Thursday, March 28, 1996
Looking for 'perfect' boy behind crime

The Cincinnati Enquirer

''My son,'' the woman says, ''was not a monster.''

Mary Ann Baltzer, 71, sits in her carefully appointed beige colonial house in Mount Lookout, with its requisite flag out front and two cats inside. No golden retriever, but you get the idea. And we speak of unspeakable things.

She describes her son, Bruce, as ''perfect, a boy everyone loved.''

Well, not everyone. In 1978, he kidnapped the 3-year-old son of restaurateur Michael Comisar. Bruce Nelson Baltzer went to prison at age 24, was paroled, then robbed a Kroger store. Back in prison, he died after an asthma attack in 1990.

She wants me to understand her son,she says. That's why we're talking. I wrote a column about the FBI agent who rescued the Comisar child, ''dredging up ancient history.''

So we begin with more ancient history.

Mary Ann and her husband, Charles, adopted Bruce when he was 5 months old, ''as nearly perfect a baby as you could hope for,'' she says. Little League, summer camp, music lessons. He played football for Cincinnati Country Day School.

At the University of Cincinnati, he pledged Sigma Alpha Epsilon, the fraternity of choice for well-heeled Cincinnati families. Then came the blackouts, according to his mother. He dropped out of school, became depressed and irrational. Still, the Baltzers were shocked to learn he'd abducted the Comisar child.

''That was the beginning of the end for my husband,'' she says. Charles Baltzer died in 1981 while his son was in prison. Mrs. Baltzer presides over her husband's advertising agency, where Bruce worked nearly five years during his parole. He had entered intensive psychotherapy and was on a variety of anti-psychotic medications. Alcoholic and schizophrenic, Bruce was beginning to falter again.

In 1987, he donned a three-piece suit and went to the Madeira Kroger store, armed with a revolver. In front of dozens of witnesses, he went from one check-out lane to the next, politely asking cashiers to hand over money.

Bruce himself said he had stopped taking his medication so he could drink, and he also used cocaine shortly before the robbery.

Mrs. Baltzer gives me essays written by her son, mostly confused and self-conscious, much like the prose my own mother so prized when I was young. I know that Mrs. Baltzer wants me to see the part of her son that drew her to him so fiercely. The answer to that, I am convinced, is not in the tortured ramblings from prison, but in the woman seated across from me, the woman who says Bruce was ''a beautiful boy and a sincere friend with a devastating mental illness.''

More than two decades ago, when my husband and I thought about when - or whether - to start a family, I knew instinctively that once we had a child I would be vulnerable in a new way. And I was right. I would never turn my back on my daughter. Ever. No matter what.

My own mother, despite compelling evidence to the contrary, thinks I'm beautiful and brilliant. And perfect.

When John Salvi, who murdered two receptionists at abortion clinics, was sentenced, cameras scanning the courtroom caught two anguished faces. One was that of his mother. The other belonged to the mother of one of the women he killed.

O.J. Simpson's mother and Ron Goldman's father were courtroom fixtures. For their children. Kathy Comisar, whose son was kidnapped by Mrs. Baltzer's son, told me that the hours when the child was missing ''were the worst of my life.''

Mary Ann Baltzer sits opposite an oil painting of her son and tells me how kind he was to the Comisar boy when he ''was in Bruce's care.'' I try not to look shocked. But you do understand, I say gently, that he did a terrible thing. ''Oh, yes,'' she says, ''but he never meant to hurt anyone.''

Although I have listened carefully, I will never understand Bruce Baltzer. But I think I understand his mother.

Laura Pulfer's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax to 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU-FM (91.7 mHz) and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.