially briefed Cosby daily and also met with security consultant Gavin de Becker, who worked as Cosby's liaison with police. Since Markhasev's arrest, in March 1997, Cosby has been briefed regularly by the DA's office. But Cosby is maintaining a low profile and did not attend the early days of the proceedings. He does not want the trial to become a media circus. "This is our son that was murdered. It's not Cliff Huxtable's son," he told Dateline, referring to his fictional Cosby Show alter ego. "Bill and Camille Cosby. Ennis. Murdered. And we want this handled with dignity." In preparing this story, PEOPLE asked Cosby for an interview, but he declined.

During his life, Ennis made it a point of pride to keep a low profile and never to trade on his name. Cosby's son, who had been diagnosed with dyslexia, wanted to dedicate his life to working with children with disabilities. While at Morehouse College in Atlanta, he tutored inner-city school kids and asked their principal not to tell them who his father was. "He wanted to be able to relate to them," says Clifton Tinsley, then the principal of Dean Rusk Elementary School, "and he didn't want star worship to get in the way." Finally, at the end of the year, Ennis told the kids the truth. "The fact that he was Bill Cosby's son didn't really matter at that point," says Tinsley. "They had already fallen in love with him." At the time of his death, Ennis had two master's degrees from Teachers College at Columbia University and was working on his doctorate.

To honor his son's commitment to teaching, in 1997 Bill Cosby announced the formation of the Hello Friend, Ennis William Cosby Foundation to promote effective education for people with learning difficulties. (Ennis had proclaimed that the day he was diagnosed with dyslexia was the "happiest day of my life" because it opened the doors of learning for him.) Cosby's Little Bill children's books (which have sold more than a million copies) all now carry dedications to Ennis. And last June, Cosby released a jazz CD titled "hello, friend: to ennis with love." Cosby wrote in the liner notes, "I'm just trying to find a way to always have proof that a wonderful young man was here."

In stark contrast to Ennis, who had seemed to gain momentum toward his goal of serving special children in the last few years, his accused killer, Mikail Markhasev, had entered a downward spiral. Markhasev was born out of wedlock in Lvov, the Ukraine. His mother, Victoria, now a patternmaker, later married Valyri Markhasev, who adopted Mikail and gave him his surname. The family lived relatively comfortably, but when Mikail was 8 the couple divorced. In 1989, Victoria and Mikail, then 11, moved to the U.S., settling in West Hollywood. Mikail was admitted to the gifted program at John Burroughs Jr. High School, where he was well-liked and had no discipline problems.

But in 1992 the family moved to Los Alamitos in Orange County. Nicknamed Pee-wee because of his resemblance to comedian Pee-wee Herman, Markhasev began hanging out with a street gang. He also began exhibiting racism. In 1995, Lynda Paulson, 41, a former schoolteacher who describes herself as a "private exotic dancer," befriended members of the gang. Markhasev, she says, used racial epithets and would declare that blacks "should all be shot."

In October 1995, Markhasev and a group of other gang members attacked two black men at a gas station in Los Alamitos. One of the men was stabbed in the arm, though not seriously injured. Markhasev, 16 at the time, was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon and sentenced to six months at a juvenile facility. When he got out, Markhasev, bulked up from lifting weights, seemed more belligerent and predatory, according to Paulson. "That's when he started to die," she says. "He had changed." Whether he had changed into a murderer capable of killing Ennis Cosby in cold blood is the question 12 men and women in Santa Monica will answer in the next two weeks.

The prosecutor, Ingalls, has a damning tale to tell. Cosby was driving north alone on the 405 Freeway to see Stephanie Crane, 49, a would-be screenwriter and a daughter of Honeymooners co-creator Harry Crane, whom he had met a week earlier at a party, when his mother's $130,000 Mercedes had a flat tire. He pulled off at Skirball Center Drive, near a park-and-ride lot on a dark and isolated stretch of road. It was 1 a.m. when he called Crane on his cellular phone to ask for assistance.

When she arrived minutes later, Crane testified, Cosby was changing the tire. She pulled her black Jaguar behind his Mercedes and kept the headlights on to illuminate the area. A few moments later a young white male in a light-colored watch cap appeared. He rapped on the driver's side window and ordered, "Open the door or I'll shoot you." Terrified, Crane said, she locked the doors and sped a short distance away. But then, remembering Ennis, she made a quick U-turn only to find him lying in a pool of blood. The prosecution contends that Markhasev had demanded money and, when Ennis didn't respond quickly enough, shot him once in the temple. Ingalls introduced letters allegedly written from jail by Markhasev, one of which describes a shooting as "a robbery gone bad." The defense maintains the letters are fakes, and that the real murderer is Eli Zakaria, a friend of Markhasev's who was with him on the night of the crime.

