Bereft parents seek solace, culprit in '89 killing of son

October 07, 1990|By Rafael Alvarez

It's always on Robert Bentley's mind, when he's watching a ballgame or mowing the lawn, always there when he's just going about his everyday business. But the 58-year-old West Baltimore resident doesn't talk about it much. He keeps it all inside.

Mr. Bentley's wife, Ellen, needs to talk about it. She goes to meetings all over town several times a week to be with people like herself, looking for a way to make it better.

But after more than a year, she said, it isn't much better at all.

It has been this way for the Bentleys since 10:30 p.m. Aug. 11, 1989, when their 19-year-old son, Donald, a 1988 graduate of Gilman School for whom great things were predicted, was shot to death in a street robbery on Maryland Avenue just below North Avenue.

No one has been arrested for his slaying, one of about 75 unsolved cases out of 262 homicides in Baltimore in 1989, and that adds to the Bentleys' difficulty in working their way through the grief.

"It's a continuing agony. It's been like hell," said Mrs. Bentley. "Part of my heart and soul went with that kid."

But one of the things that seems to help her, she said, is attending meetings at Baltimore's Family Bereavement Center, a program run with federal money out of the city state's attorney's office.

Mrs. Bentley attends the weekly meeting on Saratoga Street, one of several bereavement groups she belongs to, alone.

Mr. Bentley, who visits his son's grave once a week, says he deals with Donald's death by trying to keep busy.

"We do have friends that find it difficult to talk about Donald, and for that reason we've gained new friends," said Mrs. Bentley. "For me, these are people who have had a similar experience.

"I've run everywhere trying to find some answers and comfort," she said, "and it does help to be in the presence of people who know how I feel."

The people who know how Mrs. Bentley feels have all lost a family member to homicide, and they meet at the Family Bereavement Center about once a week, either alone or in a group, with Dr. Rosetta Graham, a retired therapist from Johns Hopkins Hospital.

"The family doesn't even have a chance to say goodbye [to the victim]," said Dr. Graham, who is host to 15 to 30 patients in group therapy each week.

"We don't expect them to forget the incident, but to gain the strength and the courage to go on. They find that in each other."

The center, which operates annually with $79,000 in federal money funneled through the state, provides a range of services, including accompanying families to the morgue to talk with autopsy doctors, helping them make funeral arrangements and escorting them to the trial of the person accused of the murder.

But mourners, who are usually invited into the program by the detective working the case, need more than a companion while attending to the bureaucracy of a homicide, and that's where Dr. Graham's therapy comes in.

"Relief from grief," Dr. Graham said, "doesn't happen in a smooth consistent fashion. It goes back and forth."

One of the walls between the Bentleys' grief and the relief they seek from it is the fact that in more than a year, no one has been charged with their son's slaying.

"The longer the case stays open, the more it prolongs the grieving process," Dr. Graham said.

"Someone knows something, but after a year the trail is cold," said Mr. Bentley. "I think someone will have to call in for this to be solved."

Detective Donald Steinhice, the investigator on the case, agrees. "It's a tough case, real tough," he said, noting that the crime had been re-enacted three times on television without results. "Nobody is coming forward."

Donald Bentley, a junior at Morehouse College in Atlanta, a young man who loved books and travel, was fluent in Spanish and spent part of his time helping to feed poor people, was about to attend an end-of-the-summer party at the Wall Street Bar on Maryland Avenue when a blue car pulled into an alley next to the bar.

It was 10:30 p.m. The police said three young men got out and, with guns drawn, ran up to Mr. Bentley, who was standing with a group of friends. The men announced a holdup while one fired his gun.

Two of Mr. Bentley's friends were pushed up against a car and robbed of a watch and some jewelry. Mr. Bentley began running south on Maryland toward Lafayette Avenue.

"They fired at the guys running," said Detective Steinhice. "And they hit Donald Bentley. Once they shot him, they didn't go down and take things from him. They just got back into the blue car and drove away east through Trenton Street to Charles and headed north."

Detective Steinhice says he has a hunch that the same three gunmen, who were whisked away in the blue car driven by a heavyset woman, pulled a similar robbery earlier in the evening. And he thinks at least one of the weapons, a sawed-off rifle, was used in both robberies.

Mr. Bentley's friends, the detective said, are good witnesses, but he needs help in finding suspects for them to identify.

"It's tough when you don't have scientific evidence," he said. "I just wish someone would call in."

Donald Bentley's room is still the way it was the night his mother and father heard a knock at the door and answered it to be told their son had been shot to death. When mail arrives for her son, Mrs. Bentley puts it on his desk.

"Like he's going to come and get it," sighed Mr. Bentley.

"It's just hard to accept," said Mrs. Bentley.

"It would help us if these people would be found," she said. "They had no right to do what they did."

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