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Saturday, March 6, 2021

Bad Choices: Murder and Betrayal in Wilmington

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Kevin McGonegal
Kevin McGonegal worked in the Maloney, McLaughlin and Frawley Administrations. Today he is vice president of Bellevue Realty Commercial Division in Wilmington.

The first 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.

———

This is not how he planned it. The barstool fell to the floor with a crash as he jumped back from his friend. The gun went off, nicking his friend in the arm. He backed away across the bar with his friend coming after him, cursing and swinging. Three more shots and his friend lay dead on the barroom floor in a pool of blood. The bar full of patrons looked on in horror as an off-duty state trooper tackled him. No, this was definitely not how he planned it.

Alice had a rough life from the time she was born at the old Wilmington General Hospital through her years growing up in Minquadale, just south of Wilmington off Route 13. She was the only child in an abusive household and left it at 14 to live with her aunt and uncle on Vandever Avenue in Wilmington. She tried moving back home but it didn’t work out, and after graduating from William Penn High School in 1960 she moved in with her grandmother.

She was dating a guy four years older that summer who wanted to marry her. And I’m thinking,” said Alice, “You know what, this will be your way out, away from your mother. So like some dummy I married him.

The marriage produced two sons but failed within a few years, and Alice was on her own again. She was out on a date and they stopped at a diner when she saw someone from her past, Freddy Gawronski. He had grown up in Garfield Park, next to Alice’s neighborhood, and was two years older. “He was my best friend’s boyfriend and I was in love with him.” He had spent his early years in and out of trouble, ending up in Ferris as an adolescent and then the old New Castle County Workhouse as an adult. She hadn’t seen him in years but had never lost her feelings for him.

I was sitting in this car with this boyfriend of mine and [Freddy] came out. I looked past this guy I was with and said, ‘Freddy’ and he came over and said, ‘How you doing?’ and I thought my heart was going to stop.” Fred Gawronski was an imposing figure, about 6 feet tall and over 230 pounds, with a nasty reputation. Alice’s current boyfriend wasn’t about to say anything to him. Freddy got her number and said he’d call, which he did two weeks later.

Freddy worked at Georgia Pacific plant near the Port of Wilmington and got off work at 11:30 PM. He asked Alice to meet him at the Sky Lounge at the New Castle County Airport and she agreed. She had dropped her boyfriend off at work and was supposed to pick him up after his shift, but she never showed up. Instead, she spent the night with Freddy, talking in her car with him until she took him home at 5 AM. The boyfriend had to find his own way home and find a ride home for Alice’s babysitter.

Freddy and Alice began dating, hanging at the neighborhood bars South of Wilmington. Freddy had gotten a job working at a dairy farm around Centreville, caring for the cows and doing odd jobs. One day he announced he and Alice were going to be married August 5th, Alice’s birthday. They married and moved to a house on the farm. Freddy, though, had never stopped running around with his ex-girlfriend and pretty soon told Alice he didn’t want to be married anymore. Now stuck at an isolated farmhouse with her two boys and a house full of his furniture and hers, she decided to take action. Her brother-in-law brought his truck and she cleaned out the house full of furniture, taking it to her mother’s. “We got all the stuff and got out of there, hoping and praying that he didn’t come [home] because we’d all be dead, he was that evil.” When he finally did come home to the empty house, he called Alice and said, “Alice, I didn’t think you had it in you.”

Before long, Alice and her mother were not getting along, and Alice went to visit Freddy at his girlfriend’s in Elsmere. They reconciled and moved to Freddy’s house in Chelsea Estates near the New Castle County Airport, and Freddy never left her again. Alice had fond memories for those days. “I remember when we were teenagers, 15, 16, and it was just something about him that I was in love with him and never lost that feeling. He was the love of my life and I was the happiest woman in the world to be next to him. When we first moved in there, things were OK. We got new furniture.” Freddy got a job at the Gateway Hotel on Route 13 as the maintenance man who seemed to be able to fix anything. “He was the most talented individual. I think he learned everything in jail.”

