In Geckles' shoes, what would we do?

March 27, 2001|By MICHAEL OLESKER

NOBODY NEEDS a psychoanalyst to explain that weekend pep rally for Matthew and Dominic Geckle, who seem to have taken the law into their own hands. Though police say the brothers shot one man dead and wounded two others, about 75 people gathered Sunday in Essex to support them and express their contempt over any possible criminal charges.

The crowd was speaking for a lot of people, none of whom (on either side of the current debate) knows exactly what happened -- or why -- in that flash of gunfire eight nights ago in the darkness of a Baltimore County concrete plant. Across the metro area, many are declaring their sympathy, sometimes out loud, sometimes on the radio talk shows -- and sometimes with little self-conscious mutterings, as though not believing the sound of their own voices and not wanting anyone else to hear such unanticipated sentiments until they can figure out where they may have originated deep in the recesses of their psyche.

Because there's a nagging little voice asking: Where is the line drawn between self-defense and an act of vigilantism?

Eight days ago, at the Geckle brothers' Back River Supply Inc. concrete plant, in Glyndon, three men entered in what county police call an attempted burglary. It was part of a pattern -- at the plant, and in the nearby Reisterstown Road area, where a number of construction sites have had equipment and tools stolen in recent weeks.

County police have issued general warnings about locking things up and keeping premises well-lighted during the night. The Geckle brothers' plant had been burglarized the day before the shooting, and the day before that, and both incidents were reported to police.

But the brothers then took it upon themselves to wait for any further intrusions. That's why they were there, with shotguns, when the three men entered a little after one in the morning on March 19. Shots were fired, killing one intruder and wounding two.

And now, in Baltimore County, the police and the state's attorney's office have to figure out what happened in that instant of gunfire, and whether it could have been avoided.

Matthew "Matt" Geckle, 36, and Dominic "Tony" Geckle, 31, have led good-citizen lives. Tony's an ex-Marine who served in the gulf war and is engaged to be married in the fall. They took over the business after their father died several years back.

But troubling questions have arisen. If there were two previous burglaries, why were the lights out when the intruders arrived? Wouldn't it make sense to give at least an impression that someone was on the premises -- particularly after police warnings? What about the door the intruders entered? Was it locked, or was it left open because the brothers, lying in wait, wanted to make it easier for the intruders to come back -- and, thus, either hold them for police or take more drastic measures?

And where were the intruders shot? If they were shot in the back, were they trying to get away? Does that make it more difficult to claim shots were fired to protect property? Does that mean the intruders shouldn't be punished for entering the place? Of course not. But it might mean there was no immediate threat, and shots did not have to be fired.

These are questions with which the police are grappling -- and refusing to discuss with reporters.

And it leaves all of us who read the crime reports, who worry about our own homes and businesses, and who grapple with our own sense of vulnerability, to wonder what we might have done in such a situation.

It's that sense of vulnerability that drew Sunday's crowd to Essex. It's not that anybody's condoning violence. It's not that they're justifying the death of a human being as a fitting penalty for attempting burglary. It's that, when we imagine someone violating our privacy, and threatening to harm us, we don't imagine putting a quick phone call in to the cops.

We imagine ourselves defending ourselves. What the Geckle brothers apparently did was act out the dream. It's the one that haunts us when we read the crime statistics, or watch the TV news, or hear that noise downstairs as we're starting to drift off to sleep.

And we live in a culture that constantly tells us we can solve our problems with one good shot: whether it's the TV dramas, or the frontier ethic reinforced over generations in the movies, or the radio talk show hosts with their microphones sticking out of the back pockets of the National Rifle Association.

But there's a difference between thinking about that fantasy world and living in it. And that difference has now put two otherwise blameless young men into a terrible spot. They apparently defended their property with guns. But maybe turning on a light, or changing a lock, or putting in an alarm system -- or calling the cops -- might have worked just as well.

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