Bad Choices: Murder and Betrayal in Wilmington

The final installment in a three-part series to run on Town Square Delaware this week about the 1973 murder of New Castle’s Fred Gawronski and the ensuing trial of Tommy Barker. See the first two here.

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Alice Gawronski now had no husband, no job and three kids to support. She had relocated with the help of her Gawronski in-laws to a trailer park in Avondale, PA. Shortly after the trial she gets a phone call. It’s Tommy Barker. “He said, ‘Hi, how are you?’ And I said, ‘Ok,’ and my first thought is – I want to kill this guy. He said, ‘Why don’t you meet me, we’ll have a drink.’ And I agreed to it. I’ll tell you what I did. I wrote a note, and I put the day, the time, the town where I was meeting him. I am leaving here, I am meeting Tom Barker, if you don’t hear from me it’s because he killed me. And I put the note in a drawer in my kitchen. And I met him. And we talked. Why did you kill Freddy? ‘He tried to kill me.’ I knew better.” 

“I met him at a bar and we drank. It was like he was trying to be my boyfriend. And the more he wanted to be my boyfriend the more I wanted to kill him. And I thought somehow, some way I’m going to find a way to do him in. No matter what I have to do.”

Events were now taking a dark, bizarre turn. Just months after Tommy Barker had killed her husband and days after Barker’s murder trial had ended with a not guilty verdict, Fred Gawronski’s widow was now dating the man who had ended her husband’s life. “He started taking me on trips. He called every day, came to my trailer. I let him come there because I had plans for him. He took me to New York to these fancy Italian restaurants with these big people with suits on. I would look around like, oh my God. I know these were gangsters.”

“We were in New York one time and he said something happened while we were up there with my car and he had to get rid of it. I said, ‘You can’t do that, it’s all I have.’ And he said, ‘Guess what, it disappeared.’ He was seen by somebody doing something with my car. It was like lavender color, a Javelin. I loved it. But it was something people would notice. He [Barker] said don’t worry about it. Report it stolen and you’ll get another car. So I did. I know he was killing people. He had a gun.”

Their relationship was more than a supposed friendship. There were weekend trips to New York and Philadelphia and intimate relations between them. “I played a game. I wanted to do whatever it took to have him dead. Does that make me a horrible person? The relationship went on for a while, a couple of months, maybe.”

It couldn’t last long, because Barker’s line of work meant he was often doing jail time for various crimes. Alice was now deeply involved in his life. She had given him her dead husband Freddy’s credit card and Barker used it to rent a car. In April he and Alice stopped in front of a house south of Wilmington on Wildel Avenue. “He got out, went into the house and came out with some stuff. I don’t know what.” On April 11th Barker and Alice Gawronski were arrested on three felony counts each of second degree burglary, felony theft and second degree arson. Alice was released on secured bond and entered a plea of not guilty at arraignment. Barker also pled not guilty but was put was back behind bars, and in May he was sentenced to seven years in state prison for carrying a concealed deadly weapon, a charge stemming from an assault in early September, 1973, before the Gawronski shooting, with a.45 automatic on a bar patron. Also, a U.S. District Court found him guilty of interstate transport of stolen cars and sentenced him to seven years, to run concurrently with his state prison time.

Thomas Barker was now in prison, but Alice Gawronski’s time with him had painful consequences. Immediately after the shooting, Alice was in terrible shape emotionally. She and Freddy had purchased the doublewide modular home in Avondale and were only a few days away from moving when he was shot. When she finally moved there it wasn’t with her children. “My daughter was with my sister-in-law and the boys were with their father. The horrible part of it all, I lost my kids for a period of time because of it. They [her in-laws] thought I was having a relationship with Barker. My sister-in-law, she was Freddy’s sister, had my daughter. She thought I was in love with Barker and how dare I have an affair with the murderer that killed her brother. They took me to court to get custody.”

Alice Gawronski won her family court case and retained custody of her daughter. She was not through with Tom Barker, though. “I went to see him in Smyrna [Delaware Correctional Center]. He would call on the phone, I would talk to him, he said he wanted me to come see him and I went down there and he was like in love with me. I said, ‘When are you getting out,’ and he didn’t know. I was thinking maybe I could make a plan. I could find a way of somehow getting a gun. He was thinking then that I liked him.”

Alice had another reason for visiting Barker in prison – the three felony charges pending against them. “He said, ‘Alice, don’t worry about it. I’ll take care of it.'” Eventually he did, pleading guilty to one count of second degree burglary while the State dropped all charges against Alice.

