August 27, 2001 12:00 PM

For the past eight weeks, Jorge Cruz Jr.’s grandparents, up from the Mexican city of Orizaba, have been using his bedroom during an extended, unplanned stay. Located in the back of his family’s small, ground-floor apartment in a blue-collar neighborhood in central Los Angeles, Jorge Jr.’s room is simply furnished. On a dresser are his stuffed toys—lion, bear, giraffe—sharing space with his computer, typical possessions of a 9-year-old boy. “All his things,” says paternal grandfather Elpidio Cruz, 57. “It’s as if he’s coming right back.”

But Jorge Jr., a determined student who dreamed of growing up to be a pro soccer player, will never return, and now his working-class Mexican-immigrant parents find themselves engaged in a lawsuit with a young Hollywood star they had never heard of until two months ago. At 2:40 p.m. on June 13, as the third-grader was crossing Bronson Avenue, he was struck by a 1996 Jeep Grand Cherokee driven by 29-year-old Rebecca Gayheart, best known as a Noxzema girl and Luke Perry’s bride on the 1995 season of Beverly Hills, 90210. Jorge Jr. was dead by the next morning, and since then his mother, a homemaker with two young daughters, says she has suffered temporary facial paralysis from her grief and distress. “He was my little friend,” says Silvia Martinez, 33, speaking in Spanish in the hotel room where the family, desperate for some quiet space, has been hidden by their lawyer. Her common-law husband, Jorge Cruz, 32, who came with Silvia from Orizaba to L.A. in 1996 and juggles two jobs as a busboy, says he cries only when alone. “I have to stay strong for her and the girls [Jessica, 2, and Gissel, 7 months]. I worry about Silvia.”

Those close to Gayheart say the actress has been devastated as well. On Aug. 6 Cruz and Martinez filed a wrongful-death suit for as yet unspecified damages against Gayheart. The SUV’s owner, Italian actor Marco Leonardi, 29, a friend who costarred with Gayheart in a 1999 horror movie, From Dusk Till Dawn 3: The Hangman’s Daughter, is also being sued. But the lawsuit, filed in L.A. Superior Court, “isn’t what’s weighing on her mind,” says producer-director Kevin Williamson, who cast Gayheart in a short-lived 1999 ABC series, Wasteland. “The child is.”

Gayheart remains “emotionally distraught,” says her friend and former fiancé, Rush Hour 2 director Brett Ratner, 32, whom she called to her small Hollywood house several hours after the accident. “She’s suffering.” Her parents, Curtis Gayheart, 57, a coal miner from Pine Top, Ky., and wife Floneva, 53, a homemaker, recently visited to offer their support. “She’s not sleeping, she’s not eating, she’s lost weight,” Curtis says. “I’ve not seen her smile.” In her only public statement about the accident, released Aug. 7, Gayheart said, “The pain of this tragedy will live with me forever.” However, the statement also noted, “Despite the allegations in the lawsuit, the facts will establish that this was a most unfortunate accident.”

Both sides disagree about exactly what led to the tragedy; the results of an ongoing LAPD investigation are still pending. On the morning of June 13, his mother recalls, Jorge Jr. dressed himself neatly in a crisp blue shirt, blue shorts and blue sneakers. She guided him across Bronson Avenue, a busy two-lane street on which the family’s apartment borders, and walked with him the remaining four blocks to Grant Elementary School. “Before I left him,” she says, “he said he’d save his lunch dessert for me.”

Normally Martinez would have been there again at 2:30, waiting on Bronson as Jorge Jr. came home. But she was delayed at a clinic where her daughters were being vaccinated. Jorge Jr., negotiating the street by himself 160 ft. from the nearest intersection, began to cross. According to police reports, several cars stopped for him. But coming up behind them—allegedly driving 40-plus mph in a 25-mph zone, according to the police—was Gayheart, heading to her own home in Leonardi’s SUV because her car was in the shop. (The parents’ lawyer Steven Lerman alleges that Gayheart was talking on a cell phone; the actress’s attorney Marty Singer adamantly denies that and says there is proof to the contrary.) Instead of stopping, says the police account, Gayheart moved left into the turning lane, passed the other vehicles and struck Jorge Jr. directly across from his apartment building.

Brett Ratner says that Gayheart later told him she “immediately got out and knelt down next to the boy until the paramedics came. She was the first person to say, ‘Call an ambulance.’ ” Jorge Jr. had already been taken to Childrens Hospital Los Angeles by the time his father, walking home after work, noticed the accident. “As I got closer,” Cruz says, “I saw my son’s blood-soaked blue shirt on the street. Then I saw one of his sneakers and, further on, the other one.”

Silvia Martinez, notified by relatives after arriving home, raced to join her husband at the hospital. She found Jorge Jr. on the verge of being brain dead, with internal bleeding beneath the skull. “It was horrible,” she says, “all the tubes, his head and left shoulder swollen.” Meanwhile Gayheart was at her house, phoning the hospital, leaving messages with the family through a Spanish-speaking social worker. “She was hysterical,” says Ratner, “saying, ‘Is there anything I can do?’ ” Sadly, there was not. The boy was pronounced dead at 9:10 a.m. the next day.

As the parents set the date of the Catholic funeral for June 23, giving Mexican relatives time to obtain emergency visas, Gayheart offered them $10,000 to cover burial expenses. Although the cash-strapped couple accepted, Cruz says now, “maybe she thought the money would take care of our pain. All we really wanted was our son back.” When Gayheart also asked to attend the service, Martinez reluctantly consented. But the actress was not among the 200 relatives and friends who paid respects to the boy, laid out in the uniform of his favorite Mexican soccer team, Cruz Azul. She stayed away, says attorney Marty Singer, because “there may have been people there who would be angry with her.” For weeks now, says Ratner, she has been composing a letter to express her sorrow. “It’s very beautiful,” he says, “very emotional.”

Lerman, the lawyer for Jorge’s parents (and briefly for Rodney King in his 1991 suit against the LAPD), says he believes the police investigation of the accident will ultimately lead to a misdemeanor charge of vehicular manslaughter against the actress. Gayheart’s lawyer dismisses the possibility of any criminal charge as hypothetical. Whatever the legal outcome, says Lerman, the parents “don’t want her to go to jail. They’re not that kind of people.” Says Cruz: “We just want justice. We don’t want this tragedy to happen to others.” No doubt Gayheart, even if innocent of any wrongdoing, would agree.

Tom Gliatto

Ron Arias, NF Mendoza and Valerie O’Barr in Los Angeles

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