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Apparent murder-suicide involving 84-year-old retired educator leaves North Baltimore neighbors shocked

Michael Franko often gave poinsettia plants to neighbors at Christmas, checked on their houses when they left town and walked their dogs during the day. He and his own dog, Roxy, could be seen walking regularly through the Oakenshawe neighborhood.

Franko, 84, a retired educator and school counselor, neighbors say, was known as extremely kind and sociable. So when news spread that Franko, according to police, shot and killed 35-year-old James Lebar at his home in the 300 block of East University Parkway Wednesday evening, neighbors said they were in complete shock.

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Police said that after killing Lebar, whom they identified only as a relative, Franko took his own life. The Baltimore Sun was unable to reach Lebar’s family.

Neighbors of Franko said the younger man had lived in Franko’s basement for several years and the two men had a challenged relationship.

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"He was really a wonderful, wonderful person,” neighbor Charlotte Ponticelli said of Franko.

She heard the gunshots around 6:30 p.m. Wednesday. Ponticelli and her husband ran to Franko’s home and found police already gathered. She could see the two men lying outside, behind the home.

“It’s absolutely unbelievable," said Sallie Sandruck, another longtime neighbor of Franko’s. “This is so out of character. There has to be something else, extenuating circumstances. This is not Michael.”

Sandruck said she had known Franko since she moved to the neighborhood decades earlier. He brought a plant over to her home during the holidays, often a poinsettia. At Easter, he left a bag of Tootsie Rolls.

He was a constant figure in the neighborhood walking his beloved pit bull. Sandruck said she never knew him to have a temper. Colleagues and students from when he worked at Western High school that she knew too spoke highly of him, she said.

“He just very even-keeled, that’s why he’s such a good teacher. He really had an impact on so many people,” Sandruck said.

Police have not provided a motive for the killing.

Franko recently had been grieving the loss of his longtime partner to pancreatic cancer, said another neighbor, Haydee Rodriguez.

Rodriguez said Franko owned many dogs over the years — Max, a German shepherd; Kane, a pit bull; and most recently Roxy.

When she walked her dog, Yoshi, sometimes carrying him back from long walks, Franko would tell her jokingly, “Stop carrying him, I don’t want Kane to get any ideas.”

Ponticelli said Franko became close with many longtime neighbors who own homes among the many rentals for students at nearby Johns Hopkins University.

He was known unofficially as “the mayor of East University Parkway. Everyone knew him. He was the kindest and sweetest. He was just a spectacular person,” said Ponticelli, adding that he had a sense of humor.

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She shared a picture of Franko dressed in a long white cassock and mitre. Franko joked with neighbors that he wished he could be the pope, so a group of neighbors chipped for a costume, in which he posed for them, the German shepherd at his side.

Ponticelli said Franko had confided in her about his struggles with the 35-year-old man who had lived with him, but she never believed there would be any sort of violence.

“It’s cliche, but he did not have a mean bone in his body," she said.

Rodriquez, who regularly walks with two other neighbors, said she continues to look for Franko.

“My head knows he’s not there, my heart yearns for a glimpse of his sweet face,” she said.

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