For 27 years Roman and Genevieve Welzant lived in and loved the modest brick row house at 424 Overview Drive in Baltimore. But over the last decade they had increasingly felt themselves under siege. The house was next to an alley and a playing field, and the teenagers who congregated there did not get along with the Welzants. Over the years they fired BB guns at the home, splattered it with eggs, threw rocks at the windows, set fire to a hedge and dumped beer cans on the small, tidy lawn. If Welzant, 68, called police, the kids were usually gone by the time help arrived. (Other families in the neighborhood were also being harassed.) Several times, hoping to frighten the teenagers, Welzant pretended to take their photographs. Laughing, they called him “Cameraman” and shouted obscenities. Then, on the night of January 4, a group began pelting the house with snowballs. The kids, some of whom had been drinking beer, fled when a police car answered Welzant’s call. But they came back later and started a barrage so heavy that Mrs. Welzant, 64, thought they were breaking the door down. This time Roman Welzant got out his .22 pistol, rushed outside and fired four shots. Jimmy Willey, 16, collapsed with a severe stomach wound. His best friend, Albert Kahl Jr., 18, fell dead in the street.
Currently free on $10,000 bond, Roman Welzant is scheduled to go on trial this week for second-degree murder and assault with intent to kill. To Jimmy Willey, who still carries a bullet lodged in his back, he is a vengeful old man who ought to be punished. “I’d like to see him killed,” says Jimmy. “But that’ll never happen, so I’d like him to go to jail.” To many elderly people, however, Roman Welzant has become a kind of hero, a symbol of retribution for the fear and intimidation they have suffered themselves. Since his arrest, Welzant has received more than 200 letters of support and nearly $3,300 in unsolicited contributions for his defense.
In his own mind, however, Roman Welzant is less hero than victim. Fearing recrimination, he and his wife have moved to an undisclosed address. “I have cried a whole lot over this,” Welzant says, tears spilling down his cheeks. “I go to Mass every day. I go for me and for them—the two of them. I feel they are just as unfortunate as I am.” Still, his bitterness has not been appeased. “That place was our life’s work,” he says. “But they’ve won, they’ve driven us out. If we go back somebody is liable to kill us. They knew we were alone and aged. They got a savage joy out of torturing us and destroying our property. We were afraid every day and every night.”
Even now there is no agreement as to what happened on the night of the killing. Welzant told police he fired two warning shots before the teenagers grabbed him and his gun went off accidentally. Jimmy Willey and his friends say no one touched him. Police say that when Welzant called earlier in the evening he had been angry and threatened to get a gun. Wherever the truth lies, most of Welzant’s neighbors see the killing as an occasion for grief, not for anger. But the families of the boys who were shot are not so easily consoled. “Al didn’t believe in fighting,” the dead boy’s mother has said. “My husband would say, ‘Boy, you gotta start taking up for yourself.’ He’d say, ‘Dad, what does it prove?’ ” Says Jimmy Willey’s father bitterly: “Welzant shot and killed a boy over a snowball.”
Partially recovered after two weeks in the hospital, Jimmy Willey admits that he and his friends were mischievous. “We did all that Halloween stuff, like knocking on his door and running,” he says. “But we never really threw nothing at his house until that night. I know us kids were wrong about throwing the snowballs, but I don’t think he had a right to shoot us. Besides, he sort of brought it on himself. We’d sit on his wall and instead of coming out and saying, ‘Could you move? It’s bothering me,’ he’d come out and say, ‘You sons of bitches, I’ll get every one of you.’ So it was kind of spite to sit there.”
Before retirement Welzant was a shoe salesman, then a kitchen designer; his wife was a bank teller. They have three children, eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Now their lives seem concentrated on the tragedy that has overtaken them. “I still feel my husband is a gentle, loving man,” Mrs. Welzant says tearfully. “He was trying to protect me and our home.” Welzant agrees, but cannot be comforted. “I feel very dislocated,” he says. “Things just keep running back, back in my mind. There is no peace or rest.”