The Final Act An old man caught in the age of desperation kills his ailing sister and then himself

March 10, 1996|By Lowell E. Sunderland | Lowell E. Sunderland,SUN STAFF

Thomas Grentz and Eleanor Simpson knew each other about as well as two people can. They were brother and sister, born two years apart early this century. When they died together three days into January, they had shared the same roofs more than half their lives.

Not that they had been inseparable or did everything together; they weren't, and they didn't. But in their retirement years, especially, Tom Grentz was known for taking care of his sister. She had never learned to drive so he drove her in his 1977 AMC Matador to the hairdresser, the bank, the doctor, to visit her friends.

He did the grocery shopping. She did the cooking. They worked in the yard.

"They were so good with each other," says Dora Zaccari, a neighbor in Arbutus who knew them as well as anyone in the waning months of their lives. "I don't think they ever argued. Her brother did everything for her. She never needed anything."

After Mrs. Simpson had a stroke in 1994 and then early last year a broken hip, Mr. Grentz cared for her, even helping her get in and out of bed. Near the end, as he fought to breathe -- using a portable oxygen supply to offset the worsening effects of emphysema and a heart condition -- he delayed an appointment with his lung specialist to stay with her.

You also could say he arranged her death -- and with it, his own. On a cold Wednesday evening, he got an old pistol, went into his sister's bedroom and shot her in the head as she lay in bed holding a rosary. Then, just a few feet away, he fired a second shot, ending his own life.

The barest facts of their deaths made TV news that night and were inside the next day's newspaper. But at 87, Tom Grentz, was definitely not your typical shooter. Neither at 85, was Eleanor Simpson a typical murder victim.

The way they left life was, in effect, a case study of a growing phenomenon in the United States today -- old, infirm people whose lives end at their own hands or at those of a loved one.

You could easily say that what happened in the 1 1/2 -story house at 4926 Leeds Avenue was an act of desperation. But was it, as police saw it, an open-and-shut case of murder and suicide?

Or did Tom Grentz see it as a courageous act of brotherly love? What if he feared for her, knowing his ability to provide care was slipping? What if she shared that fear? Did she agree to what he would do?

No one will ever know, which is why their deaths are still being pondered by their scattered, dwindling family and their few friends and acquaintances. Even amid mid-winter browns and shriveled greens, the Grentz-Simpson property on Leeds Avenue in southwestern Baltimore County clearly signals fussy owners: trim shrubbery, tannish siding over the original exterior, a green chain-link fence around a backyard with a bird bath, a couple plastic flamingos, a small statue of St. Francis and another of the Blessed Mother.

A priest who visited only days before their deaths called the interior "spotless," not always the case in houses with lingering sickness. Christmas cards were on display, as were at least some of the usual holiday trimmings. Get-well cards adorned Mrs. Simpson's bedroom, which contained an array of medicines and a number of religious mementos, including an unopened videotape about the Pope's visit to Baltimore.

The house, built in 1938, is within walking distance of Arbutus' main business district and within earshot of an elevated, rumbling segment of the Baltimore Beltway. Tom Grentz had bought the house with his brother, Vincent. Mrs. Simpson joined them in 1969.

For them, it was the final extension of lives long rooted in Southwest Baltimore. They grew up in the large family of an upholsterer/saddle-maker of German descent and his wife, who started out in Bel Air, but eventually moved to the city. The Grentzes had 13 children, though only eight reached adulthood.

The family lived for awhile on Hollins Street, then Font Hill Avenue and, later, in the best house of their childhood, in the first block of South Monastery Avenue. Like thousands of others in those days, the children attended parochial school through the eighth grade and then found employment using their hands.

Mrs. Simpson worked for 33 years as a seamstress in the city's garment industry before retiring in 1972 with a union pension through the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers of America. At least 16 of those years were with Acme Pad Corp., which makes shoulder pads for tailored clothing and was then near the Inner Harbor.

She is remembered by Robin Lettau, a grand-niece in Loveland, Colo., as being "a thoroughly modern woman," "free-spirited," and "the social one" among brothers and sisters who were very close. William H. Jung Jr., a nephew who moved in 1964 from Baltimore and is now an insuranceman in Seabrook, Texas, calls her "quite a character, a handsome and dynamic woman."

For years, this prim, slightly built, vital woman regularly caught a No. 77 or 31 bus to go downtown or visit family and friends in Towson and Overlea.

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