Alice became pregnant with Freddy’s child soon after they married and gave birth to a daughter in July of 1971. But that’s when the abuse began. Freddy’s violent tendencies were never far from the surface, and his drinking seemed to set him off. He didn’t care if Alice had two young sons and, now, an infant daughter, he was going to hit the bars and if she didn’t come along, he’d drink on his own. At a bar in Browntown in Wilmington he tried to choke her because he thought she was talking to another man. At the Dutch Tavern in New Castle he pummeled a couple of ironworkers he thought were eyeballing his wife. And if he was drinking at home or came home drunk, Alice would be beaten at home.

He used to beat me so bad I couldn’t go out of the house for days.” Years later her grown son told her he remembered those days, too. “He said, ‘Mom, I remember when Freddy used to beat you all the time, and you would say,’ because my face was messed up, ‘oh, I fell.’”

Freddy’s behavior became more and more erratic. He’d go to work at the Gateway Motel and disappear for long periods of time. His controlling influence over Alice escalated. “I had one hour to go to the grocery store. I was scared of him by this time. I had four phones in my house and if I didn’t answer by the third ring he’d demand ‘Where were you?’”

At another bar he flew into a jealous rage and beat up another bar patron. On their way home, he told Alice that when she came home from dropping off the babysitter, he was going to beat the hell out of her. “I dropped [the babysitter] off, went to a pay phone [and called her brother-in-law]. I said, ‘Joe, I am going home and kill your brother. He said, ‘You can’t do that’ and I said, ‘You watch me.’ I had a big butcher knife in my kitchen and I had every intention of killing him. But, by the time I got home he was sleeping. Probably in the end I would have been the one dead.”

Her life with Freddy was getting worse by the day. “It was awful [but] I didn’t have a choice. Back in 1972, 1973 they didn’t have shelters [for battered women]. He didn’t want my boys. He threatened me – I had a week to get rid of my boys or he was going to take [our daughter] Becky from me. I had no family. The police wouldn’t have done anything. I couldn’t go nowhere, I had nowhere to go.”

Freddy had a group of guys he would hang at the bars with most nights, one of them named Thomas Barker. Barker was older than Freddy by about a dozen years, never seemed to work but always had money. His arrest record stretched across 8 states, having served time most recently in Pennsylvania for robbery. They would drink and party at Freddy’s house in Chelsea Estates, go out nights and hit the bars. Freddy’s job at  the Gateway Motel was during the day, but he began to go in evenings, too, though Alice could never reach him there. He told her he was going in to pick up drivers, but drivers for what Alice never asked. “I would have days when I’d get this sick, horrible feeling in my stomach. I knew he wasn’t coming home from work.”

By this time they had moved temporarily to the Gateway Motel, in anticipation of moving to a trailer park in Avondale, PA. “I thought to myself, maybe if we sold this house [and] moved out of Delaware…maybe I could get him away from this mess.” But Fred Gawronski was being drawn deeper into a world Alice knew nothing about, and she was scared to ask any questions. “I remember he [Barker] would come to the house and he said, ‘Freddy, I can get you a job. I work for Frank Sheeran.’ He said he [Sheeran] wanted to talk to him and he wanted to give him a job.” On the night of October 24, 1973 Fred and Alice Gawronski, along with Leon Smallwood and another friend, went to the J&J Tavern on New Castle Avenue for drinks. The next stop was the Bali Hai about a ¼ mile away, and there they met up with Tommy Barker. Barker talked to Fred Gawronski and, at Barker’s suggestion, the party left for the Kent Manor Inn on Route 13, just south of Wilmington (current site of the Gold Club, Restaurant and Exotic Entertainment).

At that time the Hotel DuPont was the only hotel in Wilmington and the Kent Manor Inn would often handle any overflow of guests from the much more elegant hotel on Rodney Square. In the Lounge of the Kent Manor Inn, Barker tells Fred Gawronski, “Come over, I want to introduce you to Mr. Sheeran.”

