LIFE OF CHILD HAS BECOME A NIGHTMARE

Published: Sunday, Aug. 12 1990 12:00 a.m. MDT

Cameron Kocher dreams of death and dinosaurs.

In one dream, an old man dies, only to rise from his grave the next day to buy ice cream for Cameron. In another, two dinosaurs fight in a courtroom - a judge dinosaur in a tuxedo, and a lawyer dinosaur.If these dreams are somehow jarring, there is a reason. Cameron Kocher does not lead a normal life; he is charged with killing a 7-year-old girl.

Cameron Kocher is 11 years old.

Cameron was six weeks shy of his 10th birthday on March 6, 1989. Snow had fallen that day, and school was canceled.

Jessica and Crystal Carr took advantage of the unexpected vacation to visit the six children of Richard and Trudy Ratti. Cameron was there, too; he lived next door, and his parents had left for work early.

Cameron, stocky and sandy-haired, often played Nintendo at the Ratti house. He didn't have his own game at home.

On this day, the kids played "Spy Hunter"; Brian Ratti, then 12, said 7-year-old Jessica bragged to Cameron, "I got my own Nintendo. Now I can get further than you. I beat the dragon."

The game ended when Richard Ratti pulled the plug because the kids had left dirty cups and bowls in the room. Cameron was annoyed - "He said he didn't leave any of the bowls and cups in there," the father recalled.

The other children went out to ride the snowmobiles. Brian Ratti asked Cameron if he wanted to ride and he replied, "My mom and dad won't let me."

Prosecutors say Cameron returned home angry, unlocked his father's gun cabinet with a key he took from a secret hiding place in the bottom of a lamp, pulled out a high-powered hunting rifle and loaded it with the correct ammunition, selected from several different types.

Investigators said he took the screen out of a second-story window and fired into the Rattis' yard 100 yards away.

Shannon Ratti said she did not hear the shot. She and Jessica, best friends, were riding a single snowmobile, with Shannon at the front.

"All of a sudden she started leaning against me. I asked her not to and she kept leaning. Suddenly I figured something must be wrong with her," Shannon said.

She turned to face a suddenly grotesque figure. "Her eyes were rolled way back into her head," Shannon said.

The bullet had torn through the middle of Jessica's back, propelling her forward. Within minutes her short life was ended.

The Rattis and the Carrs didn't know what was going on at first. They thought a gunman might be loose in the neighborhood, and Richard Ratti telephoned Cameron to get back to the Ratti house so he wouldn't be alone.

When Cameron returned to the house the other children were crying as Jessica lay mortally wounded in the living room. Brian Ratti said Cameron remarked, "If you don't think about it, you won't feel bad."

Then he went back to playing Nintendo, Jessica's mother said.

What to do with an 11-year-old killer?

Could this boy of impeccable background, education and manners - never before in trouble, admired by teacher, minister, Cub Scout leader - kill out of vindictiveness, the implied motive?

Could this even-tempered boy who, it is said, never struck out at anybody, understand the magnitude and finality of such a deed? Or was it "all just a terrible mistake," as a state police investigator quoted him as saying.

Cameron initially lied to state police, telling them he had been sleeping when the shooting occurred. He gave two different versions of how he cut his forehead; it was later determined he was cut when the rifle's scope kicked back.

His explanations of what happened on that winter day have varied. Dr. Harris Rabinovich, a child psychiatrist, testified for the prosecution that Cameron told him he was playing hunter and the rifle discharged.

But Dr. Martha Turnberg, the treating psychiatrist, testified for the defense that Cameron told her he was looking through the scope at the trees and snow and he did not see any children. He denied intentionally firing the gun.

Under Pennsylvania law, a murder charge must be filed in regular Criminal Court. A child between the ages of 7 and 14 is presumed incapable of committing a crime. But the prosecutor, Mark P. Pazuhanich, said he is ready to present evidence to overcome that presumption.

The trial judge, Ronald E. Vican, denied a defense motion to transfer the case to Juvenile Court, where real confinement likely would be avoided and there would be no adult criminal record. Vican said it was a "deliberate and willful killing" and that Cameron shows no remorse.

Cameron's attorney appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, arguing that the boy is innocent because of his age, that he is unable to understand the charges against him and is not competent to stand trial.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed in June to hear arguments, probably by the end of this year, on whether Cameron should be tried as an adult in Criminal Court or as a child in Juvenile Court.

Although it is unlikely, Cameron could face a mandatory life sentence if he is convicted of first-degree murder. The prosecutor said that he will not decide until the approach of any trial whether to seek a first-degree conviction.

But he said at the very least he will seek a third-degree conviction. Sentencing would be largely within the discretion of the trial judge, ranging from probation at home to long-term confinement.

A public trial as opposed to closed proceedings in Juvenile Court could be devastating for Cameron, said Dr. Marshall Schechter, a defense psychiatrist who examined the boy.

Schechter found Cameron suffering from depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a delayed trauma associated mainly with Vietnam veterans whose symptoms include anxiety and difficulty in relationships.

Over time, he said, Cameron could become suicidal. Oppressed by fears that others would hate him for what he had done, he might have trouble making friends; last year, the boy attended private school under an assumed name.

After the shooting, Cameron withdrew, wanting to hang around the house, ashamed and fearful of going into stores, needing to be close to his mother to the point where he would sit on her lap. Mrs. Kocher said her son was frightened and cried about the possibility of being taken away.

His sleep was restless, interrupted by those unsettling dreams.

Turnberg said Cameron is sad about Jessica's death. "As far as remorse meaning he accepts responsibility that he intentionally caused her death, no. He doesn't understand or accept the fact that he fired the shot that killed her except in so far as what other people have told him."

Cameron's is not the only life that lies in ruins.

Cameron's parents, Keith and Patricia Kocher, also are victims. They are working-class folks - he is a laborer, she a seamstress. They took a second mortgage on their raised ranch home and spent the $25,000 they had scraped together for Cameron's education for his defense.

They put up their home as security for Cameron's $50,000 bail.

Jessica's parents have since divorced. Her father, Claude Carr, retreated to his native Maine to seek solace. Her mother, Donna, withdrew into a new home and a new life with her share of $300,000 from the Kochers' insurance company. She cries at the memory of Jessica and fled into the house in tears when a reporter mentioned her name.

The Ratti children no longer play in the yard where Jessica was killed; they moved in May.

Richard Ratti said his marriage nearly collapsed amid the stress and the press coverage. Ratti himself faces charges that he fired a shotgun though a door of a home where his wife had gone last Oct. 31.

His children are so unnerved that their schoolwork suffered. "My son's 13. He wouldn't go down and see his dog after dark."

"They couldn't sleep at night," said Ratti's wife, Trudy. "They were waking up by nightmares. Shannon thinks about it a lot. She'll never really be the same ever again from it . . . She knows how close she came to dying, too."

Shannon, now 14, is filled with guilt. What if she had speeded up the snowmobile? Or slowed down? Or stopped? Could she have dodged the bullet?

"I didn't want to hurt her," she cried.

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