Taking Care of BUSINESS

After two break-ins, Tony and Matt Geckle sought to protect their property - and themselves. Now, one year and one grand jury later, they're still taking a stand.

March 19, 2002|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

Over lunch in Owings Mill in December, two pairs of business owners met to discuss a matter of mutual interest. Not depreciation schedules or benefit packages or ways to cut energy costs. Homicide is what occupied them.

Matt and Tony Geckle initiated the meeting. Normally, the brothers might concede that their expertise does not extend much beyond the busy cement plant they own just north of the city. But, you learn a few things after you've killed a man in your place of business, and so they felt they had something to impart to the other two men.

Kenny Der and Darrell Kifer refinish furniture in East Baltimore. They are also murder defendants. One night last June, after climbing to the second floor of their warehouse to investigate strange noises, they fatally shot an intruder. They claim self-defense - they say the man threatened them and appeared armed. But police found no weapon other than a hammer, and a city grand jury indicted the men in November on charges of first-degree murder.

That is exactly what a Baltimore County grand jury chose not to do after hearing testimony about the incident involving the Geckles. One year ago, on March 19, 2001, Tony Geckle shot three burglars after an early morning break-in at the cement plant. One of the intruders, 24-year-old Jonathan Steinbach, died. Although none of the burglars was armed, the county grand jury accepted Geckle's justification that he believed his life was in danger when he fired his shotgun at the men. The case, one grand juror told a reporter, was "open-and-shut."

The span of time between the Geckle shooting and the grand jury decision was just over a month, brief by the normal timetable of criminal jurisprudence. But during that time, Tony, 32, and Matt, 37, felt they were living in an alternate - and unpleasant - state of consciousness. "The whole experience," says Matt Geckle, the slightly more voluble of the two extroverts, who was also present at the cement plant that fateful night, "was like we had died and were attending our own wake."

The Geckles' friends, family and business associates rushed to offer both moral and financial support in the wake of the shooting. And, with the exception of a smattering of callers to radio shows and a newspaper column here or there that characterized the Geckles as vigilantes, public sympathy was strongly with the brothers.

Many saw them as having been pushed to the limit. Their concrete plant - a family heirloom that is the center of their existence - had been burglarized each of the two previous nights before the shooting. Unable to adequately secure their building on a weekend, the brothers elected to spend the night in the plant even though they doubted a burglar would have the temerity to hit the same place three nights in a row.

But even with sympathy in their favor, the brothers sweated out that month after the shootings. Nobody wants somebody else deciding his future, especially perhaps, this pair who had worked relentlessly to rescue the tottering business they took over after the death of their father.

Joe Geckle was a stubborn if affectionate taskmaster who ruled over Back River Supply autocratically. Though his boys worked in the business, he never showed the slightest inclination to let them share in the decision-making. "There was no middle management," says Matt. "There was him and then there was everyone else."

The funny thing about Joe was that though he had been a scrupulous budget executive in his previous employment for others, including the Rouse Co., he was notably self-indulgent as the owner of his own company. What he loved most as scion of a cement manufacturing business was driving around town pointing out the landmarks containing Geckle-made concrete products: Camden Yards, the University of Maryland Hospital, Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

So eager was Joe to see the fruits of his labor on display that he had a tendency to underbid in order to get jobs, a practice that was at odds with profitability.

"My father didn't care about making money," says Matt. "He just wanted to say, `Joe Geckle did this.'"

A shocking discovery

The boys sensed the business was not healthy, but they were hardly prepared for the extent of its impairment, which they only learned after their father's unexpected death in 1992. Back River Supply was $600,000 in debt. Two nights after Joe's death (and after Tony's cross-country flight home from Marine Reserves training), they sat down and made a decision. "We kind of said to each other, `Do you want to do this thing or not,'" says Tony. "We said, `Let's do it.'"

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