FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — A teenager on trial for the savage kicking and stomping attack on a 15-year-old girl was so deeply affected from witnessing his older brother's suicide that his grades nosedived and he showed classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, a psychologist testified for the boy's defense Wednesday.
Dr. Phil Heller said 17-year-old Wayne Treacy suffered flashbacks, anger outbursts, trouble sleeping, depression and a drop in grades that did not befit a boy whose IQ tests and gifted-level grades showed he was "extremely bright" in all the years before the suicide. Heller said Treacy also had difficulty controlling increasingly strong emotions.
"He may scream. He may hit the wall. He just has to deal with these feelings that are coming up from inside of him," Heller testified about the PTSD diagnosis. "It can create suicide. It can cause homicide. It can be very distressing."
Treacy is claiming innocence by reason of insanity in the March 16, 2010, attack on Josie Lou Ratley, who nearly died and suffered permanent brain injuries from at least five heavy blows to her skull with steel-toed boots. Although Ratley has made great strides in her recovery, she did not testify in the trial.
The attack happened after the two exchanged taunting and insulting text messages, culminating with one from Ratley telling Treacy to "go visit your dead brother."
Treacy's brother, Michael Bell, committed suicide at age 30 by hanging himself from a churchyard tree on Oct. 10, 2009 — only two days after Treacy's 15th birthday and an event that Treacy witnessed. Heller described the much older Bell as a father figure who provided the support Treacy needed.
"Michael was his whole world. He gave him a direction," Heller said. He added that Treacy tried not to talk about the suicide but found himself frequently distracted from routine tasks.
"It's an altered state of consciousness. You feel like you're watching the life on TV. You're not part of life. You're outside of it," he testified.
Just before resting the state's case, prosecutor Maria Schneider read for jurors a series of texts from Treacy to Ratley and to other friends describing what he was about to do.
Treacy made several death threats to Ratley such as "''Watch how much you laugh when I strangle the life out of you. Today, you die, slut."
Seeming to treat it all as a big joke, Ratley texted back, "OK, I'll be waiting. So when are you so called gonna kill me? Or will it be a surprise, huh?"
A few minutes later, Treacy texted a friend to say he was going to jail for murder. The friend asked how Treacy planned to do it, and he responded this way: "Snap her neck and stomp her skull. Fastest way I can think of."
Treacy and Ratley had never met before that day, but Ratley had allowed her 13-year-old friend Kayla Manson to use her phone to communicate with Treacy. Manson later helped Treacy find Ratley at the Deerfield Beach Middle School bus loop. Now 15, she has been charged as an accessory to attempted murder and faces trial in juvenile court in August.
A Broward County Sheriff's Office computer forensic technician also testified Wednesday that searches under Treacy's user profile the night before the attack indicated that someone typed into Google the words "how to commit murder" and "how to kill someone." That evidence might indicate that Treacy was already predisposed to commit such a crime before he ever began the text exchange with Ratley.
But defense attorney Elias Hilal asked the technician, Jeanne Burtnett, if she could tell with certainty who conducted those searches.
"I can only tell you it was done under the Wayne profile," Burtnett said.
Treacy faces up to 50 years in prison if convicted of attempted first-degree murder. If acquitted because of insanity, legal experts say he would like spend years in a state mental hospital.
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