Bel Air struggles to understand, explain Richardson killing

Robert C. Richardson III.
Robert C. Richardson III. (Courtesy photo, Baltimore Sun)

The substitute teacher doesn't know Robert Richardson III. Neither does the school bus driver, or the stay-at-home mom.

It doesn't matter to them. They're driven to help the 16-year-old who is being held in the Harford County Detention Center. Police say he confessed to killing his father at their Bel Air home last month and dumping the body at the edge of a pond near his grandmother's home in Aberdeen.

In an unusual outpouring of support, women have organized fundraisers to cover Richardson's legal costs. Classmates have created a Facebook page and YouTube videos to build support. And some residents have mailed money orders so the boy can buy snacks and stamps.

Many in the tight-knit community believe that Richardson shot and killed his father because he was abused, but his own family is struggling to understand what went wrong. Supporters point to the tattered clothes, the unmaintained house on Moores Mill Road, the shouts neighbors heard. Some family members say they appreciate the concern, but others are upset by suggestions that Richardson was mistreated.

Police will not comment on a possible motive, and some relatives say physical abuse never happened. But Richardson's supporters say it's clear the teen was deeply troubled. And as the skinny teen with the family nickname "Bear" waits to be tried as an adult on charges of first- and second-degree murder, they wonder whether they should have stepped in sooner.

On a chilly night last week, a crowd gathered inside a Havre de Grace restaurant overlooking the Susquehanna River. It was the first of many fundraisers Richardson's supporters plan to help the teen. They ordered crab dip and shrimp, martinis and white wine. Part of their tabs would be donated to help pay a private attorney to represent Richardson.

Some women's eyes welled with tears when they talked about the boy. They wondered how this could happen. Did teachers miss signs of trouble? Did the police? Could the community have prevented it?

"I think everyone just feels that we should have done something," said Stephanie Giordano, manager of MacGregor's Restaurant, which hosted the fundraiser.

Years ago, Giordano says, she saw the father screaming at his son at Target. The boy was on the floor, she said.

"When [the killing] happened, I said, 'I should have done something."

Trail of blood

When police arrived at the Richardson home on the night of Jan. 9, they found the front stoop smeared with blood, according to police filings.

A trail of blood led from the bedroom to the front door, according to the police documents. The bed sheets were stained with blood. Early the next morning, investigators would find the 58-year-old father's body about 10 miles away, on the edge of a pond. Richardson often went four-wheeling near the water with his dad, an uncle said.

The pond is a good distance from his grandmother's property. You can't see it from the trailer where she lives. A wooden cross now marks a patch of grass and leaves near where the body was found, a silver crucifix stuck to its center.

The elder Richardson screamed at his son a lot, said the boy's uncle, Will Richardson, a recovering drug addict who lived for years with the father and son. Some might consider that emotional abuse, he said.

But "even when he was little, Bear had never had a hand laid on him," said Will Richardson, who helped police find the pond.

The relatives are upset with the community's accusations of abuse and neglect. They say the boy had plenty of clothes, that he never went hungry.

"You know how people are," said Will Richardson, who says he and his brother grew up in an unstable home. "They wanna talk when they don't know what they're talking about. But I for one know he never was abused."

"Bear was his world," Will Richardson's fiancee, Rita Cooper, said of the boy's father. "That's why this is so shocking to us."

Family members, including the teen's grandmother and uncle, say the boy had been skipping school and getting into other trouble. They also say he cut himself on his arms.

"He was a good kid gone bad," Cooper said.

Robert "Bobby" Richardson Jr., the father, "was constantly having the cops out looking for him," said Flo Richardson, the boy's grandmother. "The past year, he's been acting up and getting into trouble."

The elder Richardson used to mow grass at Aberdeen Proving Ground, family members said. He had recently been living on disability benefits. He took it very hard when Bear's mother died five or six years ago of cancer, Will Richardson said.

"When his wife died, it's like he just climbed inside himself and just shut down," he said. "He wasn't quite right after that."

Richardson called one of his half-sisters after he allegedly killed his father, according to investigators. She called police.

The sheriff's office has not commented on a possible motive in the killing.

"Our investigation is active and ongoing, and we will not comment on an active and ongoing investigation," spokeswoman Monica Worrell said. "The next step is the trial, and that is when more information will be available to the public."

