Reigniting fire in long-cold cases Balto. Co. prosecutor known for success

November 24, 1996|By Elaine Tassy | Elaine Tassy,SUN STAFF

In March, an informant's tip led to four arrests in the 1978 murder of a Baltimore man who was apparently thrown from a bridge over the waters of the Gunpowder River in Baltimore County to his death.

Now, as a January trial date approaches, veteran Baltimore County prosecutor James O'C. Gentry Jr. must find a way to breathe life into that cold case, nearly two decades later.

In doing so, he must rely on the dated memories of witnesses, anticipate that evidence could have been lost in the intervening years and wonder if jurors will care about a crime so old.

And Gentry, the assistant state's attorney most often called upon to prosecute cold cases, also has the delicate task of letting the victim's relatives know that he is confident of winning, while preparing them for the possibility that he'll lose.

"The stakes are so high," said Gentry, 46, who noted that the murder case at the Gunpowder River is the oldest one he has prosecuted.

Most murder cases come to trial within a year of an arrest, according to prosecutors. Cold cases are considered those in which no suspect has been found for several years, and sometimes a decade or more.

Gentry, who has been a prosecutor for 12 years, says older cases have many pitfalls.

The cases are also hard for defense attorneys and for the victims' relatives, who have to relive the tragedy.

All of those complications are present in the murder case that will go to trial in January, involving the death of Mark Stephen Schwandtner, a 22-year-old Baltimore welder.

His family recalled that Schwandtner went to a tavern on the night of June 9, 1978. At 7 a.m. the next day, a fisherman called police to say he'd found Schwandtner's beaten body in shallow water in Gunpowder Falls State Park.

"He hadn't lived long enough" to know how to protect himself from the wrong crowd he must have gotten involved with, said his mother, Margaret Schwandtner, 70, of Northeast Baltimore.

A half-dozen detectives -- most of whom have retired -- worked on the case beginning in 1978. It wasn't until March that the anonymous tip led to first-degree murder charges against three men. A woman is charged as an accessory.

Gentry, a prosecutor known for measured theatrics, thorough research and relentless questioning, explained in his office on the fifth floor of the Towson courthouse how he proceeds in such cases.

"I want to get fired up," said Gentry, a slim, bespectacled, crisply dressed former Baltimore County police officer. "One way to do that is to find out a little about the person."

Typically, he gets to know the family and learns more about the victim's life. Then he combs police reports, creates a case file, interviews key witnesses to see what they remember and examines physical evidence -- often immaculately preserved at police headquarters.

He also goes to the crime scene to see, as best he can, what the victim's last moments were like.

This month, for example, he visited the site of Schwandtner's death: a 50-foot-long wooden plank bridge with a track used for cargo trains, suspended about 60 feet above a narrow stretch of water, about a third of a mile from the nearest road.

Blood that once dotted the railing was no longer there, and the water is shallower than it was in 1978. Still, the scene led Gentry to wonder if Schwandtner was dragged along the train tracks -- aware that his death was imminent -- and lifted over the 4-foot-high, rusty railing.

"Here it is 20 years later, and you still get that feeling of death," Gentry said.

After getting a visual image of the victim's final moments, Gentry, often perching on the windowsill in his office, staring out at the treetops, ponders what he'll say in his opening and closing statements.

Because he believes jurors can be more skeptical and less emotionally affected by cold cases, he prepares charts, diagrams and autopsy photos to make his case more vivid.

"If I try a case where the murder happened 10 years ago, it just doesn't have the same emotional impact as a case that is fresh," he said. "All cases that come to prosecution years later are more difficult than [they would be] had they been prosecuted soon after the murder."

But his strategy must be working: He has lost one murder case in his 12 years of prosecuting -- and never a cold one.

He described one victory, in a murder case against Steven Joseph Schmitt, 31, formerly of White Marsh, who was tried four years after the crime.

In September 1990, Jerry Lee Mathis, 43, of southeastern Baltimore County was fatally shot after trying to withdraw money from a Pulaski Highway automated teller machine.

Since the slaying, a building has been constructed on the site of the ATM. An informant who had said Schmitt told him about the shooting disappeared. Police had no confession and no weapon.

And witnesses -- topless dancers and a trucker Schmitt allegedly offered to pay if he drove him away -- had forgotten key details.

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