SEPT. 12, 1986, SHORTLY AFTER 4 P.M. Two seventh-graders, Richard Bourassa and Jeffrey Bush, are playing after school. They are alone in the den of Richard's Anaheim Hills home, a pair of 13-year-olds training loaded guns on each other. The barrels touch. Suddenly, Richard later tells police, the 12-gauge shotgun in his arms goes off, spraying the room with buckshot. One pellet pierces the door. Another shatters the window. And several riddle Jeffrey's body and head.
The sweet-faced boy crumples to the carpet, his blood turning it a satin red. As squad cars scream into the cul-de-sac, neighbors gathering in the driveway gaze at the upstairs window where Richard, covered with blood, is sobbing on the phone to a police dispatcher, who is trying to calm him down. He tells arriving Anaheim officers that Jeffrey had loaded the gun that would kill him, that he doesn't know how. There are no witnesses. Police rule the death accidental.
May 24, 1990. Same hour, same room. Richard, now 17, has killed again.
Richard told the story to police this way: After rummaging through his house, 17-year-old Christian Wiedepuhl, a reedy strawberry-blond, finds a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver stored in the headboard of Richard's parents' bed, Richard, a husky, brown-haired high-school wrestler, confronts Christian in the doorway of the den and takes the pistol away. As Christian kneels to retrieve the holster that's dropped to the floor, the gun in Richard's hand fires. A single bullet hits Christian above the right eyebrow; the force is so great that it knocks out the lens of his glasses. The boy lies in a pool of blood as Richard calls police.
His story this time has an eerie echo: My friend got out the gun; it was not my fault. This time, however, Richard H. Bourassa Jr. is a suspect. And he knows it.
"My God," he asks the police dispatcher, "will I be in trouble for this?"
Today, nine months later, Bourassa, now 18, waits in Orange County Jail for his trial on murder charges to begin next month at the Santa Ana courthouse across the street.
That he shot and killed his teen-age friend is not uncommon. On average, one child is accidentally shot to death every day in the United States; for every child killed, 10 are seriously wounded. Last spring, in Orange County alone, three teen-agers died in accidental shootings in one month's time. But the death of Christian Wiedepuhl was particularly astonishing. How, voices of outrage asked, could a boy who had mortally wounded someone 3 1/2 years earlier pick up a gun again? Had the first shooting been dismissed too lightly? Was young Richard a cold-blooded killer obsessed with firearms, or just hideously unlucky?
Other than in interviews with police, Richard, his parents and sisters have refused to discuss the case. His lawyer, Edward W. Hall, says his client is consumed with grief and remorse. Richard, Hall says, is not some sort of psychopath; he is simply a victim of an extraordinary coincidence. Not even the deputy district attorney prosecuting the case seems convinced that Bourassa meant to gun down his friend, instead suggesting that Richard tried to frighten Christian with a backward form of Russian roulette and misjudged when the loaded chamber would come up.
But interviews and court testimony indicate that Bourassa and his friends were no strangers to guns and seemed more nonchalant than awed by them. Three friends testified at Bourassa's preliminary hearing in November that he had pointed guns at them while "playing around," in the words of one. The most chilling account came in an interview with a fourth boy, Bourassa's best friend.
"Sometimes he'd point the gun at the wall. A few times he had it pointed at my head. I was scared," the 16-year-old friend said softly. "He was, you know, fooling around."
Did Richard ever say anything while aiming the gun at him?
"Yeah," the buddy recalled. "He'd say, 'Do you trust me? Do you trust me?' "
AN ESTIMATED 60 MILLION AMERICANS own guns, and it is not unusual to find firearms stashed in the closets and night stands of suburbia, including Bourassa's middle-class neighborhood, where many families say they keep weapons for self-defense. The Washington-based Center to Prevent Handgun Violence maintains that almost 60% of the people who keep loaded guns in their homes do not secure them with locks, and by law they are not required to.
That was the case in Richard's home. Two months after Jeffrey Bush died, Richard's stepfather, Thomas J. Baldwin, drove to the Anaheim police station, collected the 12-gauge shotgun and .22-caliber rifle and took them home. When Baldwin was a child, his grandfather had taught him how to shoot them; Baldwin testified at Richard's preliminary hearing that he is sentimentally attached to the weapons. (In a 1979 divorce settlement, he asked that only a few items be excluded from community property: a violin and his guns.) He wanted the guns, he said, for protection. He kept them out of sight but not locked up.