Man charged in fatal beating

Shaken patrons of Catonsville tavern say misdirected anger led to attack

March 31, 2009|By Nick Madigan | Nick Madigan,

Franklin J. Schissler liked to sit at the bar at Morsberger's Tavern in Catonsville, sometimes for hours, sipping a beer and watching whatever was on TV. He didn't talk much, people in the bar said, and when he did he was unfailingly polite.

"He wasn't a drinker," said John Fromentin, a 63-year-old retired sales manager who had often seen Schissler around. "He'd just sit there and nurse those beers."

But on Sunday afternoon, the mild-mannered Schissler, 66, got on the wrong side of Benjamin W. Shorter, a burly, 41-year-old steamfitter, according to Fromentin and others who returned to the bar Monday. They described Shorter - fueled by shots of vodka and angry that his date was flirting with another man - running after Schissler into the men's room.

Seconds later, bar patrons said, they found the older man face-down in a pool of blood, unconscious from an apparent beating.

The patrons tried to revive Schissler, as did paramedics, without success. He was pronounced dead at St. Agnes Hospital.

Police later arrested Shorter and charged him with first-degree murder in the death of Schissler, who had what an uncle called "mental health issues" and was a resident of Spring Grove Hospital Center, a state-run psychiatric facility a few blocks from Morsberger's Tavern. The uncle, Anthony H. Zelaznicki, said that Schissler had been looking forward to moving into a group home.

"We're all very shaken," said Sandra Frantz, 43, who was in the bar when the attack took place and who said she has known Shorter for about 15 years. "He's been a nut job since the day I met him," she said.

Court records show that Shorter was arrested on a drug charge in 2000, but the case was not prosecuted. He was found not guilty of battery in 1993. In 2003, he was given probation on a second-degree assault charge and "evaluated for anger-management classes," according to court records.

Frantz and others said Monday that the attack on Schissler was unprovoked. According to several witnesses, the incident began after Shorter's date allowed herself as a joke to be handcuffed by a man at the bar. Shorter, who was focused on the jukebox a few feet away, did not see it happen, but was informed about it by someone else, and immediately grew angry, the witnesses said. At that same moment, Schissler was trying to get past Shorter in the crowded bar on his way to the men's room.

"Frank very politely said, 'Excuse me, could you let me squeeze by?' " Fromentin said. "He said it three times, and the third time was as polite as the first one. Ben didn't let him by, so I moved a couple of stools to let him by. Ben went right after him - he knocked over a stool on the way there."

Frantz took up the story. She said she recalled Shorter saying something like, " 'I'm going to snap somebody's head off.'

"I thought, 'Oh, c'mon,' " she said. "Knowing Ben, he was in there blowing off steam."

None of the witnesses realized a beating - let alone a deadly one - was talking place, they said. Brian Meise, 51, said he went to the men's room and found Schissler on the floor:

"I got down on my knees and pulled his head up so he wouldn't drown, and he didn't move once. This guy has a family. I used to see him at McDonald's. I even lent him $3 last week."

Baltimore Sun reporter Mary Gail Hare contributed to this article.

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