'Boy genius,' father finally finding peace (2024)

Adragon De Mello, the once-famous child prodigy who earned a college degree at 11, looked at his father incarcerated at the Santa Cruz County Jail.

This was not the man he remembered, not the man he had feared. Agustin De Mello's hair had grown long and wild. He had stopped shaving. He slouched. He was 71 years old and dying of cancer.

Adragon, now 24, could barely picture him as the intimidating father who, more than a decade ago, pushed him into the Guinness Book of World Records as the youngest college graduate, who boasted that Adragon would win a Nobel Prize by age 16. He was not the same man who was held by police at gunpoint while the boy was wrenched away during a custody battle.

Now, his father looked like little more than a frail, old man.

During the past four months, Agustin De Mello's failing health and legal problems have thrust the two together again, giving them a chance to confront complex questions:

Can this exceptional son come to terms with his eccentric father and in the process with himself? And can a father who boasted that his son had the greatest mind since da Vinci reconcile expectations with reality?

Since police hauled Agustin De Mello to jail after a confrontation at his beachside home, Adragon has rearranged his life for his father, setting up hospice care, taking him to movies on Fridays and breakfast on Saturdays.

''He isn't going to be around a lot longer,'' Adragon said recently. ''He's not going to go out with things left unsaid between us.''

Adragon De Mello hasn't won a Nobel Prize. He lives with roommates in a small, rented house in Mountain View. His roommates call him the ''absent-minded professor'' when he loses his train of thought.

He's finally found a promising career in computers, a field he had resisted simply because it was the path he was supposed to take. For years, he had been drifting, first as a stock boy at Longs Drug store, then as a security guard. He worked his way up to assistant manager at a Kelly Moore Paint store.

This was not in his father's plan. But who could blame Adragon? Those early years were rough.

At 3, Adragon, so-named because he was born in the Chinese year of the dragon, was being drilled by his father in square and cube roots. 5, he was admitted into Mensa, a high-IQ society. Awake at night, he contemplated the boundaries of the universe and dreamed of building spaceships.

At 6, his father introduced him to an audience at World University in Ojai. The 4-foot-2-inch child with the pageboy haircut stood in front of a blackboard and explained math formulas, astrophysics and electromagnetics.

Agustin put his son on a fast track, enrolling him in college at 8 and insisting he stay up late studying. That left little time for childhood pleasures.

A neighbor finally taught him to ride a bike.

''An 8-year-old kid with training wheels; it was kind of embarrassing,'' said the neighbor, Dom Chirco.

Adragon earned a two-year degree from Cabrillo College at 10, then enrolled at the University of California, Santa Cruz as a computational mathematics major. He was quickly learning the Unix operating system and two programming languages.

But the pressure was taking its toll on Adragon: He cut classes and played on computers instead.

When he refused to do homework, Adragon remembers, his father would toss his desk over, throw dishes and yell, ''You'll grow up to be a gravedigger!''

Adragon doesn't recall his mother, Cathy Gunn, ever interfering with Agustin's plans for their son.

She finally got the courage to challenge Agustin three months after Adragon graduated from UC Santa Cruz in June 1988. Gunn told police she feared for her son. Authorities were told that Agustin had threatened suicide if Adragon didn't work harder -- a charge Agustin later denied.

On Sept. 19, 1988, just before Adragon and his father were to move to Florida to enroll in graduate school, police broke down the back door and held guns on Agustin.

He faced child endangerment charges that later were dropped. His son was sent to a foster home in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Worried that Agustin or the media might try to find Adragon, the child was disguised. His pageboy was cut short and his foster mother, Barbara Lockwood, suggested he change his distinctive name. He chose James, like James Bond.

Police tried to coax Adragon into helping them build a case against his father, but he refused.

''He had a strange feeling of loyalty to the man, some kind of love and affection,'' Lockwood said.

Despite the awkward circ*mstances, Adragon felt like a normal kid for the first time in years with the Lockwoods' two sons as playmates. Three months later, Lockwood told Adragon, now 12, he would be moving in with his mother in Sunnyvale and enrolling in seventh grade. He cried.

''Think of it this way, Jimmy. Your house got built backward,'' she said. ''You've got a great set of walls; you've got those diplomas. Now, you need a foundation.''

Adragon started school as James Gunn. Mental challenges held little allure. ''I just wanted to play,'' he said.

Through junior high and Homestead High School, he did the minimum work needed to pass, content with C's and an occasional D.

''I lost three years of my childhood and wanted them back,'' he said.

When he turned 18, Adragon, for the first time, had control of his life, but he felt ''scattered.''

He enrolled at Santa Clara University to get a master's degree in electrical engineering but quickly dropped out. He tried a few classes at De Anza College. Nothing clicked.

He took a job as a stock boy at Longs.