Frank Sheeran had a towering presence, standing 6’4’’ and well over 200 pounds, with a shock of dark hair going gray. He was president of Teamsters Local 326 in Wilmington, an intimate of Jimmy Hoffa and numerous underworld figures. He had grown up during the Depression in Philadelphia, went to the local parochial school and served as an altar boy at Our Lady of Sorrows Church. After dropping out of high school he worked as a roustabout for a small time carnival, experienced extensive combat duty in Italy and France during World War II, and eventually took a job driving a truck for Food Fair Markets after the war. This led him into the Teamsters Union and brought him into contact with Mafia figures like Philadelphia’s Angelo Bruno and upstate Pennsylvania’s Russell Bufalino. Before long he was supplementing his side income as a ballroom dance instructor with jobs for his mob bosses.

Working for the mob meant enforcing their brand of justice and he became well known within their circle. Through Russell Bufalino he was introduced to Jimmy Hoffa, whose first words to him were, “I heard you paint houses.” According to Frank Sheeran, “The paint is the blood that supposedly gets on the wall or the floor when you shoot somebody. I told Jimmy, ’I do my own carpentry work, too.’ That refers to making coffins and means you get rid of the bodies yourself.” Frank Sheeran was not a man to be messed with under any circumstances.

Sheeran had become president of Wilmington’s Local 326 when it was split off from the Philadelphia Local in 1966. He had his Local office at 109 East Front Street (now Martin Luther King Blvd.) near the train station in Wilmington, but held court and conducted business just down South Market Street at the Kent Manor Inn.

Gawronski, his wife and friends, joined Sheeran at a table and Sheeran had his bottle of wine brought over in a bucket of ice. Barker had left the Lounge by this time. By the time Barker got back, now riding in the passenger seat of another friend’s car, Gawronski and his group were just pulling out of the parking lot. Gawronski jumped out of his car, an AMC Javelin, and told Barker to get out of his. The two men walked away from the others, had a few words, and Gawronski took a swing at Barker, hitting him flush on the side of his head. Barker went down and after some pleading with the much larger Gawronski, was allowed to stand up and leave.

The next day Barker showed up at Leon Smallwood’s house and told him he and Gawronski needed to go back to the Kent Manor Inn that evening and apologize to Frank Sheeran for their behavior the previous night. Barker also went to the Gateway Motel to tell Fred the same thing – he had to go back to apologize to Sheeran. He came back several times over the course of the day to make sure Gawronski was going to show. “That evening he [Freddy] took a shower, got dressed, and he was supposed to go to the Kent Manor Inn and meet Frank Sheeran and apologize for what he had done the night before. Freddy thought he [Freddy] was bad. He had no fear of Frank. So he gave me a kiss goodbye and said, ‘I’ll be back in a little while.’ He only had a dollar so it wasn’t like he could spend a lot of money.” He wore a white tee shirt and a pair of khaki work pants.

Around 5:30 PM that evening Barker came back to Smallwood’s house and said there had been a change of plans. They would go to the J&J Tavern and do their apologizing there. Gawronski picked up Smallwood in his Javelin and arrived at the J&J Tavern around 8 PM. They saw Barker standing in the parking lot outside the tavern with two other men. Barker and Gawronski shook hands in a friendly manner and the whole party went inside.

The J&J Tavern, at 3050 New Castle Avenue south of Wilmington, was a rough place where violence was not uncommon. Fred Gawronski was a regular, coming in a couple of times a week, often with his wife Alice and friends Leon Smallwood and brothers Tiny and Buckwheat Milligan. Twice in the last month they had gotten into fights in the bar amongst themselves. Barker was also a regular and was living at the time with the bar manager, Phyllis Holmes. The bar was dimly lit, with a string of green lights hanging from the ceiling that gave off an eerie glow. Illumination from the Schaefer Beer clock on the wall and the Budweiser sign with the revolving Clydesdales pulling the beer wagon added to the fluorescent light that was suspended above the pool table. Patrons sat at the few tables scattered across the floor and at the curved bar. Music from the jukebox in the corner and the clatter from the bowling machine provided the background to the low talk and occasional shouts from the pool players.