The Pikesville lawyer hired to represent Richardson, Marc Snyder, also said he couldn't comment in detail.

"I spent hours visiting with my client," Snyder said. "He's an exceptionally intelligent and sensitive young man who's found himself in circumstances no one should be forced to endure. And I look forward to the truth being revealed at the appropriate time."

Harford County State's Attorney Joe Cassilly declined to comment on the case.

Records of calls for service show that police stopped by the home a dozen times last year, including a few times when Richardson ran away.

"When deputies visited the home, there was nothing that indicated or demonstrated child abuse, neglect or domestic disturbances," Worrell said.

The calls for service included several visits to deliver court papers, which could happen for many reasons including traffic violations. Police went to the home in July when Cooper called to say she heard shots fired in the neighborhood behind the home.

Police visited in September when an anonymous person said they smelled marijuana coming from the house. Officers found no evidence.

Richardson had run away from home about a month before the killing, according to police records. His father called police after he didn't come home from school on a Friday. He was found five days later, and told police he had been in the Havre de Grace area.

The teen told officers he didn't want to go home because he thought he was in trouble. A sheriff's deputy wrote on a missing-person form that Richardson had trouble with both law enforcement and at home.

Some of the boy's other relatives say they're grateful for the outpouring of community support.

"I think it's awesome," said Betty Rose, whose daughter is married to the younger Richardson's half-brother from a different father.

Rose and another daughter, Rachel Trinkline, called Richardson a quiet kid who never showed a violent streak. They believe he is innocent of murder and say they have no idea what happened in the household.

"The only person that really knows what happened is him," Rose said. "Bobby could yell when he wanted to, but we can't really say what happened because we weren't there."

Rose said she recently checked out the "Free Robert (Bob) Richardson III" Facebook page when she was at the library. The page has more than 800 supporters.

"Who are all these people?" she thought. "We don't even know who they are."

When tragedy strikes, communities often do two things — try to make sense of it, and hopefully come together, said Dr. George Everly, an expert at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

And people try to understand the reasons behind the tragedy even if they don't have all the facts, he said.

"People make sense out of it somehow," he said. "We grasp at straws sometimes to make sense out of that which makes no sense."

'I'd take him in'

In her sunny living room in Bel Air, Anne Burch and her friends explain why they've found such compassion for a boy accused of a violent crime.

"When I found out his mother had passed away, my heart broke," Burch said, adding that she has always been interested in fighting child abuse because her mother helped start a center for abuse victims.

Along with other women she attended high school with years ago, Burch went to Richardson's preliminary hearing last month. They post supportive messages on Facebook. They say they don't approve of what he's alleged to have done, but want to show him someone cares.

"You can look at his face and see that his eyes are empty," said one of the friends, Crystal Testerman, who once volunteered at Richardson's elementary school.

"Empty," Burch said.

Another friend, Robyn Eisner, said she often saw him walking in the neighborhood. She knows a woman who took him food, she said.

They've heard only good things about Richardson. He was quiet, sweet, polite.

"If he got out today, I'd take him in," said Eisner, a school bus driver whose son played video games with Richardson.

The women hear stories that tug at their hearts — like the one where Richardson grew his hair long so he could donate it to Locks of Love. He did it because of his mom's cancer, they heard.

Richardson's grandmother and his uncle's fiancee say that story isn't true. Bear's hair was long when he was younger. When he cut it off, the long brown hair went straight into the trash, they said.

'What I believe'

Richardson's friends saw a sadness inside him. Kids teased him because he came to school dirty, in clothes that were ripped or didn't fit, they say.

"He was the kind of person who would listen about every little problem you had, no matter how stupid it was," said Hannah Siple, the 15-year-old C. Milton Wright High School student who launched the Facebook page for Richardson. She sat with family and friends at the MacGregor's fundraiser, in a corner table at the back of the restaurant.

At another table, Laurie Frey of Forest Hill dined with her mother.

Like so many others, they don't know Richardson. But Frey worked in schools once, as support staff. She saw those kids she could tell needed some help. She's driven by the Richardson house, its unkempt yard.

And like others, Frey doesn't know for sure what happened. But she thinks Richardson had decided enough was enough.

"To me, it wasn't premeditated," she said of the killing."That's what I believe."

She hopes she isn't wrong.