''I knew my father cared about me and loved me, but it was disappointment I'd see on his face and I hated that,'' Adragon said. ''It would have been a weight off my shoulders if he said, 'You're doing good things; I'm proud of you.' ''

But the words didn't come. And the bitterness grew.

On Jan. 16, 1996, Adragon De Mello read an entry in his mother's journal that mentioned his father's plans for Adragon's early college education even before birth. ''I lost it,'' Adragon said.

He wanted an answer to a question long suppressed: Why did his father steal his childhood?

Adragon headed to Santa Cruz, but no one was home. His eyes fixed on the living room wall, on his achievements that made his father proud -- the designation in the Guinness book, the honor society plaque, the photo of himself at 11 in cap and gown.

Frame by frame, he threw his fist through the glass and into the wall. He grabbed the two college diplomas he worked hard for and fled back to Sunnyvale.

Adragon returned to his father's house and, finally, the two sat down and talked.

Quietly, his father explained: He only wanted the best for his gifted son. And when his teachers didn't appreciate his talents and disciplined him, college seemed like a good solution and Adragon seemed eager.

Besides, Agustin said, having been abandoned as a child, he felt compelled to devote himself to his son. He didn't want Adragon to be a late bloomer, too.

''Maybe he pushed too hard, but the intentions were good,'' Adragon said. ''He kind of apologized in his own way. It was good enough for me.''

In late 1999, a softball league teammate offered Adragon De Mello a job in computers, putting him back on a career path his father would approve of.

Doing quality assurance work, his salary was modest by Silicon Valley standards. Hours were long, and visits to his father grew increasingly rare.

For Agustin, those visits and an annual vacation were not enough. When he was diagnosed with bladder cancer in April 2000 and given a year to live, his son's attention became even more important.

Their time together would soon increase dramatically.

Early on the morning of March 15, Agustin called the 411 information directory to get the phone number of the police department. He wanted to talk to a detective about why an officer had come to his door the previous day.

His call was automatically transferred to dispatch, where he was told to call back when the detective bureau opened.

''The problem is, I'm dying of cancer,'' he told her.

Even then, he talked about his son: ''He's very famous. He graduated from college at age 11. The doctor asked him to take care of me and he said he hasn't got the time.''

To the dispatcher, it sounded like a call for help from a lonely, perhaps suicidal, man -- and one they knew from experience owned guns. For the second time in 13 years, officers would surround the De Mello house.

What happened next was chaotic. Police say Agustin De Mello fired first through the closed front door. Agustin says he never fired. But police shot at the house and in the confusion, an officer was hit by shrapnel. Believing he was hit by Agustin's bullet, police stormed the house, crashing through the front windows. Agustin's face was smashed on the floor.

He was jailed for more than 40 days.

Adragon was allowed 30-minute visits with his father twice a week. He never missed one. At 6 feet 3, the 24-year-old towered over his father, haggard and slow on foot.

''I feel like I'm the father,'' Adragon said. ''He's the child and he's kind of helpless.''

Prosecutors, sure he was on the verge of death, agreed to have him released from jail. But his probation required someone to stay overnight to keep Agustin stable. Adragon signed up for two nights a week. Friends filled the other five nights.

During their time together, the two would talk about Adragon's baseball league, girlfriends and job. Adragon said he wanted something he never had -- a happy family of his own.

If he can afford it one day, he told his father, he would like to study astronomy again -- renewing his boyhood fascination.

Adragon has not yet become the superachiever his father expected; but still, late one night after a long talk, Agustin put his arms around his son, held him close and said, ''I'm proud of you.''

He holds hope that Adragon will achieve greatness despite what Agustin considers a squandered decade in his son's life.

''Today he'd be a member of a space team -- a professor -- that's what he lost,'' Agustin said. ''Now he's above the norm again, finally. He wants to do more than stare at a computer. He wants to study the universe. He's going to surprise a lot of people.''

Because of Agustin De Mello's failing health, the judge declared a mistrial last month on the one remaining charge he faced -- negligent discharge of a firearm. The judge added he didn't expect to take up the case again.

Agustin sleeps on a hospital bed in his living room. Hospice nurses visit. His breathing has stopped a few times. He is not bedridden, however, and can appear quite spry.

And he still manages to brag about and embarrass his modest son. At a recent breakfast at Gilda's on the Santa Cruz wharf, Agustin stopped a hostess and whispered: ''He graduated at 10 from college,'' a reference to his Cabrillo degree.

Adragon, his arm resting behind his father's seat, jabbed Agustin's back with his closed hand.

''There's somebody who doesn't know you, son,'' his father said, nudging back playfully. Adragon just rolled his eyes and shook his head.

PHOTO:FORGIVEN: ''I knew my father cared about me and loved me, but it was disappointment I'd see on his face and I hated that,'' says once-famous child prodigy Adragon De Mello about his father, now 71 and dying of cancer. (KRT photo

'Boy genius,' father finally finding peace (2024)
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