Most people who know Ronald Rexroth agree that he was the sort of loyal friend who would do anything to help you. When yards needed raking, cars needed fixing or errands needed running, Rexroth was there to lend a hand. So when his friend Bernice Brooks decided to kill herself, she gave Rexroth a gun and asked him to pull the trigger.
Brooks, 36, died the day after Christmas last year. Rexroth, 25, ended up in the Anne Arundel County jail charged with murder. In October, he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. Last week, after hearing Rexroth praised by relatives of the dead woman, a county judge put him on probation, ordered him to do 2,000 hours of community service to be determined later, and set him free.
It was an unusual sentence for murder, but he was, those involved in the case agreed, an unlikely defendant.
"He was like a little boy," said Ron Naditch, who prosecuted Rexroth and asked the judge to set him free. "He looked like a little boy and he acted like a little boy. And he left the courtroom walking like a little boy, holding his father's hand."
What led to the strange tale of the young man from the blue-collar Baltimore suburb of Brooklyn has puzzled and amazed those involved in its aftermath. But the consensus was that, at 4 feet 11 inches and 93 pounds, Ronald Rexroth's size had much to do with it.
"Because of his stature, he was criticized and received a lot of name-calling when he was young," said Peter S. O'Neill, one of two public defenders who represented Rexroth. "So to make friends, he tried to be overly nice . . . . This was his way of helping her. She wanted to die, and couldn't do it on her own."
When you are Rexroth's size, said Naditch, "how you get along in this world is pleasing people. He went to extremes."
"It's just a problem with his height," said David W. Hull, a friend of the Rexroth family. "It's just that they look at him as a kid, instead of a man."
Rexroth is a slight but muscular man, and was smaller than Brooks. From a distance he seems boyish, but when you get close to him, and if he is unshaven, his age is clear. But there is no denying that his most noticeable feature is his size. "He's small, and people take advantage of him," said his father, Melvin Rexroth, with whom he lives. Ronald Rexroth's parents are separated.
When his son graduated from high school, the father said, people said he should become a jockey. So the two went around Maryland race tracks in search of a job. Eventually a trainer offered to take Ronald Rexroth to Florida race tracks to see what work they could find there.
A few days after he left, Rexroth called his father in tears. He was sick, he said, and was forced to sleep on the floor. His father went to Sarasota and brought him home.
Ronald Rexroth went to a training school in Baltimore to learn auto body and fender repair -- a professsion more in keeping with his Brooklyn neighborhood, where motorcycle dealerships, transmission repair shops and used car lots line the street. He started doing auto repair jobs when he could find them, worked as a janitor at a nearby grocery and picked up extra dollars doing odd jobs for neighbors.
That was how six years ago he came to know the Brooks family, who lived on Ritchie Highway, just on the other side of Holy Cross cemetery from his father's home. Rexroth became close friends with the Brooks family. Although he was close to Bernice, he paid particular attention to Bernice Brooks' 79-year-old mother, also named Bernice, who is bedridden with arthritis.
"I've been considered family," Rexroth said last week about his relationship with the Brookses. "And when they needed something, I'd be there, even if they called me up at 12 or 2 a.m."
It was an unusual friendship, his father and others said, because the Brooks family is black and Rexroth is white, and that sort of friendship is not common in Brooklyn. Just what relationship he had with Bernice Brooks was unclear, although they were not dating. Rexroth had his own girlfriend, who lived in Baltimore. Her first name, Kathy, is tattooed on his arm.
O'Neill had his own assessment of the friendship. "He was used as a pawn," said O'Neill. " . . . He was easily manipulated by her. That's basically what happened here. She was able to dominate him, and that's what she did. And he was intent on pleasing her."
Bernice Brooks had spoken of suicide before, but around Christmas she was more depressed than normal. Two of her close friends had died, including her best friend, a woman whom lawyers last week said they knew only as Vivian. Brooks' mother, in a court deposition, said Bernice Brooks would still try to telephone Vivian and receive no answer.
Vivian was buried in the nearby cemetery. The evening after Christmas, Bernice Brooks took Rexroth to place flowers on the grave. It was late, and the cemetery closed while they were at the grave. Rexroth said Brooks seemed to take this as an omen "that she should be with Vivian," according to O'Neill.
Rexroth and Brooks then went to Al's Tavern nearby, where they had a little too much to drink and Brooks described her suicide plans to Rexroth -- a conversation overheard by a bar patron who confirmed it to police, according to prosecutors. Then they went to Brooks' house, where Bernice Brooks hugged her mother and tearfully bid her goodbye.
"I love you," she said, according to the mother's videotaped testimony. "I can never see you again. I'm going to decease myself." Then Brooks took her mother's revolver from its hiding place. She and Rexroth climbed into her van in the yard, and Brooks nudged the van closer to Vivian's car, which had been left there.
Rexroth told police two versions of what happened next. In one statement, he said he was crying and did not want to kill her. Brooks put the gun to her temple and pulled the trigger, and Rexroth shot her a second time in the chest. In another statement, Rexroth said Brooks put his hand on the weapon and placed it against her temple. Rexroth pulled the trigger and then shot her in her chest.
Either way, Brooks was dead. According to his statements, Rexroth went back to Al's Tavern and called his girlfriend. She met him at the bar and they both went back to the van. Rexroth hugged Brooks' body; his girlfriend felt in vain for a pulse. Rexroth went to the house and called the police.
Public defenders knew they had a strange case on their hands. In March, they filed a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. But doctors at a state mental hospital decided that, while he had a "mixed personality disorder (dependent, inadequate)," Rexroth had no mental disorder that justified the plea.
Prosecutor Naditch thought he could convince a jury it was first-degree murder. "Certainly he put the gun to that girl," he said later. "He intended to kill her." But after meeting Rexroth, studying his statements and talking to the Brooks family, he became convinced he was not dealing with a criminal but with an all-too-innocent youth.
If there were doubts in his mind, they were quelled by statements sent to the court by the Brooks family.
Bernice Brooks "had been seriously depressed and in a suicidal state for some time," her sister Deborah C. Brooks Jackson wrote. "She was determined and destined toward a tragic end." Rexroth, she continued, "is, and always has been, of good character -- never meant harm to anyone -- and he surely did not harm my sister."
"I hope the best for Ronald in this case," wrote Mark Anthony Brooks, Bernice Brooks' 19-year-old son.
"He's a nice fellow," said Bernice Brooks' mother in her testimony. "Whatever he did, he did it because she wanted him to do it. He did what she told him to do."
Ronald Rexroth came home from jail Monday night. He raked his father's lawn Tuesday morning and went out that evening to pick up two bags of groceries for Bernice Brooks' bedridden mother. Thursday morning, he was helping a friend of his father's fix his car. He said he would visit Bernice Brooks' mother that evening, to see if there were errands to run. "It just gives me something to do," he said. "I like to keep busy."