Parents' murder taught lessons that changed lives

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The difference made by a sensational murder case nearly 10 years ago ago can be seen in two photographs of children swimming among coral reefs that hang on a wall of the Northern District Police Station in Linthicum.

Another difference shows in a lawyer who has decided that it's silly to scream at his children over a messy room, and another in a woman who, her own children grown, devotes her time to teaching troubled young people how to cope and express themselves.

In the decade since mild-mannered Larry Swartz, 17, killed his parents in a blood bath at the family's Cape St. Claire home on the night of Jan. 16, 1984, those close to the youth say the lessons they learned from his story changed their lives.

Tonight, many of them will be watching "A Family Torn Apart," the NBC Sunday Night at th Movies version of the Swartz family story.

The $3.3 million film was adapted from the book "Sudden Fury" by former Evening Sun reporter Leslie Walker. The location is Annapolis, but the names have been changed, and the youngest child is a boy, not a girl.

Investigators began to sympathize with Larry, a Broadneck High student, as they learned he was the victim of verbal and psychological abuse from his adoptive parents, Bob and Kay Swartz.

And even before he was adopted by the Swartzes at the age of 6, Larry had been shunted from foster home to foster home. Kay was his sixth mother. His natural mother had abandoned him.

Just before his trial, a plea was arranged. Larry admitted to second-degree murder; he got 20 years, eight of them suspended, to be served at the Patuxent Institution, a Maryland prison credited for its therapeutic programs.

He served a little more than eight years, and was paroled this year. He now lives with a family on the Eastern Shore.

After investigating the cases of three murdered babies, then the Swartz case, Anne Arundel County homicide Detective Gary Barr began to worry about his career and his family.

"You'd have to be blind not to look in retrospect at the way you're treating" your children, said Mr. Barr, a father of two. "I got the kids involved in scuba diving -- to share something with them. It's something we do regularly together."

The photos on his office wall were shot during a family trip to the Cayman Islands, taken after the detective decided he needed to spend more time with his children and get out of the homicide division.

"It motivated me to study harder to become a supervisor," he said. He came out No. 1 on the sergeant's test and now is a captain, commander of the Northern District.

Toned down reactions

Nobody knows whether Larry killed his adoptive parents in an uncontrollable rage or a calculated move -- the difference between temporary insanity and first-degree murder.

Even Towson lawyer Richard Karceski, who prepared the insanity defense, isn't sure. "My biggest question about this case was whether this was truly a buildup that resulted in their killings. Or did alcohol sort of fuel his nerves, and he said, you know, 'I have had enough of this . . .' and he went down and killed them."

Mr. Karceski -- who is among those who plan to videotape the movie -- said he has toned down his reactions to his children.

"I have tended in life to be a yeller and a screamer," he said.

But tales of how the Swartzes constantly criticized and threatened their three children and beat Larry's older brother, Michael, changed that. (Michael is serving a life sentence in Jessup for the murder of a man stabbed to death over a jar of quarters.)

"I knew I had to get a better grip on myself, especially when dealing with family," Mr. Karceski said. He has learned to hold his tongue, to see in his children things that go beyond the messy room and communicate with them without shouting.

Even more rigid

Ron Baradel, an Annapolis lawyer, knew the Swartz family from St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church and their prominent roles in the local anti-abortion movement. He defended Larry free, even took Larry into his own home. Larry was troubled before he got to the Swartz home, and the rigid couple was ill-equipped to deal with him, Mr. Baradel said.

When Michael -- who, like Larry and their sister, Annie, was adopted -- wouldn't conform, the Swartzes took it personally and vowed that Larry would turn out differently. They became even more rigid.

Representing Larry "fundamentally changed the way I dealt with my children," Mr. Baradel said.

"I think it made me more aware, more conscious of the impact any adult has, especially an angry adult, has on young children -- how gentle you need to be with kids, and how much [communicating] you have to do with them all the way through," he said.

He sees Larry as a good child who bottled up his emotions, then did a bad thing. And he insists that the Swartzes weren't bad people.

Jacob Swartz, Bob's brother, partly blames adoption workers for the family's troubles.

They failed to adequately warn his brother and sister-in-law about Larry's emotional problems, then placed a second youngster with similar problems in the home, he said.

Bob's family, like Kay's, has distanced itself from the children, partly to allow Annie to have a normal life with Jack and Eileen Smithmyer, the Queenstown friends who adopted her.

'They were abusive'

The Smithmyers and others who knew the Swartz family declined to be interviewed.

Caryl Sweet, whose six children are grown, taught Sunday school with Bob Swartz.

She remembers seeing him and Kay in action and not liking what she saw.

"They were abusive," she concluded. "I'm not saying they were bad. No matter how hard they tried, no matter what they did -- they tried -- no matter how good their intentions were, they were abusive."

She visited Larry regularly in prison and once offered to have him live with her after he was paroled. Now, she works with other people's children.

She teaches conflict resolution to inmates at jails and prisons, and has developed a program to teach women at Patuxent how to cope with life's ups and downs.

The Swartz case, she said "changed my whole life."

Children over career

Warren B. Duckett Jr., the former prosecutor who is now an Anne Arundel County Circuit judge, has a son about the same age as Larry -- a son he tearfully embraced the day of Larry's arrest.

The case made him understand what his wife had been telling him for so long, he said, that it was not his career that was so important, but raising his three children.

Judge Duckett said he could not bring himself to take the case to trial, partly because he feared an insanity defense would be successful and partly because he believed that neither finding Larry insane nor giving him two life sentences would serve justice.

"I think he is going to be an asset to the community. I think a lot of folks, including me, would like to be proud of him," the judge said.

Larry, who took college courses last semester, is working and plans to resume studies next year, people close to him said.

Through Mr. Baradel, Larry has said he would someday like to talk to Judge Duckett.

For those who have stayed close to Larry, such as Ms. Sweet and Mr. Baradel; for Ms. Walker, who has lived with the story for 10 years, and for film producer John Levoff, a relative newcomer to the story, the Swartz family saga is one that too many people will recognize.

They feel they were abused by their parents or have abused their children, he said, and there has been no reconciliation.

"We should be sensitive to our children, and listen to them," Mr. Levoff said.

"Part of the process of being a parent is listening. These parents didn't listen well. They paid, obviously, a hyperbolic price."

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