Alice Gawronski wasn’t the only one interested in meeting with Tommy Barker. A State Police officer researching cold cases contacted Joe Hurley in the Attorney General’s office. “At that point in time I was the darling of the police because I was aggressive, very pro-active, going out on raids, playing junior cop-type things,” recalled Hurley. “And I was reckless, probably more than I should have been. So Carl Williams [the State Police officer] approached me about Barker…and said, ‘Barker could really bring us something big.'”

“So I got us a room at the Governor Printz Motel, Williams does up dummy warrants, arrest warrants on Barker, goes over the DCC to pick him up, supposedly to take him to magistrate’s court to arraign him on these rinky dink charges. Instead brings him to the Governor Printz Motel where I meet with Barker and Carl Williams and another cop for security purposes.” In spite of the circumstances, Tommy Barker can’t help but gloat a bit about the result of the Gawronski murder trial. “‘Remember how I was always smiling during the trial?’ And I remembered that. ‘I knew you were never going to get a conviction.'” Barker lets Hurley know they had gotten to the jury foreman. “He knew he was never going to be convicted,” said Hurley. “At worst it was going to be a hung jury.” In fact, at the beginning of the fourth day of testimony, a report of a threatening call to the jury forelady was discussed by the judge and the attorneys. She was a bus driver and was told by an anonymous caller, “If you stay on the case, there will be a mistrial.” The forelady said she could maintain her objectivity and the case proceeded.

This was not why they had brought Barker to the motel. They wanted information on other cases and Barker had what they wanted. “What he had to offer was very enticing,” said Hurley. “I don’t remember what it was but it was about the Teamsters and corruption and homicide [Carl Williams was homicide cold cases]. He [Barker] could bring us whoever it was.”

“Then he got to his price. He wanted to get out of the charges –’Yeah, don’t worry about that’ type of thing. At some point he casually says, ‘You know I have to work.’ Yeah, what do you mean? ‘I have to do my job.’ What do you mean? ‘I work for Frank [Sheeran].’ [Barker makes a gun shape with his fingers and pulls the trigger.] You mean like kill people? ‘Yeah. There’s an executive in St. Louis that’s causing a lot of problems and Jimmy [Hoffa] asked Frank [Sheeran] if he could take care of it. If I get out Frank will want me to handle it. I got to do it or I lose [credibility].'”

“That killed the deal, as soon as he said he had to work,” said Hurley. “The idea that somebody could talk about killing…without any emotion was just so… I was careful to be polite and courteous of what I was feeling inside because – he might get out someday!”

Barker remained in prison through the rest of the 1970s, but not without incident. In a later trial an attorney accused him of dealing drugs while in DCC, becoming the warden’s informant on other inmates in return for not being punished for having weapons in his cell, and becoming an informant for a former deputy attorney general (Hurley). However it was in a 1980 federal RICO trial in Philadelphia against his former employer Frank Sheeran that produced the biggest revelations about Tom Barker’s activities. At that trial, both Tom Barker and Charlie Allen (Palermo) testified that the shooting of Fred Gawronski in 1973 was not a case of self-defense but a hit ordered by Frank Sheeran. As Sheeran recalled in his book, I Heard You Paint Houses: “The [FBI] agent said they had me nailed solid for two murders, four attempted murders, and a long list of other felonies, and if I didn’t cooperate and let them protect me I’d end up dead from the mob or I’d die in jail. I said, ‘What will be will be.'”

“One of the murders they put on me was the Fred Gawronski shooting that Tommy Barker had already beaten on self-defense.” Sheeran testified in his own defense at the RICO trial and, in the end, the jury acquitted him of all charges. Sheeran would be on trial in Delaware soon after on charges of ordering Charlie Allen to give a crane company manager a tune-up to keep him away from a grievance hearing. “Allen had me [Sheeran] on tape saying, ‘Break both of his legs. I want him laid up. I want him to go to the hospital.'” Between that conviction and a subsequent federal corruption conviction in 1981 about his union activities, Sheeran was now going away to prison for perhaps the rest of his life.

By 1986 Barker had served his time both at the Delaware Correctional Center and at a federal penitentiary in Wisconsin for transporting stolen goods, and was released back to Delaware. When she learned of his release, Alice Gawronski again decided Barker needed to pay for killing her husband. “I went to buy a .45 automatic and was put out of Miller’s Gun Shop [on DuPont Highway near New Castle]. I said I was going to kill somebody with it and he [the shop owner] said ‘I think you better leave.’ I had every intention of finding and killing him.”

Barker was soon back to his criminal activities, setting up several businesses as fronts for dealing cocaine, including a flea market, a produce stand, a construction company and a used car dealership. He used others, including his then-wife to carry out his sales and deliveries and shield himself from direct involvement. But he also worked with a racketeer out of Delaware County, PA to install video poker machines in bars and taverns. And this brought him to a pizzeria in the Northtowne Shopping Center in Claymont run by Vincent Scotto.

