Parents' murder taught lessons that changed lives

November 21, 1993|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,Staff Writer Staff writer Peter Hermann contributed to this story.

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.

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