Bound and Left to Die: The Horrific Death of Elderly Siblings Mary Swarr and Horace Swarr
Elderly siblings, Mary Amanda Swarr, 87, and Horace John Swarr, 81, had lived together for 30 years at various locations in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Between 1959 and 1964, they purchased a three-story Victorian townhouse at 432 W. Walnut Street.
The pair grew up in the townhouse next door at 434 W. Walnut Street.
Mary and Horace had no close relatives in Pennsylvania. The only surviving relatives were nephews Charles Swarr in Reston, Virginia, and Frank Swarr in Louisiana.
Neither Mary nor Horace ever married or had children.
Mary was the former secretary of Pennsylvania congressman John Roland Kinzer from 1930 to 1947.
When Kinzer relocated to Washington, D.C., Mary stayed in his Lancaster office and worked for his partner, the late Clay M. Ryan. She retired in 1971 at the age of 79.
Mary was well known and well-liked, hardworking, and generous. While her memory was lapsing, she still did her grocery shopping.
Horace Swarr, 81, was a self-employed electrician who learned the trade when it was in its infancy. He was polite but feisty and always answered the door.
But one day, he opened the door to the wrong people.
A ROBBERY GONE BAD
Around 7:30 pm on Monday, September 17, 1979, Donald Moyer, a circulation manager at Lancaster Newspapers Inc, delivered a route for a carrier and became suspicious when he saw newspapers piled up on the front steps of the Swarr home. He tried opening the door and found it unlocked. He then called the police.
When police officers arrived at the Walnut Street townhouse, they found Mary Swarr dead on the living room floor and Horace next to her barely alive.
The siblings were bound with cords and blindfolded; Mary was also gagged. Horace had been struck above the right eye with a blunt instrument.
Both victims were lying face down, fully clothed with their hands tied behind them. Their feet were not bound, but they might not have been able to move because of their advanced ages.
Dr. John Palumbo, a city deputy coroner, was called to the crime scene to declare Mary Swarr dead. County Coroner Dr. Whitlaw Snow and Dr. Enrique Penades, a pathologist, accompanied him.
Mary’s body was transported to Conestoga View, then Lancaster County’s hospital facility, and now a nursing and rehabilitation home.
An ambulance transported Horace to St. Joseph Hospital. He was able to speak with ambulance personnel and nodded his head when asked whether he understood what had happened.
He succumbed to his injuries at 9:25 pm on Tuesday, September 18, 1979.
Dr. Snow performed the autopsies and referred to the Swarr siblings’ deaths as “the most tragic situation” he had ever seen in his entire career up to that point.
Dr. Snow determined both had died from dehydration and starvation.
Mary Swarr had been dead for at least a day and a half before authorities found her body.
As a result of not having food or water for several days, Horace Swarr developed blood clots in his legs and also developed bronchial pneumonia.
There was adhesive tape over their eyes and mouth, but no signs of physical abuse on Mary like Horace.
Detective Joseph P. Geesey headed the criminal task force investigating the deaths of Mary Swarr and Horace Swarr.
The appalling crime looked like a robbery from the start. Furniture drawers and desks had been looked through, and several items were scattered over all three floors of the home.
It was evident to detectives that the robbery had been pre-planned; the robbers had brought cords and blindfolds.
There were no signs of forced entry, which suggested Mary or Horace had let the robbers in.
Authorities seized the gag and rope as evidence.
Investigators discovered an unidentified caller telephoned the police on September 10 and said that an elderly couple was tied up in their home. Still, the caller mistakenly gave the wrong address — 442 W. Walnut, instead of 432 W. Walnut. Police awakened the resident at 442 and found him unharmed. They dismissed the call as “unfounded.”
Investigators later said they believed the caller was either one of the robbers or someone who had knowledge of the robbery and called the state police so they could rescue the siblings, but inadvertently gave the incorrect address.
As a result, Mary Swarr had starved to death days later, followed by her brother on September 18.
Charles Swarr arrived in Lancaster shortly after he received the news about his aunt and uncle. He told investigators they had previously kept considerable amounts of gold and silver coins in their home. Detective Geesey believed the robbers might have been after the lucrative coin collection, jewelry, or stocks and bonds.
The robbers had emptied Horace’s wallet and the cash box Mary kept in her bedroom.
However, the robbers overlooked $4,300 in the home. Authorities found the money buried under papers on a desk in a second-floor room.
The cash was mostly in $20 or smaller denominations.
One detective theorized that Horace never got around to depositing the lump sum of money into a bank.
Police found no trace of the large gold and silver coin collection in the home.
