By Jim Fitzgerald
NEW CITY, N.Y. — The former New York City policeman who stormed into a suburban middle school with a gun had to sort through body parts after 9/11 and suffers from post-traumatic stress, his attorney said Tuesday.
Defense lawyer Gerard Damiani spoke after the former officer, Peter Cocker, pleaded not guilty at his arraignment in Rockland County Court. Cocker, 37, of Tappan, is charged with kidnapping, burglary, coercion and gun crimes.
Police say Cocker stormed past a security guard at South Orangetown Middle School in Blauvelt last Tuesday, locked himself in an office with district Superintendent Ken Mitchell and threatened to shoot him in the heart. Police learned later that Cocker's revolver was unloaded.
As police were called and the school went into lockdown, Mitchell tried to talk Cocker into giving up the gun, then tackled and disarmed him, police said.
Prosecutors said Cocker, who had a child with the flu, was upset over a letter Mitchell had sent to parents about swine flu policy. The letter said absenteeism was rising but the district was following Rockland County Health Department advice not to close schools.
Cocker apparently wanted the schools closed, District Attorney Thomas Zugibe said Tuesday.
Cocker on Tuesday wore an orange prison jumpsuit to court, with "R.C. JAIL" on the back. His hands were shackled to his waist. Assistant District Attorney Richard Moran said Cocker had made statements that would be used against him.
County Judge Catherine Bartlett set a conference for next Tuesday. Damiani said he may then ask that bail be set. Several friends and relatives of Cocker were in the gallery but would not comment afterward.
Outside the courthouse, Damiani said Cocker is on disability leave from the New York Police Department with post-traumatic stress disorder. He said Cocker had been involved in a shootout and that after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in 2001, "he did participate with respect to 9/11 aftermath, spent a week separating body parts."
He said Cocker's actions at the school were "totally out of character, and that's one of the areas that we will be looking at."
The district attorney held a news conference later and would not comment on Crocker's stress disorder but added, "We know we have a very serious offense here from a very violent offender, and we intend to prosecute it accordingly."
He also said it was "unimportant" that Cocker's gun turned out to be unloaded.
"Neither the superintendent nor the police responding knew that the gun was unloaded," he said. "The assumption was that it was loaded, which could have led to a lot of injuries. ... So the seriousness is the same and the law treats it almost the same."
Chief Kevin Nulty of the Orangetown police force, which covers Blauvelt, said detectives were tracing Cocker's gun to see if he owned it legally.
If convicted, Cocker faces a maximum of 25 years in prison.
The district attorney added to the praise that has been heaped on Mitchell by parents, politicians and other officials.
"His cool thinking during an extremely tense time likely prevented injuries had the matter escalated, which it could have very easily," he said. He also praised the Orangetown police officers who eventually shot out the door handle and rushed in to rescue Mitchell despite the fear of being shot.
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