Family sees a killer, not a success story

March 02, 1999|By MICHAEL OLESKER

ON CHRISTMAS Eve 1955, the first time Edward R. ``Slim'' Butler got himself into public trouble, he walked into the little grocery store at Stricker and Laurens where Louis Pristoop and his wife, Celia, were standing behind a counter.

``Gimme what's in the register,'' said Butler. He was 15 and held a gun in his hand. Louis Pristoop, 49, who had survived miserable Russian pogroms before making his way to America, thought he was joking. Butler stood there with a couple of his pals from the neighborhood. Pristoop knew all of them.

``Are you kidding?'' Pristoop asked.

``I'll show you who's kidding,'' said Butler. He fired his gun, and a bullet went into Louis Pristoop's forehead. Celia Pristoop went to her husband and shrieked. Butler and his friends ran out of the store.

``That lady just kept screaming,'' Butler later said in a presentencing report, ``so I ran out of the store and went up the street and got me a hot dog.''

At home in Northwest Baltimore, the Pristoops' three children waited for their parents to come home. Susan, 9, was watching television in the living room. Selma, 15, who was upstairs, remembers a shiver of dread running through her, a premonition that something was wrong.

She reached for the telephone to ask her parents to close the store and come home. The line was busy. When she called back a moment later, she heard her mother's voice on the other end, crying in her Polish accent, ``Somebody's shot Daddy.''

It was all 43 years ago, and it has never gone away. The newspaper says Slim Butler's gotten himself in trouble again and has to go back to prison. He's described as a businessman who once turned himself into a role model. The children of Louis and Celia Pristoop remember it another way.

When Selma Pristoop hung up the telephone that Christmas Eve, she grabbed her brother Morris, 21. The two of them raced downstairs, took Susan to a neighbor's, and raced out to Reisterstown Road to look for a taxi. Their Aunt Delores, having heard the news, was headed for their house and spotted them standing in the cold.

At Maryland General Hospital, they heard their mother's screams coming from a little room and found her sitting forlornly on a wooden bench. Their father lay on a gurney next to her, the life out of him, the face uncovered, the forehead blasted open.

``We never recovered,'' Selma Schuman remembered yesterday. ``There's been so much pain that came out of that night, and we never recovered from it.''

Last weekend brought much of it back. Slim Butler was back in the news, in trouble again, sentenced to three years and one month in federal prison for $350,000 worth of bankruptcy fraud and money laundering.

He's 58 now. He's had a life where many forgave him for the shooting of Louis Pristoop, having never considered the devastation to a family. Butler's story was too good. He made people believe in the power of redemption.

Convicted of killing Pristoop, Butler was spared the death penalty because of his age and was sentenced to life in prison. Befriended by a prison chaplain, he was paroled after 13 years and went to Loyola College on a scholarship, played varsity basketball, earned a bachelor's degree, then a master's in psychology.

He discovered a flair for business, developing a small shopping center, a funeral home, and then the Palladium, the $3 million Liberty Heights Avenue catering hall that looks like a child's vision of a fairy tale castle.

Along the way, Butler seemed to have shed his past. Civic types lauded his return to grace, without particularly mentioning where he'd returned from. Politicians, some of whom knew of a growing street reputation Butler had for living on the edge, used his Palladium for fund-raisers. He seemed to have erased that Christmas Eve of 1955 from his history.

But not from the history of the family of Louis Pristoop.

``There's a powerful sense of fear and helplessness,'' the youngest child, Sue Brooks, said yesterday. ``And out of that comes family devastation. You have to learn to live your life without somebody. Sometimes the perpetrator has more rights than the victim. When he was paroled from prison, we were never even notified.''

Six months after the shooting, Celia Pristoop sold the family grocery store for a fraction of its value. Nobody wanted a store with such a history. She went to work as a Read's Drug Store cashier for 90 cents an hour. Her children left school each day and went to work.

``The family,'' said Selma Schuman, ``became unstable and had tremendous emotional problems. My mother died young. Butler got a hand up and went to college. We couldn't afford college. We've spent years seeing his name featured in newspapers and magazines. He killed my father and became a wealthy man. My family's life has never been the same.''

Butler says he is a minister. He says he does not fear a return to prison. ``That's what spirituality is all about,'' he said after last week's sentencing. ``You take something bad and turn it into a positive.''

He was talking about his own life. The lives of his victims, no one seems to recall.

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