A few days later, detectives opened a safe deposit box of the Swarr family at Commonwealth National Bank but found no coin collection or will.
Police were uncertain if Mary and Horace had the extensive coin collection in their house at the time of their deaths. A relative last saw the coins in 1976.
TWO MYSTERY WOMEN
About a week after the deaths, city detectives tried locating two women seen eating lunch with the siblings, possibly on the day they were robbed.
The women, both between 40 and 50 years old, were seen with the Swarrs around 2 pm at the Dirty Ol’ Tavern at Engleside, possibly on Monday, September 10, or the previous Monday, which was Labor Day.
The women were laughing, and Horace even cracked some jokes. Police said it was likely that “these two women knew them and possibly might have been good friends.”
Authorities urged the women to come forward, but they never did.
Detectives spoke with a couple of the Swarrs’ physicians. Dr. James Fatta, a podiatrist, said he had been treating Mary while Dr. Charles P. Hammond recalled treating Mary years before. Fatta knew the siblings and said Horace was remarkably fit for his age and might have been physically able to put up a fight against the robbers.
LANCASTRIANS SPENT BIG BUCKS TO BUY GOLD COINS
In 1979, Lancastrians spent thousands of dollars purchasing gold coins.
Ernest Schreiber wrote:
Car mechanics are saving a couple dollars a week to buy it. Salesmen and farmers are tucking away a coin or two.
Doctors, lawyers and other professionals are dropping $5,000, $10,000, and even $15,000 at a clip to get the precious metal they see as a sure hedge against inflation and uncertain dollar value (Lancaster New Era, September 21, 1979).
Commonly traded American gold coins nearly doubled in price over the previous year. For example, a 1979 gold piece valued at $1 was selling anywhere from $185 to $400.
Detectives believed the robbers intended to steal the coin collection then turn around and sell it.
INVESTIGATION GOES COLD FOR 10 YEARS
The investigation into Mary and Horace Swarr’s disturbing deaths eventually fizzled out, and the case went cold for a decade.
Then one day, investigators made an announcement.
By the end of January 1989, they had arrested four men for the Swarr murders.
The suspects were from Maryland and had heard through the grapevine that the Swarrs kept a large amount of cash and valuable coins in their home.
The men arrested were:
- John Arthur Askew, 51, of Princesse Anne, MD
- Robert Paul O’Neill, 40, of Finksburg, MD
- Dale Healy, 45, of Baltimore, MD
- George W. Burkhardt, 51, of Upper Falls, MD
Police charged each suspect with two counts of criminal homicide and conspiracy.
After the arrests, authorities acknowledged they had seized a Levi “Wildfire” brand brown business suit, size 38 regular, worn by one of the suspects to the Swarr home.
According to the police, one of the men dressed in the suit and knocked on the Swarr home door posing as a Social Security employee. Once inside, the robbers bound and gagged the elderly siblings, stole whatever they could find, fled the home, and made an anonymous phone call to the state police.
The robbers most likely fled the home through the side entrance facing Lancaster Avenue.
The significant break in the murder case came in November 1987 when O’Neill’s wife, Denise, told Baltimore County police that she had information about the botched robbery. Subsequently, Deborah Denise Snyder and Lawrence G. Snyder, a Baltimore couple who shared a home with the O’Neills in 1979, told detectives that they saw Robert back in 1979 O’Neill get dressed in a suit and that Askew had visited their house with O’Neill.
“Before leaving, O’Neill said they were going to rob someone and that they were dressing as insurance salesmen to get into the house,” according to court documents.
O’Neill told the Snyders the following day, “We committed a robbery in Pennsylvania, tied up old people.” O’Neill was upset because he only got a few old coins, which he showed the couple.
He also said the phone call was meant for the police to find the Swarrs, but they were not discovered in time and died.
Maryland and Pennsylvania detectives began working on the case and asked the Snyders to wear a wire to record the conversation. The Snyders met with O’Neill on January 12, 1989, in Finksburg, MD, and during that discussion, O’Neill described in detail how he and the other men committed the crime.
According to affidavits obtained by the Intelligencer Journal, “he and others went to Pennsylvania in the center of the city, posing as insurance men, tied up the old people, laid the woman on the couch and, before they left, told them that someone would come for them.
“They left, and he, O’Neill, made a phone call, but the police never got there. O’Neill said that he found out that the old people had died from newspaper reports.”
O’Neill also said that “Askew was responsible for setting up the robbery; askew knew and obtained two conspirators who participated in the robbery, including a conspirator who actually entered the Swarr home with O’Neill; Askew stayed outside in the van; afterward Askew was furious with O’Neill for the failure of O’Neill to correctly communicate the address to the police and threatened to kill them.”
