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Thursday, May 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 second 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 here.


The Wilmington Morning News that week in 1973 was filled with stories of the “Saturday Night Massacre” where President Nixon accepted the resignations of his Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General for refusing to fire Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox. The Way We Were was playing at the Concord Mall Cinema and Jesus Christ Superstar was playing at the Edgemoor Theater. The Naaman’s Drive-In featured an adults-only triple feature of Swinging Models, Swinging Stewardesses and Swinging Pussycats. On the sports page, St. Marks High School quarterback and future U.S. Congressman John Carney was leading his football team over St. Elizabeth’s at Baynard Stadium. The Gawronski murder warranted a few paragraphs in the local section, mentioning that Thomas Barker was arrested and charged with murder, and committed to Delaware Correctional Center pending a hearing.

Joe Hurley was a young hotshot attorney in the Attorney General’s office when he drew the assignment to prosecute the Gawronski murder case set to begin in January, 1974 in Superior Court on Rodney Square. With a barroom full of witnesses including a State Police lieutenant who tackled the suspect, this looked like a slam dunk for the prosecution. “When you got a State Police officer standing there at point blank range himself, you got a great case,” recalled Hurley. For a motive in the killing Hurley focused on the fight the night before at the Kent Manor Inn parking lot where Gawronski had knocked Barker to the ground. Barker for his part claimed self- defense. Representing Barker were attorneys Michael F. Tucker and James Kipp.

While elements of the trial seemed straightforward, there lingered a sense that something else altogether was going on. New Castle County Police had suspicions that Barker was somehow working for Frank Sheeran, but both Barker and Sheeran denied it. During voir dire, when prospective jurors are interviewed by both the prosecution and defense, the prosecution added a question as to whether anyone was a member of the Teamsters Union. And as the trial commenced, an attorney from Philadelphia named James Moran joined the defense team to represent the interests of the Teamsters Union. He had previously represented Frank Sheeran relating to a shooting during a labor dispute in Philadelphia.  Moran made a motion to continue the case and withdrew after the motion was denied. The question remained – what exactly were the interests of the Teamsters Union where neither the victim nor the defendant had any direct connections to the Teamsters?

The charge against Barker was murder in the second degree. “Thomas Bowie Barker, on or about the 25th day of October, 1973, in the County of New Castle, State of Delaware, did then and there feloniously and recklessly cause the death of Frederick J. Gawronski by means of shooting the said Fred J. Gawronski thereby causing his death under circumstances which manifested a cruel, wicked and depraved indifference of human life.” The trial in Superior Court began January 14, 1974. In his opening statement Joe Hurley described the incident at the J&J Tavern and the efforts of Lt. Scott to subdue the defendant. He also warned the jury about some of the witnesses about to be paraded in front of them. “Some of the witnesses are, well, they are not pillars of the community,” said Hurley. “I tell you that because you have to realize that this is an incident that occurred in a bar, not an incident that occurred in a church.”

His first witness was Chief Medical Examiner Ali Z. Hameli, who described in great detail with accompanying slides the findings of his autopsy of the victim, including his re-creation of how the shooting likely happened. Under cross- examination Hameli related, “An individual with this kind of wound would not die instantaneously. He would be alive for a few moments. He would be able to move a few feet away from the point where he was shot. Within 30 seconds he would go into shock, be unconscious within 30 to 60 seconds and dead within 2 to 3 minutes.” Gawronski’s blood alcohol level at the time of his death was .24.

As the lights came back on Hameli was excused and Hurley called his next witness, Alice Gawronski. “I was out in the hallway…and the next thing I know they’re calling me in the courtroom. I sat down [after being sworn in] and I had no clue what was going on there.” Joe Hurley told her, “There is something that I have to ask you to do that is very unpleasant, but it has to be done. I want you to look at the board over there and indicate whether or not that was your husband.” “The lights went down and…I looked at it and it was [Freddy] lying on a steel table, dead. And that was the end of me. I can’t imagine them being so cruel.” The Wilmington Morning News reported she had begun to weep on the stand. “As she stood up to leave the witness box her knees buckled and she started to fall. Court attendants quickly grasped her arms and helped her from the courtroom.”

