Neighbor recounts intervention in violent dispute Police laud man's quick-thinking help

August 15, 1993|By Mike Farabaugh | Mike Farabaugh,Staff Writer

Robert James Lawson had survived a couple of street fights in his younger days, but never anything close to last week's life-and-death showdown with his next-door neighbor's estranged husband.

Alerted by the woman's son last Sunday, the 27-year-old heating and air-conditioning mechanic kicked in the front door of Mary Mintzer, 51, his Edgewood neighbor, and probably saved the woman's life, police say.

This is Mr. Lawson's version of the incident: Once inside the house, he smelled a strong odor of gasoline which had been poured about the first floor of the three-bedroom duplex. Mrs. Mintzer had also been doused with gasoline.

When Mr. Lawson came to her aid, he said, he saw his neighbor being held in a headlock by a man who was holding a flaming match 12 inches from her gasoline-splashed body.

"You just have to stay calm and use your head in a situation likethat," said Mr. Lawson, who added that he never took his eyes off the match until the flame flickered out. "I was talking to him the whole time, telling him he didn't want to hurt Mary and waiting for that match to burn out," he said.

When it did, the agitated man made a futile attempt to strike a second match. "I was trying to get closer to him," Mr. Lawson said. "I guess I got too close."

The man then threw the second match on the floor and pulled an 11-inch bone-handled hunting knife from behind his back, Mr. Lawson said. "I saw him reach for it and just jumped him," Mr. Lawson said. "I couldn't let him cut her . . . or me."

The hand-to-hand combat raged back and forth across the living-room floor, Mr. Lawson added. The house is located in the 300 block of Palmetto Drive.

"I got the knife away from him and held him down," Mr. Lawson said. "He was yelling to let him up, that he wouldn't do anything if I let him up, but he was still trying to get to the knife."

Sheriff's deputies who arrived arrested the estranged husband, Robert Joseph Mintzer, 53, of Baltimore, and praised Mr. Lawson for his quick action.

"There's no doubt Mr. Lawson prevented a potential devastation," said Sgt. Jordan Watts of the sheriff's criminal investigation division. "[Emergency Operations Chief] James Terrell said that if the match had ignited the gasoline, both [duplex] units would have been destroyed within five minutes."

For Mr. Lawson, the night was hardly over, however. He drove Mrs. Mintzer to Harford Memorial Hospital in Havre de Grace, where she was treated for gasoline burns and released. He got to sleep about 4:30 a.m. At 5:30 a.m. he got up and headed out for work. "I don't remember being scared during the whole time, until I got home Monday and found out he [Mr. Mintzer] was free on $10,000 bond," he said.

Mr. Lawson said he feared that Mr. Mintzer might try to get even with him for intervening in the domestic dispute. He prepared for the worst.

"I don't like sleeping with a loaded gun, but I did that night," said Mr. Lawson, who lives with his wife and 3-year-old daughter, his LTC father-in-law and two 14-year-old nieces who are visiting for the summer.

Mr. Lawson said he thought the justice system had failed badly when Mr. Mintzer was freed on such a low bail Monday afternoon.

"Sergeant Watts was really great and helped get it all straightened out," he said, recounting how the investigator worked through Monday night to prepare the case for the grand jury on Tuesday.

Mr. Mintzer was indicted on 17 counts, including two counts of attempted murder. His bond was revoked in a Circuit Court bond review hearing Tuesday afternoon and he is in the Harford County Detention Center awaiting trial.

In revoking the bond, Judge Stephen M. Waldron cited Mr. Mintzer's 1991 conviction in Huntington Beach, Calif., for spousal abuse and a July 26 protective order against him by District Judge John S. Landbeck Jr., requiring the defendant to stay away from his wife and not to enter her home.

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