The affidavits also stated, “Askew and/or the other males, bought Venetian blind cord to tie the victims; O’Neill, and one of the other males, entered the Swarr home and Askew remained outside; the Swarrs was gagged, tied, their house ransacked and several coins, currency, and bonds were taken; Askew gave O’Neill the Swarrs address so O’Neill could notify the state police at Lancaster; the proceeds of the robbery were divided in Askew’s residence.”
Police obtained a warrant the next day for O’Neill’s arrest, and Maryland police apprehended him on January 14, 1989.
At a preliminary hearing in February 1989, Robert O’Neill testified that John Askew asked him to participate in the robbery and that the four men planned the crime in a local bar.
O’Neill said he and Healy had to gag Mary Swarr after she managed to untie her hands and scream for help.
He admitted he was the one who made the anonymous call to the state police and mistakenly gave the wrong address.
He also stated that Swarrs’ nephew told the robbers about the coin collection and stock certificates. They made off with a large can of old coins and some stock certificates and then returned to Askew’s home, where they divided the robbery proceeds.
The four men split the coins, and George Burkhardt took the certificates.
TRIAL AND CONVICTIONS
Trials began in September 1989, starting with John Askew, who the prosecutor dubbed the “ringleader.”
Askew denied being the ringleader but admitted to recruiting the other three men who carried out the crime. He said he also relayed messages between the participants, but he was in Maryland during the robbery.
His story conflicted significantly with O’Neill’s testimony, corroborated by the tape-recorded conversation between O’Neill and the Snyders.
Askew said he met O’Neill during the summer of 1979 when O’Neill rented a room at the house of a friend, Jim Ward. Ward asked Askew to give O’Neill work by letting him help on his beer delivery route, and he agreed.
According to Askew, O’Neill asked him if he knew of an easy target to rob because he was having financial difficulties. Askew explained that another acquaintance named Donald Wayne Nelson of southern Lancaster County had recently tried to recruit him to rob the Swarrs.
Nelson had learned about the Swarr’s coins and money from a nephew of the siblings. Askew then passed the messages on to O’Neill, who ultimately carried out the plan with Burkhardt and Healy.
It was revealed at Dale Healy’s trial in November 1989 that Healy wore a wig and posed as a Social Security agent to gain entry into the Swarr home.
George Burkhardt, who was awaiting trial on the same charges, was ordered to testify at Healy’s trial or go to jail, but he feared self-incrimination. He finally testified after Judge Michael J. Perezous ordered him to do it.
Burkhardt testified that he was the getaway driver. He drove to Lancaster in September 1979, unaware that his associates were planning a robbery. He learned what happened following the robbery and stayed silent because he feared for his life.
Three suspects were ultimately convicted and given life sentences. Robert O’Neill pleaded guilty to third-degree murder and received eight to 20 years in prison, rumored to have resulted from a special deal with prosecutors. He was released in 2001 and returned to Finksburg, MD.
The remaining three have unsuccessfully filed appeals over the years and are currently in prison.
ONE FINAL ARREST
In May 1994, 15 years after the Swarr murders, police arrested “ middle man” Donald Wayne Nelson, 58, in Galax, Virginia.
Nelson was a well-driller who had been romantically involved with Ann Swarr, now deceased. Ann was the Swarrs’ niece by marriage to Charles Swarr, but the couple was estranged.
Charles and Ann’s son, Gregory Swarr, told Nelson about the coin collection while Nelson was dating Ann. Gregory was a teenager at the time.
Authorities interviewed Gregory in November 1993, then 38 years old. He said that in 1976 while working for Nelson, he had bragged about the Swarrs’ wealth to impress Nelson.
“I was trying to boast, hoping that (the relationship) would work out,” Gregory Swarr said.
Gregory also admitted to Detective Geesey that in 1976, he and Nelson drove to Lancaster to burglarize the Swarr home. But Mary and Horace never left their house that day. Gregory changed his mind and wanted to leave.
On the way back to Maryland, Nelson said he would return at another time to rob the Swarrs.
Defense attorney Howard Knisely asked Gregory what he had received from the Swarrs’ estate after their deaths.
“I got guilt out of it,” he tearfully replied.
Donald Wayne Nelson pleaded guilty in April 1995 and received a five-to-ten year prison term for conspiracy to commit burglary under the terms of a plea deal. Authorities dropped two criminal homicide counts against Nelson as part of the plea bargain.
It is unclear what happened to Nelson after his prison release.
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