Hurley began calling witnesses to the killing itself. First was one of the owners, then two patrons, all of whom described Barker as firing the .45 as he was backing up with Gawronski lunging after him. Leon Smallwood was next, the first witness to both the killing and the incident the night before at the Kent Manor Inn. Smallwood testified about meeting Sheeran at the Kent Manor Inn with Gawronski, the fight in the parking lot when Gawronski punched Barker, visits by Barker to his house the following day to arrange an apology to Sheeran, and the killing itself at the J&J Tavern. As for why an apology to Sheeran was necessary, Smallwood testified that while sitting with Sheeran at the Kent Manor Inn he had ordered a bottle of wine that ended up on Sheeran’s bill. Under cross examination by defense attorney Tucker, Smallwood admitted putting a gun to Barker’s head at the Dutch Tavern a month before the murder but declared there was no bad blood between them.

Hurley called the star witness for the prosecution, Lieutenant Sewell Scott of the Delaware State Police. Scott was able to describe with the professionalism of an experienced police officer the events of that night at the J&J Tavern, how he first thought he was hearing firecrackers going off, to seeing Barker firing the .45 at Gawronski, to the ensuing wrestling match to subdue the clearly disturbed and drunken assailant. It wasn’t until the cross examination by defense attorney James Kipp that the crux of the defense began to emerge.

Kipp: “Now when you talked to Mr. Barker prior to the shooting did you observe him?”

Lt. Scott: “Yes.”

Kipp: “Would you say it appeared he didn’t have a gun on him?”

Lt. Scott: “That’s right.”

Even with a redirect from the prosecution that had Sewell state he hadn’t frisked or patted down Barker at the time, the first seeds of doubt had been planted.

The third day of the trial the defendant Thomas Barker took the stand, and his claims of self-defense took center stage. He stated his height and weight (5’9”, 175 lbs.) to establish that he gave away several inches and over 50 lbs. to the deceased. Barker testified as to Fred Gawronski’s violent history, relating four separate incidents he witnessed just in the weeks preceding Gawronski’s death. In one incident at the J&J Tavern the month before between Gawronski and his wife, Gawronski “punched her and knocked the chair she was sitting in, completely disintegrated, and the wig she was wearing flew one way and she went the other.” The police were called but no arrests made. At a bar at Chestnut and S. Harrison Streets in Wilmington’s Hedgeville area, a guy brushed against Gawronski’s knee. Gawronski jumped up and broke a beer bottle. “The guy threw his hand up and Fred knocked the guy cold, after the guy stopped the bottle with his hand. The guy got cut bad, extremely bad.” In another incident, again at the J&J, both Gawronskis, the two Milligan brothers, Tiny and Buckwheat, Leon Smallwood, his wife and sister-in-law were all involved, with Gawronski knocking his friend Leon Smallwood to the ground and the two threatening each other.

Barker then related his version of the night before the murder at the Kent Manor Inn, one a bit different than Leon Smallwood’s. According to Barker, he invited Gawronski to the Kent Manor Inn to inspect a room he was going to have Gawronski renovate for the owner. He wanted to get maintenance business for Gawronski and Barker’s brother’s remodeling company. He acknowledged he introduced Gawronski and his party to Frank Sheeran but then left for an hour and a half. He said he found out later that Fred Gawronski and Leon Smallwood had made a mess of the Lounge area, throwing everything off the tables. When he returned Gawronski confronted him in the parking lot of the Kent Manor Inn and knocked him to the ground.

The next day Barker said he visited Leon Smallwood and told him he had to go apologize to the manager of the Kent Manor Inn because they (Gawronski and Smallwood) had thrown everything off the tables in the Lounge the night before. He also went to the Gateway Motel to meet with Gawronski to discuss splitting the maintenance money they were to get from the new work at the Kent Manor Inn.

