Jeff Jardine

A Year Without Answers

OAKDALE — They will never have closure. That's a convenient comfort word for others who have never been through having a child murdered.

Nancy and Bob Ross will never be at peace with the fact someone stabbed their son, 28-year-old Joey Ross, to death along Oakdale's main street in the wee hours one year ago Thursday.

They're living a family's worst nightmare. Their son was slain and they still don't know who killed him or why. The case remains unsolved and is getting colder by the day.

"Nothing can ever compare to this," Nancy Ross said. "Nothing ever prepares you for this. When you lose a child, you mourn the past, the present and the future that you have been denied."

They can only imagine the horror of the attack and the pain he must have felt as his life ebbed in a carport a few blocks from his Oakdale apartment, and Nancy Ross often replays in her memory the phone calls he made to her in the minutes before he died.

It is that vivid, every day.

Joey Ross and his dad co-owned the The Dugout sports bar on Yosemite Avenue, near the town's main intersection. The bar was closed on July 4. But with the privileges of ownership, Joey and some friends went there anyway to hang out and have a few drinks in the evening.

Joey, who long endured bouts of anxiety, left the bar about 1:30 a.m. on the 5th. He used his cell phone to call his mom three times as he walked along F Street toward his apartment at the west end of town. The first call came from near the new community center and the second from a used car lot just down the street, Nancy Ross said.

Joey made the third call near the USA gas station, and he was clearly worried, she said.

"He was panicking, saying, 'Come and get me,'" she said.

That, alone, convinced longtime defense attorney Martha Carlton and her husband, attorney Ramon Magaña — Joey's godparents — that he didn't know his killer or killers.

"If he knew who it was, he'd have said something to her (Nancy)," Carlton said.

Nancy Ross drove around looking for him, with no luck. He didn't answer his phone.

At 5:30 a.m., his body was discovered in a carport on the 500 block of West F Street. He'd been stabbed three times, once through the aorta. Police found his cell phone next to him on the carport floor.

They've turned up no solid leads or eyewitnesses. Tips that once came frequently have dwindled over time, Oakdale police Detective Dan Taylor said. And investigators remain secretive about what they have learned because any information they release tells a possible suspect too much about what they know, Taylor said. That often means not sharing information with the family, which he finds frustrating since he's been through this as well. Two of Taylor's uncles were murdered.

"The (Rosses) understand the law and why we can't say certain things," Taylor said. "We understand why they ask."

In the meantime, the family has endured the kinds of speculation that surfaces when any young man — especially one who owns a bar — is murdered.

"It was rumored that the bar was a gang hangout," Bob Ross said. "We had a rule, and my son initiated the rule: Any gang colors, and you were asked to leave. And there were rumors floating around that Joey was associated with drugs, and he wasn't. He had been drinking that night."

Remembering a well-loved man

These rumors contradict the Joey they knew: a funny and generous young man who helped out people in need, and would give the homeless coats that were abandoned at the bar.

The Dugout was for sale even before Joey died, Bob Ross said. It sold a few months later, and is now called The Battered Beaver.

"We walked out the door Nov. 17, 2006," he said.

The Rosses refuse to quit looking for Joey's killer.

"It's extraordinary to us that there hasn't been a solution," Bob Ross said. "We're not going to give up. We're going to keep on this until the end. I believe there was a witness and they have to have the courage to speak up. There must be a fear factor not to speak up."

The Rosses hired a private investigator and created a Web site (www.joeyrosstips.com).

Carlton, who has defended numerous murder suspects, said being so close to the Rosses has given her a deeper understanding of how victims' families feel as well as realizing how little information they receive as an investigation proceeds.

Both retired, the Rosses dedicate their time to mining the city and its residents for information that might shed some light on Joey's murder.

"It's so hard to get past the way he died so that we can celebrate the way he lived," Carlton said.

No matter how it happened or who did it, Joey Ross' murder has left a void in their lives, and even the answers — the truth — won't ease their pain.

"I don't think I'll ever get over his passing," said his brother, Michael Ross. "I know my parents and grandparents and his close friends will not, either. Joey was taken away from us in the worst way possible."

Said Nancy Ross, "It is a constant process of learning to accept the unacceptable."

Which might be as close as they'll ever get to closure.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or 578-2383.

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