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A troubled mind, a gun and a family tragedy

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It was Valentine’s Day — Friday, Feb. 14, 1964 — and after school a classmate of Laurie Cox’s went to Laurie’s house in Falls Church to deliver a card. She knocked on the door but got no response.

Then Laurie’s father came up the walk. Thomas Cox was principal at Thomas Jefferson Elementary. He promised to deliver the Valentine, then unlocked the door of 421 Carolyn Dr. — a three-bedroom rambler in the Sleepy Hollow neighborhood — and went in. Resting on the floor was another Valentine.

Cox and his wife, Judith, had four children: Laurie, 11, who went to Willston Elementary (“an ‘A’ student,” the press would report); Daniel, 14, a freshman at J.E.B. Stuart High School; Joel, 2, whom the family called “Jody”; and the baby, Timothy, who was 4 months old.

Cox hung up his coat. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted Daniel — “Danny” — lying on the kitchen floor.

“Very logical explanations jump into mind for the most ridiculous situations at such times,” Cox told a Washington Post reporter a week later. “I recalled immediately that Danny had fallen out of bed some years ago and knocked himself out. He did the same thing later by running into a tree.”

Perhaps Danny had bumped into a cabinet door, his father surmised.

Cox called out, but there was no answer.

Neighbors had seen Judith leave the house in the morning. She walked to the Montgomery Ward store at Seven Corners and went to the sporting goods department. She showed her driver’s license, proving that she was at least 21 — a store policy — and bought a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver and some ammunition. She filled out a form indicating that the gun was for “home protection.” Then she walked home.

Judith had been “depressed,” but that word hardly seems sufficient to describe her condition. She had been hospitalized for two months the previous year at a private Baltimore infirmary. After that, she was admitted to the veterans hospital in Perry Point, Md., for psychiatric treatment. (Judith was a former WAVE.) She was released to give birth to Timothy.

Some thought that Judith Cox was suffering from postpartum depression, but her mental illness, a friend noted, seemed to date from further back, to the Cuban missile crisis.

“She suffered from a great deal of anxiety over the threat of an atomic war, like so many other women,” Alice Heyl Kiessling, a neighbor and psychiatrist, told The Post.

Another psychiatrist said Judith Cox probably had feelings of “hopelessness, guilt and self-reproach,” along with a need to punish herself.

Psychiatrists stressed that she did not hate her children. She most likely saw them as an extension of herself. If she needed punishment, then it was inevitable that they did, too. Or maybe, as others said, she was just afraid of being institutionalized again.

In any event, she was a very sick woman who had just bought a gun.

She shot the two younger children first — in two bedrooms, the baby resting in a red, plaid baby seat, Jody lying on his parents’ bed — then locked the bedroom doors with them inside.

Judith Cox waited for the two older children to come home from school. Laurie must have come home first. She was seated at a desk in her bedroom, sorting Valentines, when her mother came in and shot her. Then Danny came home; he didn’t make it past the kitchen.

Thomas Cox enjoyed smoking a pipe. Judith was allergic to the smoke, so he would go to the basement, settle into an aluminum patio rocker and puff away. That’s where Judith went. In her left hand were three notes scrawled on the backs of envelopes. In her right hand was the snub-nosed Smith & Wesson.

She raised it to her head and pulled the trigger.

After Thomas realized that Danny hadn’t just bumped into a cupboard, he broke down the door to the master bedroom and found Jody’s body. As a horrible reality dawned on him, he ran outside and then to a neighbor’s. He returned to the house and went from room to room, learning the enormity of what had happened.

He called the rescue squad. “Send five ambulances,” he said. “My whole family is dead.”

Wednesday: After the tragedy, a community ponders what to do.

To read previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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