Barker’s version of events the following night at the J&J Tavern conformed with other descriptions given so far, up to a point. There was a generally friendly atmosphere, both he and Gawronski were drinking heavily, and something set Gawronski off, directed at another patron, Bobby Henderson. “So this barmaid was walking up and down giving us drinks,” Barker testified. “And there was a remark made about this barmaid by – I don’t know who made the remark. I really wasn’t paying any attention. The first thing I knew Fred grabbed him [Bobby Henderson], smacked him on the side of the face a few times. And so when he did that, he put his right hand at his right front pocket, and that’s the first time that I realized Fred Gawronski had a weapon. He let this kid down, and that’s when I grabbed Fred and I said, ‘Please Fred, no trouble, no trouble.’ And then Fred released the guy and the guy immediately went out the front door.”

“Fred was a completely different, changed person, because he kept standing there and he wanted to go outside. I said, ‘Fred, please sit down.’ Well, that’s when he set down again… then he started acting real belligerent towards me, you know…And it seems like this incident with this other guy had triggered him off or something. So I had knew then he was armed, so I wanted to get away.”

Barker claimed he asked Freddy for permission to get up and go to the bathroom, but Gawronski replied, “If you get off that bar stool…I’m going to shoot you right there.” A few minutes later Barker said he decided to get up and try to get away. “The chair fell out from under me…just as I got up, Freddy grasped what was happening…because he come right off the seat the same time as my chair hit the floor…. He rammed his hand in his right front pocket, and the gun came out.” Barker described his actions, diving towards the gun. “I grabbed the gun and his hand, and he hit me in the mouth. And just as I grabbed it…the first thing I knew, I must have had the gun in my hand, because when he hit me I went directly back, but I did end up with the gun somehow…I can’t truthfully say how it got away from him.”

“I had the gun in my hand. He hit me again in the side of my head here, and he says, ‘Now I’m going to really kill you, you s.o.b.’…Just as he hit me, the gun went off. And I was pleading with him, backing up constantly. I was asking him, ‘Please Freddy.’ But I was scared to death, because I thought if he gets the gun away from me he’s going to kill me. And he kept charging me constantly, because the last thing I wanted to do was kill him.” Claiming he didn’t remember any more shots, or anything else, Barker testified the next thing he knew Det. Sewell Scott was subduing him.

Deputy Attorney General Joe Hurley now had an opportunity to cross-examine Barker and expose the contradictions in his story. Hurley came after him hard, but Barker had plenty of experience tangling with prosecutors. Barker now admitted the room at the Kent Manor Inn he showed to Gawronski the night before the shooting was in fact the local Teamster’s headquarters, that he knew Frank Sheeran and that Gawronski owed an apology to Sheeran for his actions that night, and not to the Hotel manager. Barker still maintained he never worked for Sheeran. The night of the shooting Barker also admitted showing up at the J&J Tavern in the company of Charlie Allen (aka Charlie Palermo).

Now the questioning turned to the central issue – who had possession of the gun when the fight started? If the gun was Barker’s, then self defense is harder believe. But what if the gun was Gawronski’s? Hurley had to show the story of Barker’s was an obvious fabrication.

Hurley asked Barker, “Here is what I don’t understand. How does the gun get in your hand?”

Barker – “I don’t know. I was scared.”

Hurley – “Show us when you first got possession of it how you were holding it.”

Barker – “I don’t know. I can’t tell you that. You are asking me something, because I was scared, practically hysterical. So I can’t give you an example of how it happened or what.”

Hurley – “You knew Lt. Scott of the State Police was in the bar…Why didn’t you call out, ‘Lt. Scott, help me?'”

Barker – “The only thing I was worried about was Fred killing me or getting his hands on me. Knowing how big and strong he is, he could have snapped my head off if he wanted to.”

Hurley – “He is so big and strong that you can grab the gun away from him?”

