Date: 1981-11-22


A POLICE officer who dissuaded a homeless 17-year-old youth from jumping to his death will go to court Friday in an effort to win permanent custody of the young man.

''He said that no one cared, that he was about to give up on life,'' the officer, William Fox, said recently as he recalled how he stopped Michael Buchanan from jumping. ''I told him that I cared and would try to help him.''

In the weeks since then, life has changed drastically for the young man, who was brought up in foster homes, detention centers and orphanages.

For one thing, the 35-year-old unmarried officer received temporary custody of the youth. And, as word of the case spread, hundreds of cards and letters to Mr. Fox and his ward began pouring in from wellwishers across the country, including President Reagan.

''I never thought it would mushroom the way it has,'' Michael said as he sat in the living room of the home in Stapleton, Staten Island, that he shares with Mr. Fox and the officer's widowed mother. ''I've met a lot of people who care, and it's fantastic.''

The young man, who was born in Texas and brought up in Tennessee, was abandoned by his mother when he was 2 years old, he said, and has not seen his father for eight years. Time and again, he said, he would run away from foster homes or institutions, and time and again be returned.

''Everyone told me to head for New York, because it's a big city and people care,'' Michael said. ''I wanted a job and a new place to rest my feet.''

The young man arrived in Manhattan in late August and found a temporary job as a window washer in a restaurant, where he was given meals instead of a salary. He checked into a $3.25-a-night Bowery rooming house.

Six days later, he said, ''I didn't know what to do. I had no clothing except what I was wearing. I had no money and I couldn't find a job. I was scared, and I guess I just gave up.''

At 10 P.M. on Sept. 1, Michael climbed out on a sixth-floor ledge of the rooming house and dangled his feet over the side. He was, he admits now, not sure what he was going to do.

Within minutes, passers-by had spotted him and called the police. Officer Fox was among the first to reach the scene. ''I got him to keep talking as I moved closer and closer,'' he recalled. ''At one point, when I was within 30 feet of him, spectators yelled for him to jump.''

'' 'See, I'm a statistic,' '' Officer Fox remembers Michael saying. '' 'Nobody cares. Just listen to them.' '' ''Lots of kids in the city are street-wise,'' the policeman said, ''but this kid didn't seem to fit that category. There was something about him. That's when I made a commitment to help.''

Ninety minutes after he got there, Officer Fox lunged at the boy, caught him, put him in handcuffs and took him to Bellevue Hospital for observation. Although his involvement could have ended at that point, it didn't. He and his partner, Officer Barry Gorman, visited the boy at Bellevue later that night.

''Michael kept saying that he wanted to finish his education,'' Officer Fox recalled, ''so my partner and I decided to establish a trust fund for that purpose.''

He and Officer Gorman contributed $20 each. Today, the fund exceeds $3,000. ''The answer seemed to be to find Michael another foster home or institution,'' Officer Fox said, ''but I couldn't see that, especially after what he'd been through. I thought that if I could get temporary custody, I could give him a room and send him to high school on Staten Island.''

Judge Holt Meyer of Family Court on Staten Island agreed, and on Oct. 7 cut through red tape to give Officer Fox temporary custody. After the court appearance, Mr. Fox returned home, spruced up a spare room with football banners and pictures and then drove to Bellevue and signed Michael out. A few days later, he enrolled him at Curtis High School on Staten Island.

''I've met a lot of kids in school,'' Michael said, ''and already I have a lot of friends.'' He has joined the school's bowling team and is on the staff of the school newspaper. Despite the changes, Officer Fox said, his daily routine is not that different because ''I've been involved with kids for years.'' For the last 14 years, he has been scoutmaster of Troop 85, which is affiliated with St. Sylvester's Roman Catholic Church in the Concord section of Staten Island. An Eagle Scout himself, he has enrolled Michael in an Explorer Post for which he is an adviser.

''Sure,'' Officer Fox said, ''the publicity's nice, but now we have to return to reality and do what we did before it all started.'' On Thursday, Mr. Fox will be the host at a traditional Thanksgiving dinner for his two brothers - they also are policemen - and his sister, who is married to a police officer.

''And,'' said Michael, ''I'll be there, too. Now I've got a real family and a home.''


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