Given the apparently random nature of the crime, Ennis's family at first had reason to fear that no one would ever stand trial for his killing. But the police got a break within hours of the murder, when a woman phoned in an anonymous tip. Tracing the number, police found the caller, Tracy West, 36, an employee of an executive-jet service who had been staying with a friend at the home of Gabe Drapel, 45, two miles from the crime scene. West and Drapel told the police that three of their acquaintances, Markhasev, his friend Zakaria, 24, and Zakaria's girlfriend, Sara Ann Peters, 22, had been visiting on the night of the murder and had left at 12:20 a.m. The prosecutor contends that after leaving the house, Zakaria, Peters and Markhasev drove in a gold Acura to Skirball Center Drive, where they saw Ennis. Zakaria asked Ennis, "Hey, are you okay?" Ennis replied, "Yeah, everything's cool." The three continued on to the park-and-ride lot. Then, according to the prosecution, Markhasev announced that he was going to "jack"—meaning carjack—someone, and he walked off with a gun alone into the night.

A second break came in late January when the National Enquirer, which at Bill Cosby's urging had offered a $100,000 reward in the case, received a call from one Chris So concerning the .38-cal. handgun allegedly used in the killing. According to police, So told them that Markhasev phoned an acquaintance, Michael Chang, days after the killing and asked for help in finding a gun he had hurriedly thrown away. So, 34, Chang, 20, and Markhasev had searched for the weapon in a wooded area miles from the crime scene, So said, but couldn't find it.

So and Chang went back to the area with the police, who later found a Taurus .38-cal. revolver wrapped in a dark blue watch cap under a tree. Ingalls plans to introduce ballistics tests to show that the gun fired the bullet that killed Ennis. And she may argue that DNA evidence would demonstrate that a single hair on the dark blue hat in which the weapon was found almost certainly came from Markhasev's head. But the defense would point out that the hat was in the LAPD's possession for more than a year before the hair was discovered. And even if the dark hat can be linked to Markhasev, the only eyewitness, Stephanie Crane, described the shooter's hat as light in color.

Markhasev's lawyer pointed out that So and Chang, both convicted felons, could hope to share big reward money for a story implicating Markhasev. Other key witnesses have credibility problems as well. Informant Tracy West faces cocaine charges in New Jersey. Both Zakaria and Peters have been convicted of drug-related offenses and are facing burglary charges. (Zakaria is the son of the late Joseph Zakaria, an Israeli mobster convicted of a double homicide in California in 1981.)

The fact that several key witnesses have questionable backgrounds isn't unusual, says one detective involved in the case. "When you have a murder trial," he says, "that's who you've got." But two months after the murder, Crane, the critical eyewitness, was unable to pick Markhasev out of a police lineup as the man who had threatened her. And though Crane's description of the shooter formed the basis of a police sketch that resembles Markhasev, Hall argued that the height, weight and age she ascribed to the perpetrator are closer to Zakaria's than to Markhasev's; he projected a picture of Zakaria to show that the police sketch resembles him too.

"There's no doubt the prosecution has a case against the defendant," says Stan Goldman, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. "But I don't think it's a slam dunk."

The case appears close enough that the verdict of the six-man, six-woman, mostly middle-aged jury—which includes four African-Americans—could well hinge on the performance of the respective lawyers. But the courtroom theatrics that dominated the O.J. Simpson murder trial are unlikely to be in evidence here. Superior Court Judge David Perez, 60, a former city prosecutor, runs a tight ship. A down-to-earth jurist—the son of a welder, he has been known to take the bus to work—Perez banned cameras from the courtroom and keeps matters moving at a brisk pace that could send the case to the jury by July 10.

The businesslike atmosphere suits prosecutor Anne Ingalls, 42, a soft-spoken, 14-year veteran of the district attorney's office. "She's a very calm, well-balanced, well-grounded individual," says a source in the DA's office. "You're not going to see any Marcia Clark-like flirting with the media." Markhasev's attorney, Henry Hall, 47, a well-regarded public defender who has represented many capital murder defendants, is similarly low-key. Asked his win-loss record, he says only, "None of my clients is on death row."

Prosecutors, in any event, announced early on that they would not seek the death penalty for Markhasev, an unsurprising decision, given his youth and limited criminal record, and the Cosby family, in a written statement, agreed with it.

Whatever the trial's outcome, the. Cosbys can take some comfort from the fact that, in the dignity of their grief, they may have provided inspiration to others. Loretta Thomas-Davis, for instance, has started a scholarship fund in the name of her daughter Corie. But she, no doubt like the Cosbys, will always feel the limits of solace. "You have this constant ache," says Thomas-Davis. "You feel like your heart is going to jump out of your chest. Your head hurts all the time. The pain doesn't go away."

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