Victim of fatal shooting was autistic
Evansville Courier & Press - 5/15/2017
May 14--It wasn't surprising to Darrin Ocke that his son was talking to a friend on a cell phone when his life was cut short by a single bullet through his heart.
Friendship came naturally to 22-year-old Robert Ocke-Hall. In a way, it was an extension of Robert's autism. Hyper-focusing on something, in Robert's case people, was one of the ways his autism expressed itself, Ocke said.
"He didn't interpret or interact with the world the way you or I do," Ocke said.
For three days this past week, Ocke sat alone in Vanderburgh Circuit Court watching the trial of the man who fired that bullet. A jury ultimately convicted Kyle Baker of voluntary manslaughter.
Ocke watched prosecutors play a video from a nearby business's camera. It showed Robert walking, phone to his ear, as his assailant approached with gun raised. A puff of smoke rose from the gun barrel and Robert fell in the middle of Fares Avenue on a spring evening, April 8, 2016.
He listened as defense attorneys questioned witnesses about Robert's size -- 6-feet, 2-inches and 235 pounds -- and whether he ever got in fights.
Inside he kept a different story about Robert, that began with a smiling 7-year old boy with an innate spark of curiosity.
Ocke and his partner were living in upstate New York in 2001 when they decided they wanted to start a family. Working through an adoption agency, they were introduced to Robert who was living in orphanage in Delaware after living in several foster homes.
"He was tall, even then, and he was so skinny," Ocke said.
In the rural village where they lived near Albany, NY, Robert began attending school, where he immediately started making friends.
"This is going to be a theme throughout his life," Ocke said. "He would make friends with people fast, in both time and in the depth of his friendship."
Ocke and his partner became not just parents but advocates for Robert, finding the academic and mental health assistance he needed to grow. After three years in public school Robert transitioned to a small private school for children with both physical and developmental disabilities.
During this time Robert began to discover an aptitude for athletics and activities that required intense eye-hand coordination.
"He could play everything well except for baseball. I have an attic full of trophies," Ocke said. "Robert lived in a world where he wasn't as good as other people in many things but he was good at athletics."
But when Robert was 16 his world was shaken up when, in 2009, Ocke moved to Newburgh to take a management position at an Evansville-based company.
Initially enrolled at Castle High School, Robert went on to attend a private school for children with disabilities in Indianapolis for two years before returning to Newburgh.
It was lot for a teenager to handle, especially a teenager with Robert's challenges, Ocke said. However, something positive developed from the move to the Midwest.
Through new testing and evaluations doctors concluded that Robert was autistic, a diagnosis that eluded his caregivers in New York.
"That opened a lot of doors for him in terms of therapy, support and medicine," Ocke said.
"He couldn't read non-verbal cues. You could tell him something and give him every non-verbal clue in the world that it wasn't true and he would accept it as the Gospel truth," Ocke said. "Robert was really, really easy to take advantage of because he believed everything you said."
As Robert made friends during his teenage years it became apparent that not all of them had the best intentions.
After returning from private school in Indianapolis, he began living in a group home in Newburgh and attending classes at the Warrick Education Center.
"Everybody told him and told us that the best he could ever hope for was a certificate of completion, that he would never graduate high school," Ocke said. "But that kid stuck with it until the age of 20. He stuck with it and he did it. He stood up on stage with everybody else at Castle High School and got his diploma."
After graduating from Warrick Education Center and Castle, Robert began an internship with Deaconess Hospital working in a variety of positions as he continued living in the group home. He enjoyed working in the kitchen there discovered a culinary aptitude that Ocke hoped to encourage.
"All this time he had social support, a real comprehensive set of supports," Ocke said.
As Robert thrived and learned life skills, caregivers determined that he was ready for the next step. Robert was moved into supportive housing, out of the group home to live in an apartment with a round-the-clock caregiver present.
"Robert was high-functioning. Intellectually and behaviorally he was probably in his mid-teens but, at most from an emotional standpoint, he was younger," Ocke said. "That's the nature of autism. Your brain is wired different."
As Robert began spending more time with friends and learning life skills his desire to live independently grew and he decided to try living on his own.
"He made a life altering decision when his disability is bad decision making," Ocke said.
Although Ocke was Robert's legal guardian he learned that did not give him the legal authority to control Robert's decisions.
"I couldn't make him do anything. It just got to the point where we couldn't do anything else," Ocke said.
On his own, Robert began living with and relying on friends and stopped taking his medications. He wouldn't stay in homeless shelters, Ocke said, because it wouldn't allow him to be with his girlfriend.
"My son's out there essentially homeless. It's killing me. It's tearing my heart out," Ocke said. "Sometimes I would want him off the street, to have a roof over his head. I would give him money to help."
However, while Robert had stopped his medications and disrupted his supportive services, the one thing he couldn't stop was being himself.
"He was very, very trusting. He was extremely loyal, extremely helpful. He would look out for you. He was a protector," Ocke said.
It was that nature that led Robert to his fatal encounter with Baker -- who testified at trial that, while high on drugs, he was out looking for his younger brother, Malachi Baker, who owed him money.
Malachi Baker testifed that Robert that he and his girlfriend were staying in a motel room on Fares Avenue paid for by Robert. He said he was gone from the room but had left his cell phone there. When Kyle Baker began calling his brother's phone, it was Robert who answered.
In a series of telephone calls, according to to trial testimony and evidence, Robert exchanged words with Kyle Baker, defending his friend Malachi Baker.
"Robert perceived Malachi as his friend and Robert was sticking up for him," Ocke said.
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