BALTIMORE, MARYLAND -- 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.
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.'"
They shared their father's work ethic - the one that Joe's acquaintances believe helped kill him at age 49 - but they assumed much tougher business practices. They concentrated only on the work Back River was good at - manholes and cast stone products rather than huge highway barrier walls. They stopped underbidding to get jobs and became ruthless in their insistence that they get paid for work done. They also moved the whole enterprise from a primitive plant in Essex to roomier quarters in Glyndon where most of the work could proceed indoors.
Slowly, they crept toward profitability. Within five years of Joe's death, they managed to climb out of debt. Today, Matt says slyly, sales are much higher than the $1 million mentioned in published reports.
With the business so consuming in their lives - Tony at least had a girlfriend (now wife) but Matt admits to virtually no life away from the plant - it was easy to cast the events of last March as a matter of the Geckles valuing property over life. While it is true the brothers were in the building that night to protect their assets, they insist that is not the reason Jonathan Steinbach is dead.
"Everybody thought this was over property," says Matt. "They're wrong. This wasn't over property; this was over my brother's life. The only reason he pulled that trigger was that he thought his life and my life were in danger."
The two nights before the shooting, the burglars made off with a large haul of tools and equipment - saws, drills, a laser, a fax machine. And, significantly to the Geckles' state of anxiety, a Remington rifle.
Both mornings after the break-ins, they called police, who dutifully filled out reports. After the second burglary, Tony turned to a friend in the security business for help, but the friend said there wasn't much that could be done to secure the plant because it was a Sunday. He mentioned that BJ Wholesale Club sold security cameras, so Tony went off to fetch one. He fiddled with it for hours but could never get it to work.
By then, Matt had decided he was going to spend the night in the plant. He was worried that this time burglars might get the company computers, which contained all the information essential for the operation of Back River. Tony didn't think staying the night was a great idea, but he knew there was no point in arguing with Matt. He also didn't want to leave Matt alone on the remote chance that the burglars would return. If they did, the brothers knew, this time they could well be armed.
And return they did, shortly after 1 in the morning, while Matt slept on his office couch on the second floor and Tony sat guard at the east end of the plant. Both brothers had rifles with them. The burglars entered through a back door near the west end of the plant. They crept nearly 300 feet in the darkness before Tony became aware of their presence. What he saw first was their elongated shadows cast from the light of the soda machines onto the wall alongside him.
"Freeze!" he recalls yelling as he leaped to his feet. "Don't move. I have a gun."
Seconds passed. Then, according to Tony, the men ran directly toward him. (One of the burglars, Enrico Magliarella, would tell police that they ran in the opposite direction.) That's when Tony said he fired four times. All three men were wounded, Steinbach fatally. None had carried a weapon, but, in the dark, Tony says he didn't know that.
"When you see a man running toward you," says Tony, a veteran of the Persian Gulf war, " it's a very scary thing after you've told them to freeze, [that] you've got a gun."
Facing a grand jury
If friends of the Geckles were outraged that the brothers were to be subjected to a grand jury inquiry, the Geckles themselves were resigned to it. They knew no prosecutor would unilaterally drop such a case, not when the word "vigilante" was already in the wind, no matter which direction and how strongly public opinion was running.
"I didn't feel as though I was being wrongly persecuted," says Tony equably. "I just felt as though this is the process."
Matt was only peripherally involved in the incident, having been asleep as it began. After arriving at Tony's side, however, he smashed the butt of his rifle into the heads of two of the burglars when they tried to rise from the floor.
On the advice of people they trusted, the brothers hired separate lawyers, an act of division without precedent for them. They were at differing degrees of risk, since only Tony had fired shots. If there weren't exactly friction between the two, there was an unfamiliar distance.
"There was nothing that I could do to help him and there was nothing he could do to help me," Tony says.
Friends worried more about Tony, who seemed withdrawn and depressed. He himself recognized he was having trouble concentrating, going over and over what happened that night. "This was not the outcome by any means that I ever wanted."
The brothers submitted to police interrogation, and Tony appeared before the grand jury for 90 minutes. Apparently, he was persuasive; before the day was out, he learned there would be no indictment.
But that would not be the end of it. Immediately after the shooting, the mother of Jonathan Steinbach filed a notice of intent to sue the Geckles for wrongful death. Janet Steinbach chose not to be interviewed for this article.
The Geckles are usually circumspect when mentioning Jonathan Steinbach, but the idea of a lawsuit nettles them. "A lot of people have a problem with this," says Tony, "but Mr. Steinbach showed a total lack of regard for his loved ones. His actions did not respect his mother, his girlfriend, his son, his entire family. And Mrs. Steinbach unfortunately has to deal with that. And Mrs. Steinbach obviously places all the blame on me. And I don't think that's fair."
Pause. "But she is a mother and I do understand her perspective."
The threat of a lawsuit didn't only rankle the Geckles. So exercised was a delegate from Carroll County - and a stranger to the Geckles - that she has twice tried to pass laws that would bar such lawsuits. Last month, Del. Carmen Amedori, a Republican freshman, arranged for the Geckles - as well as Der and Kifer -- to appear before a House committee in support of the bill.
The cause of Der and Kifer also uncharacteristically drew the Geckles away from the plant. At their lunch in December, aside from expressing encouragement, the Geckles had two pieces of advice. The first was to raise as much money as possible. Had they been indicted, the Geckles estimated it was going to cost them at least $250,000 to defend themselves, and that was apart from any litigation. Ker and Kifer took that advice to heart by holding a fund-raiser in Fells Point last month, which the Geckles attended.
The second piece of advice: Don't talk to the press. "Our philosophy was win the trial in court," says Matt, "not in the papers or on TV."
With the year anniversary passing today, the Geckles expect to retreat into their customary obscurity and to surround themselves again with all things concrete. Whatever anger they betray is narrowly focused toward the men who ventured into their lives uninvited last year. In that exchange, the Geckles regard themselves as the victims, not Steinbach and the others.
"They held all the cards," says Tony. "They purposely and maliciously planned and conspired to break into this business. They weren't just walking down the street and saying, 'Let's go in there.' It sounds kind of strange but they meticulously went out of their way to terrorize me and my brother."
They say they do not want to become the poster children for self-defense. They prefer to leave their lasting mark not in public policy but in concrete.
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