Gawronski began drinking heavily with Barker doing most of the buying. They sat side by side at the bar, with Smallwood on one side and Barker’s companion on the other. Gawronski had tossed down 15 to 20 pony bottles of Miller Beer while Barker was drinking whiskey and cokes. After a while Smallwood got up and went over to sit with some other friends near the pool table. At home at the Gateway Motel, Alice got a call from Tiny Milligan. “He said, ‘Alice, where’s Freddy?’ I said he went to apologize to Frank Sheeran. ‘Well, there’s something funny going on. He’s not at the Kent Manor Inn. He’s at the J&J Tavern.’ So I called the J&J and Leon Smallwood comes on the phone. I tell him I want to speak to Freddy. He said, ‘Can’t.’ I said [to] put him on the phone. [Freddy] said, ‘I can’t talk, I’m busy.’ I said, ‘Let me tell you something. If you’re not home by 12 o’clock I’m calling the police.'”

Midnight approached at the J&J Tavern and nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Seated at a table with part-owner Jimmy Fretz was Sewell Scott, a lieutenant and 15-year veteran of the Delaware State Police. He had been asked to stop by off-duty by Fretz and he sat with his back to the bar sipping his Calvert and coke. He had recognized a couple of patrons, including Leon Smallwood and Tommy Barker when he arrived, and had exchanged greetings with Barker. Scott asked him what he was doing with himself these days and Barker answered, “You know better than to ask me that.”

“I heard what I thought to be firecrackers or a cherry bomb,” said Scott. “I turned to my left and walked towards the bar. At first I didn’t know what action was taking place and I heard the first report. When I stood up I at that time observed the two individuals in the middle of the floor here, and I observed a gun in Mr. Barker’s hand, and another shot was fired along with two more quick shots. Mr. Barker’s back was towards me. I saw flames shooting out of the end of the barrel. I jumped him from behind and grabbed his gun arm with both of my hands and spun him around. I could see he wasn’t going to drop it so I gave him a knee to the groin at which time I saw the gun drop to the floor.”

“I started hollering at him to get him back to his senses. He [Barker] grabbed a bar stool and swung it at me and I warded it off with my arm. I dropped down… and I hit him in the stomach area with my shoulder and drove him across the room. We hit the wall and Mr. Barker went down with me on top of him. He was still fighting. I pulled his jacket over his head to blind him. We wrestled over to the pool table, he picked up a cue and attempted to swing it at me. I put a chokehold on him. He finally settled down and looked at me. And his first words were, ‘What are you doing here, Scotty?’ I advised him he had just shot Fred. He said, ‘Not me, baby.’”

Fred Gawronski lay dead on the floor of the J&J Tavern with 4 bullet wounds from a .45 automatic pistol. Two bullets had struck his right upper arm, one his left upper arm and the 4th his left shoulder. One bullet entered and exited the right upper arm, hit the right chest region, traveled through the chest, pierced his lung, heart, liver, and spleen and exited the body on the left side. This was one of the first two bullets fired. By the time the 4th bullet was fired, Gawronski was turning and falling forward. He landed on his back, having made it from the bar across the floor to the side door before he fell. He was pronounced dead at 12:15 AM.

I don’t remember the time frame… Someone knocked on my door and said, ‘Alice, something’s happened to Freddy. He got shot.’ So we drove over to the J&J Tavern and I jumped out. They wouldn’t let me in there. He was gone from there, then. We got [to the hospital] and I run in. I said I want to see my husband. Next thing I knew they took me into a room. I didn’t want to be in a room. I wanted to see Freddy. They said you can’t right now. The doctor came in and I said ‘All I want to know is how much pain is he in?’ The doctor said, ‘He’s not in any pain.’ ‘You mean he’s dead?’ And he said yes. And I passed out.

————-

In Part Two: Young hotshot prosecutor Joe Hurley draws the Barker murder case and seems to have a sure conviction on his hands. Defendant Tommy Barker pleads self-defense and has a powerful friend in his corner.

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