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California and the West

Town Mourns Slain 9-Year-Old

Funeral: Large crowd in Oroville recalls Matthew Cecchi as 'something special.' He was killed in Oceanside restroom.

November 25, 1998|ERIC BAILEY and TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

OROVILLE, Calif. — Ten days ago he was just another 9-year-old boy, known only to family, friends, classmates. But on Tuesday, more than 450 people came to say a final goodbye to Matthew Cecchi, the little boy murdered Nov. 14 in a beachside restroom in Oceanside.

Packed inside St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church and an adjoining hall, mourners didn't try to make sense of the crime to which a 20-year-old drifter has confessed. Instead, they remembered the third-grader who loved playing with Legos, the Little Leaguer who hit his team's first home run, the boy who never had a chance to grow into his gaptoothed grin.

"We all sensed he was something special," the boy's uncle, Brian Lilley, told the gathering. "His death has become larger than his life. . . . But we must take this tragedy and build something better on it."

While he and others fought tears, one overwhelmed woman had to be helped out of the church, wailing uncontrollably. Funeral officials later identified her as Matthew's aunt, who had escorted him to the Oceanside Harbor restroom during a family reunion and waited outside. She discovered Matthew bleeding to death after his throat was slashed. She saw the assailant flee and later identified him.

"Nothing we do today can help us make sense of this tragedy," Father Troy Powers said during the 90-minute service. "Nothing Matt experienced 10 days ago can destroy the bond of love you shared with him."

Except for a prayerful plea to "forgive those who trespass against us," not a word was uttered about Brandon Wilson, the man who confessed to the murder.

In San Diego County, a judge on Tuesday ordered Wilson to undergo a psychological evaluation to see if he is mentally competent to stand trial for murder.

Prosecutors have alleged special circumstances--murder by ambush and murder by torture--that could lead to the death penalty. Last week, Wilson interrupted his arraignment by blurting out, "I'm guilty. I did it. I killed that little boy" and insisting that he did not need an attorney.

At his second court appearance, Wilson stood silently in chains and shackles, speaking only when the judge asked if he wanted to keep his attorney. "Yes, I do," he said.

A competency hearing was set for Dec. 18, to include the results of an evaluation by a court-appointed psychologist. If found incompetent for trial, Wilson could be sent to Patton State Hospital in San Bernardino for treatment until he is fit for trial. Wilson is being kept without bail in a psychiatric cell in a San Diego jail.

Wilson's public defender, Curt Owen, told the court that he has reason to believe that Wilson "is not or may not be competent to stand trial." Owen said medical records show that Wilson was "tossed through a windshield" in a car accident several years ago and may have suffered a head injury.

Deputy Dist. Atty. David Rubin said he has uncovered no documented mental illness in Wilson's background.

Outside court Tuesday, Wilson's uncle read a statement from the family: "Our deepest sympathies go out to the Cecchi family. We hope they will accept them."

Matthew's father, Lou, has in recent days called for Wilson to be executed. However, the boy's parents did not speak publicly at the funeral.

After the church service, one mourner advocated that the Legislature pass a law eliminating any stalling tactics by defendants who have admitted their crime during a court hearing.

"I think our justice system should be streamlined just to handle this sort of case," said George Menas, a family friend. Jeff Kearney, the boy's baseball coach, said the entire community is angry. "It was a senseless killing. I hope the punishment fits the crime."

Kearney, whose 6-year-old son stood beside him wearing a White Sox baseball cap adorned with a yellow ribbon in memory of his teammate, said Matthew was "a great kid, very enthusiastic." He remembered how Matt hit the team's first--and ultimately only--home run of the season. "He was so excited he almost passed the kid on base in front of him."

Lilley, the uncle, recalled how proud Matt was to get straight A's, his "extraordinary honesty" and inquisitiveness about God. He also talked about the intricate Lego creations the boy would make, invariably to be knocked down by his 3-year-old brother, Nick.

"I'm sure Matt is now building the ultimate Lego castle," Lilley said, adding, "Don't worry, Matt. Nickie won't break this one."

Toward the end of the service, several of the boy's classmates from Stanford Elementary School stood and performed a version of his favorite song: "You Are My Sunshine."

"He truly was a bright, shining ray of sunshine," the boy's teacher said before they started. A classmate added: "Matt was a friend of ours. We thought of him as a brother."

More than a dozen young voices then echoed through the whitewashed walls of the church, concluding the final verses with a personal note. "You'll always know, Matt, how much we love you," they sang. "In our hearts, your light still shines."

Bailey reported from Oroville; Perry reported from San Diego.

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