'Thought she could save the world' A violent death brings together woman's 2 lives

March 03, 1997|By Jay Apperson and Kris Antonelli | Jay Apperson and Kris Antonelli,SUN STAFF

In one life, she was Francey, a middle-class mom from Columbia who ferried her boys to swim meets. She was a sympathetic soul who signed on to feed the shut-ins of Greater Baltimore, who ventured behind the walls of a state prison to teach criminals the fundamentals of civilized behavior.

Who found another life, after divorce, as Sister Halima.

She became virtually the only white member of a Muslim congregation in West Baltimore. And she married, in a prison ceremony, one of the inmates she had counseled -- a rapist serving a 35-year sentence.

Those lives, kept largely separate for a decade, came together only in her death. Francesca Anne Holland, 58, deputy director of Meals on Wheels of Central Maryland, was found dead in the trunk of her car -- allegedly murdered by the man she had befriended and wed in prison.

At her funeral last month, mourners removed their shoes and filed into a roomy, sparsely furnished loft in Majid Al-Haqq. Her relatives and co-workers wore dark suits and black dresses, and filled the room's few chairs. The Muslim faithful wore traditional jilbab or kameesee gowns, and sat on the carpeted floor.

"We are here to pay our respects to our sister Halima, who is so affectionately known by her friends and relatives as Francey," Abdulmuhsiy Abdurrahman, the assistant imam, told mourners. "For our non-Muslim guests: The Islamic ceremony is very brief because we believe that the person should be hastened to their Lord to receive their reward."

Indeed, within 15 minutes, the salatul jannazah was over, and the mourners left comforted by the thought that their sister had died during Ramadan, the holiest month of the Islamic calendar.

Better to focus on the afterlife than to dwell on the circumstances of her death.

Even now, friends and family aren't sure why this gentle woman chose to align herself with David Lee Holland, a man who spent most of his adult life behind bars.

Some say she may have been rebelling against the tedium of her suburban existence and an unfulfilling first marriage. Others say her marriage to David Holland, which ended in divorce in November, was another attempt to lend a hand to society's have-nots. And Alan Bird, a son from her first marriage, acknowledges that she might have been more than a little naive.

In fact, she seemed reluctant to confront the truth about her deteriorating relationship with David Holland -- even after their separation two years ago, and their divorce. Until the last days of her life, she washed his clothes, cooked him meals and worried whether he had enough money.

Andrew G. Kanaras, Francey Holland's lawyer in the divorce that ended her marriage to her alleged killer, said: "She was a very good woman who saw good in him that I never saw.

"She was this woman who thought she could save the world."

First marriage crumbles

Francesca Anne DeHart, who grew up in Temple Hills in Prince George's County, met her first husband, Michael Bird, while she was attending Bennington College in Vermont. They continued their schooling in Michigan and were married in 1958 in a Unitarian church in Washington. Within five years, they had two sons.

Around 1970, they moved to Columbia. Michael Bird, an economist, worked long hours on Capitol Hill for a congressional committee. His wife helped out at their sons' swim meets, assigning swimmers to lanes and recording their times.

Along the way, she got more and more involved in charitable work.

Family members say she volunteered for a program that built homes for the poor in Washington, and for Grassroots, a Columbia-based crisis hot line. She began to drive for Meals on Wheels, delivering food in Howard County.

Meanwhile, her first marriage deteriorated.

Michael Bird said she became "emotionally shutdown," adding that she saw the marriage as "an impediment to her self-realization."

Around that time, she joined the Columbia-based Council of Volunteers in Corrections. Members visited prisons, such as the Patuxent Institution and the House of Correction, offering tips on job-hunting and money management, or on getting along with wives -- skills the inmates would need after returning to society.

Patricia Colandrea, founder of the now-defunct organization, recalls her as a somewhat eccentric but dedicated volunteer.

"She sort of was a free spirit," Colandrea says. "She didn't give a hoot what the neighbors thought."

She became upset, Colandrea said, when some volunteers began romances with inmates. Later, she didn't press those objections, perhaps because she was soon to marry David Holland, then in the first decade of his sentence and a prisoner Colandrea remembers as a "bratty kid. He was just real young, and not very serious."

Rape conviction

David Holland grew up in East Baltimore's Latrobe Homes public housing, says his sister, Colleen Russell. He was one of four children raised by his mother; two others were raised in foster homes.

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