Scotto had been selling cocaine out of his pizzeria for several years when Barker walked in to collect a debt. What Barker didn’t know was that Scotto had already been busted by the DEA and was now working as an informant. By 1989 Barker had been arrested and charged with four counts of distributing cocaine and one count of conspiracy, with each count carrying a 20-year maximum sentence. Faced with spending the rest of his life behind bars, Barker began ratting out his cocaine suppliers. One of his sources for the drugs was a fellow inmate from his time at the Wisconsin federal penitentiary, Teamster James Sheehan. When Sheehan and his partner were charged with interstate travel to distribute cocaine and brought to trial in Wilmington, Barker was the prosecution’s star witness.

By the time of this trial in 1991 Barker was 64-years-old. He was described by the News Journal court reporter as “a small, stocky man with fleshy jowls and a perpetual perplexed scowl. He has gray hair combed down to hide a bald spot, and was dressed casually…in a sports coat, button down shirt, blue jeans and sneakers.” After a few days on the stand “he looked more like a tired, lonely old man than the intimidating thug he is supposed to be.” His testimony was mostly about the cocaine dealing and his relationship with his drug supplier Sheehan, but the prosecutors made him come clean on his lifetime of criminal activity. Now Barker testified again about the death of Fred Gawronski, about how it was not self-defense as he testified in 1974, but a mob hit ordered by Wilmington Teamsters boss Frank Sheeran.

Barker and Charlie Palermo planned to get Gawronski drunk at the J&J Tavern, take him out to a site where they had already dug a shallow grave, and shoot him. But the plan went awry. At the J&J that night, Gawronski did get into a fight with another patron about remarks made concerning the barmaid. In the scuffle Barker was knocked off his barstool and when he bent over to pick it up, Gawronski spotted the gun in Barker’s pocket. “He said to me, ‘Oh, you’re going to kill me.’ I stepped back and he charged me.” Four shots later, Gawronski lay dead on the barroom floor. “Barker stated it was a contract killing, but he never got paid. It was all part of his work for Sheeran, Barker said.”

But if it was a contract killing, why had Frank Sheeran wanted Fred Gawronski dead? The only time they met was at the Kent Manor Inn the night before Gawronski’s murder. The testimony at the Barker murder trial from Leon Smallwood and Barker certainly didn’t reflect any problems between the two. What really happened that night?

“I remember it like it was yesterday.” Alice and Fred Gawronski, along with Barker, Leon Smallwood and a few other friends sat at a table in the Kent Manor Inn Lounge. Frank Sheeran sat at the head of the table with his bottle of wine in a cooler stand next to him. For some unknown reason Barker got up and left. We sat there for like an hour and a half. We were waiting for Barker to come back and we waited and had drinks. Finally Leon Smallwood said, ‘Freddy, Barker ain’t coming back. Why don’t we just go.’ Freddy said, ‘Ok,’ got up, I got up, [Freddy] walked to the end of the table where Frank [Sheeran] was sitting, snatched the bottle out of there, and when he did the wine went all over Frank, all over Freddy’s white t-shirt. And the place was full of people. He turned around with the bottle and handed it to me. I wasn’t scared, I didn’t know who Frank Sheeran was.”

Frank Sheeran, the powerful and dangerous Teamsters boss and underworld figure, had a bottle of wine spilled all over him at his place of business by some low-life thug. “The key issue is respect,” said Sheeran biographer Charles Brandt. Sheeran couldn’t let a seemingly trivial incident pass without losing face in his world of mafia sensibilities. Likewise, according to Brandt, Gawronski had already shown his disrespect for Sheeran. “The meeting [between Gawronski, Barker and Sheeran] was to introduce Gawronski to Sheeran to get approval to do loan sharking among the Teamsters,” said Brandt. “Of course, Sheeran would get a piece [of the action]. They had a time set, Gawronski gets there late, and Sheeran says the meeting’s off (meaning he doesn’t get the job). That’s what set Gawronski off.”

The two men Sheeran respected above all others were Jimmy Hoffa and Russell Bufalino. And for them, being on time went well beyond simple courtesy. “Russ and Jimmy both went by time,” related Sheeran. “You didn’t show time, you didn’t show respect. Jimmy would give you fifteen minutes. After that you lost your appointment. No matter how big you were or thought you were.”