Hurley continued to hammer Barker about how he could have possibly wrestled the gun away from the much larger and stronger Gawronski, trying to get him to describe how this possibly could have happened. Barker struggled to answer, claiming he was too drunk, he was too hysterical, he was too panicked to be able to explain what happened. His answers were confused, meandering and contradictory but he never admitted to anything other than his original story – the gun was Gawronski’s and he somehow took it from him.

Hurley moved on to the presence of surgical gloves found in the pocket of his jacket the night of the shooting. Barker could not give a reasonable explanation for having them, claiming he was intending to wash a car and his hands were allergic to detergent, but neither could Hurley present a case of criminal intent for possessing them.

Barker left the stand with damaged credibility but unshaken from his main story that he took the gun from Gawronski and shot in self- defense. The next two defense witnesses further bolstered his contentions. The first, a truck driver working for Wooleyhan Transportation, testified he was at the J&J Tavern the night of the shooting. “Leon Smallwood came up to me and said I came in there on the wrong night. He said I was just in time for a shootout.”
If Gawronski’s companion knew there was to be a shooting, then he must have known Gawronski had a gun.

The next witness was Bobby Henderson, the patron Gawronski had hit in the J&J just before the shooting began. Henderson, a truck driver for Mason-Dixon Lines, described his version of how Gawronski attacked him. “Well, we were just sitting there, and maybe it was something I said. It happened so fast, that he smacked me, that he could have hit me twice…I had a big lip, I know that.”

“I sort of fell off the stool…I was looking down trying to regain my composure. I noticed his [Gawronski’s] hand going towards his pocket and there was a big bulge there. It looked to me that I saw some sort of a handle. It looked to be a gun at the time. Tom, Mr. Barker, sort of got between us and made some sort of statement, ‘Now don’t start any trouble.’ I would like to say that I would like to thank this man. It’s possible that I could have lost my life that evening.”

Hurley brought Leon Smallwood back to the stand to swear he never said anything about a shootout expected that night. Hurley also tried to discredit the second witness by highlighting his Teamsters affiliation, but clearly damage to the prosecution’s case had been done. The two Teamsters had backed up Barker’s story.

After 4 days of testimony the case was finally handed to the jury at 4:25 PM, and within four hours they were back with a verdict. Thomas Barker was found not guilty of murder. The verdict stunned the prosecutors and Alice Gawronski. As she bitterly told the News Journal reporter immediately after the jury verdict, “My husband lies cold in the grave because of him and he walks away free. My husband never had a gun.” Hurley remembered, “It was, like, I cannot believe this. My whole career was 21 cases as a prosecutor, and here was a loss that was totally unanticipated.”

Hurley’s night was not quite over. “When I left that night after the verdict, I’m crestfallen, the woman I was living with picked me up in the courtyard [of the state courthouse] and a bunch of thugs with clubs – Teamsters – chased me in my car down the street.”

After the trial Barker said he was pleased with the verdict and with the way his attorneys handled the case. He also said he was sad for Mrs. Gawronski and her children. This was not a new sentiment for Barker. While imprisoned before the trial he had sent two notes to Mrs. Gawronski, including a Christmas card. As he testified at the trial, “Freddy had a small daughter…and I was exceptionally fond of this child. I just wanted to write her and let her know how I truly felt. And I said I wish it was me in the place of Freddy and I asked her to forgive me.”


In Part Three: Alice Gawronski gets a surprising phone call that leads to a dangerous relationship. Barker reveals the real reason behind the Gawronski murder.

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Dogfish Head’s new off-centered idea: Alcohol-free, low-cal beer

Lemon Quest is a citrusy wheat brew that's a follow-up to Slightly Mighty and the popular SeaQuench Ale

New bill would create $100 million trust fund to offer paid family, medical leave

Workers must have been on job for 120 days and earned more than $3,000. They will be paid 80% of pay, up to $900 a week.

St. Mark’s Sullivan ready for pro debut, early season return to Frawley

His High-A minor league team Jersey BlueClaws will play the Blue Rocks May 11-16.
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