Arundel nightmare returns, but on TV

November 23, 1993|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,Staff Writer

As those who were part of the real story watched, television imitated the life and death of a Cape St. Claire couple Sunday night.

The NBC movie, "A Family Torn Apart," depicted the murder nine years ago of Bob and Kay Swartz by one of their two adopted sons, a crime that shocked Anne Arundel County and sparked the book, "Sudden Fury."

A relative who viewed the movie said it rang true in its portrayal of family relationships, but contained enough dissimilarities that he could watch it. "It was a faithful reproduction of the feelings, but the surface was changed -- and maybe I am grateful for that," said Jacob Swartz, whose brother, Bob, was murdered. He videotaped the movie to watch again at what he called a "more contemplative moment."

However, John Riely, a nephew of Kay Swartz, said that his aunt was not the shrill, high-strung woman depicted, but a caring woman devoted to the three children she and Bob had adopted.

"I never saw that side of Kay in the 25 years I knew her. Bob did have a bad side, Bob had a temper. Some of Bob's bad characteristics have been grafted onto Kay in death," Mr. Riely said.

Bob and Kay Swartz -- Joe and Maureen Hannigan in the NBC movie -- were slain at their home the night of Jan. 16, 1984. Both had been stabbed repeatedly, and Kay's skull had been hacked open. Many people who knew the family initially suspected Michael, 17, because he was so troublesome that the Swartzes had returned him to the state's custody.

But it was mild-mannered Larry, also 17, a Broadneck High School student, who had killed them when a lifetime of bottled-up rage and frustration came uncorked. Abandoned by the young woman who bore him and rejected by other parents, Larry had learned to hide his emotions so that he could keep his family; Kay was Larry's sixth mother.

But, said family friends, the couple did not know how to deal with the emotional traumas Larry and Michael had suffered.

"It was a partial story, a partial truth," said Caryl Sweet, who had taught Sunday school with Bob Swartz. She said the couple's efforts to cope with the children turned out to be abuse, close to what was depicted in the movie.

Mr. Riely described the youths as "ill-equipped to deal in a civilized setting," and noted that both are murderers. Michael is in prison, convicted of killing a man during a robbery, and Larry was paroled in January and is living with a family on the Eastern Shore. The youngest child, portrayed as a boy in the movie, is a girl, now a teen-ager, adopted by friends of the Swartzes'.

The movie's hero is a lawyer and family friend who defends Larry -- in real life Ron Baradel, an Annapolis lawyer, who said he is "amazed at how good-looking I've gotten."

Yet, he said, he did not set out to be a hero: "I don't think anyone sees themself in that kind of role, I didn't start out to do this thing, it just kind of happened one day at a time."

The movie, he said, was harsher on Bob and Kay, and kinder to the children in portrayals, partly a matter of squeezing a lifetime into two hours. He, like others, noted that the damage of so many foster homes was vague in the movie -- a part purposely deleted.

"There were material omissions," said Maryland Court of Special Appeals Judge Joseph Murphy, the then-criminal defense lawyer whom Mr. Baradel initially contacted for help.

"These kids were like eggshells when they came to this house," he said.

But, he said, the Swartzes' rigid household made things worse.

"They just couldn't make all those details," said Anne Arundel County Circuit Court Judge Warren Duckett, who was the prosecutor in the case.

"I think they made an honest effort to make an honest movie. And I think they pretty much succeeded, given a certain amount of poetic license," said Mr. Baradel.

For both Mr. Baradel and Gary Barr, the lead Anne Arundel County police investigator in the case, the movie lengthened the time it took for Larry to become the suspect. Both men were suspicious of Larry almost from the start.

"I was not in doubt about what had happened. I was an FBI agent before I practiced private law," Mr. Baradel said.

Captain Barr, commander of the Northern District police station, said that clues were everywhere, from the location of Mrs. Swartz's body to the collected way that Larry spoke to detectives.

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