Whether that was the cause, or that Sheeran wanted Gawronski to work as an enforcer like his friend Barker, as Alice Gawronski believes, clearly Freddy Gawronski had violated a code of honor. Barker knew where his loyalties lay and took care of the situation for Sheeran. Sheeran rewarded Barker’s loyalty by helping him beat the murder charge. And, ultimately, Barker turned on Sheeran to save his own skin, just as he had turned on Fred Gawronski at the J&J Tavern.

Alice Gawronski and Thomas Barker did meet again, this time in a parking lot with a teenaged Becky and her friend alongside her. “He pulls up and says [to Becky] ‘Hi, I’m Tom.’ At her age I don’t think it had any effect on her because she never knew Freddy and I didn’t do a lot of talking about it around her. He said, ‘How are you Becky, I’m glad to see you after all this time. Did you get the things I sent you?’ She said, ‘I got things in the mail. Mom threw them out.'”

The News Journal account of this meeting said, “An icy feeling came over her [Becky], and as they drove away Becky Gawronski confided to her friend, ‘I think that’s the guy who killed my father.'”

The relationship between Alice Gawronski and Tommy Barker is difficult to resolve. Alice Gawronski insists Barker never made any advances on her while Freddy Gawronski was alive. Once in prison, though, Barker began a correspondence with Alice and her young daughter. Just after the not guilty verdict he called Alice and initiated a relationship. Alice maintains that her life with husband Freddy Gawronski was horrible, marked by physical and verbal abuse. She even claims Freddy insisted she get rid of her two sons from her previous marriage within a week. He was killed before that week was up. Tom Barker delivered her out of that living hell by killing Fred Gawronski, yet Alice swears her only thoughts were to kill the man who killed her tormentor. She dated Barker, traveled with him to Philadelphia and New York for weekend trips, had sexual relations with him and all the while maintaining she only wanted to kill him. She continued to visit him when he returned to prison, though she says it was to lead him on and resolve pending charges against her. She never made an attempt on Barker’s life, as she said she intended.

Was Barker truly a target for murder by Alice Gawronski or just another bad choice of male companionship? “I guess. I didn’t want to choose him as a man in my life, as a husband, a partner. My thoughts every day was how am I going to make him pay for this, but I was playing a game, playing along with whatever he [Barker] said. For me to think back on that…was I wrong? In one aspect maybe I could say yes. All I did and I could have lost my kids. My kids were my life and yet my mind was telling me I had to do these other things [with Barker].”

Frank Sheeran spent the better part of fifteen years in state and federal prisons, finally released the last time in 1995. Health problems forced him to move about with a walker as he lived in an apartment and later a nursing home in the Philadelphia suburbs. He told his life story to attorney and author Charles Brandt, including his trip to Detroit in 1975, two years after ordering the murder of Fred Gawronski. On orders from his mafia bosses, Sheeran met his old friend and mentor Jimmy Hoffa, drove with him to a safe house, and put two bullets into the back of Hoffa’s head.  Frank Sheeran died in a nursing home in December, 2003.

Thomas Bowie Barker, Sr. relocated to Arizona in 1994 and died in Scottsdale in 2004 at age 77. His obituary lists World War II decorations, including a Silver and Bronze star, but makes no mention of his career as a hitman for Frank Sheeran.

Alice Gawronski still lives in New Castle County and has time to reflect on her life. Her two sons have both died but her daughter has survived. “I’m not proud of myself, of course, that I was that person back then. [Life was Freddy] was horrible…by the time he got killed I had no love for him. I’m not going to use the word ‘glad’ that Freddy’s gone. He had to die so my daughter could have a life.”

Fred Gawronski has been dead forty years now, and time has allowed some of the pain he inflicted to pass. Some things don’t heal as quickly. “He [Freddy] said one night, ‘I’m going to brand you.’ Alice related as she raised her right sleeve. On the top of her right arm is a crudely drawn tattoo with the word, “Fred.”

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Sources:

Information about Frank Sheeran and all Sheeran quotes from the excellent book by Charles Brandt, I Heard You Paint Houses, Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran and Closing the Case on Jimmy Hoffa, (Hanover, 2005). Also, Charles Brandt phone interview, July, 2013.

Alice Gawronski interviews December, 2012; August, 2013; and November, 2013.

Joe Hurley interview, June, 2013.

Transcript of Trial Record and File, CR 1882 and 1888, Delaware State Archives.

Superior Court of Delaware Docket 950 Criminal Action 1974, State of Delaware vs. Thomas R. Barker, Alice Gawronski

Barker Obituary, Arizona Republic, Yellow Footprints.com.

News Journal, October 27, 1973.

News Journal, January 15-19, 1974.

News Journal, May 17, 18, 21-24, 29-31, 1991.

News Journal, June 2, 1991.

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