Bernard T. “Bernie” Grucza’s wife experienced his violent and bizarre nature, authorities say.
Early last June, he pushed and shoved her, then ran upstairs to the master bedroom in their sprawling, hillside Elma home. The next thing Heather R. Grucza heard was a gunshot from the bedroom.
She rushed upstairs and found him face down on the floor. When she rolled him over, he spoke,
“I wanted to see if you still loved me,” the unharmed Grucza told his wife.
Sociopath, dark side and unempathetic are among the descriptions that keep coming up when law enforcement officials search for ways to describe the man accused of killing Laurence C. “Larry” Wells II, who had arrived at the Toys R Us in Hamburg to unload a truck shortly after 4 a.m. June 29, three weeks following that incident at the Grucza home in Elma.
And in an odd twist of the tragedy, relatives of Wells said that Grucza, a regional loss prevention manager for the toy store chain, is the person who had hired Wells several years ago.
Although the two men saw each other frequently, they were not close or friends. But Wells knew a lot about Grucza.
“Larry told us how Grucza cheated on his wife an awful lot. He brought a girlfriend to the store,” said Debbie Lucas in contrasting the life of her slain son-in-law with that of his accused killer. “Larry adored his daughter. His days off were during the week, and he watched her. She misses her father so much. We all do.”
Grucza, authorities believe, went to the store with the intention of stealing either money or merchandise and ended up stabbing Wells, who was found bleeding to death inside his office at about 5:30 a.m. by other workers. Hours later, Grucza was back at the store, assisting police and consoling store workers.
Several days later, he showed up at Wells’ funeral and offered his condolences to family members, Wells mother-in-law recalled, expressing outrage that the accused killer would insert himself into a time when loved ones were struggling to cope with their grief.
Police continue to investigate whether Grucza stole from other Toys R Us locations in Pennsylvania where burglaries have occurred, but have uncovered other disturbing facts.
He filed for bankruptcy in 2009 before reportedly receiving a large sum of money from a relative who had received a lawsuit settlement. With the financial slate erased, police said, the money would not have to go to paying off old bills.
When filing for bankruptcy protection, the Gruczas’ secured and unsecured debts had totaled $1.2 million. Their assets included his salary of about $90,000 annually and his wife’s $500-a-month income from an Internet sales business, selling assorted merchandise.
Authorities say that while the murder investigation remains their focus, they are looking into whether Grucza stole video games from the store and arranged to sell them online.
The Gruczas had expensive tastes.
Their vehicles included a late model Cadillac Escalade. An in-ground pool served as a magnet for the neighborhood children. The interior of the Gruczas’ 3,750-square-foot, $450,000 home they had built in 2006 contained lavish furnishings, a chandelier, a fireplace and plenty of wide open space.
To outsiders, 38-year-old Bernie Grucza looked as though he was living the American dream, but just beneath the surface, law enforcement officials say, lurked a “psychopath.”
Building his life
Twenty years ago, Grucza posed for his high school graduation photograph at St. Francis High School in Athol Springs. The face of a cleanly scrubbed young man, a mane of blondish hair swept across his forehead, looks out from page 20 of the Crusader, the high school yearbook. A matching white shirt and sport coat along with a red bow tie complete the picture.
The caption below it states, “You miss too much these days if you stop to think. – U2 Thanx Mom, Dad, Sue. Blodz. Luv ya Jessica.”
Another photograph in the yearbook shows Grucza with other members of the varsity soccer team. He is dressed in goalie gear.
With high school behind him, he started at Canisius College, pursuing a degree in “criminalistics and criminal science.” He graduated in 1997, according to his profile at an online social media site. And three years later, he and his wife, whom acquaintances say grew up in Alden, had their first child.
Grucza worked at a big box retailer and began buying income properties mostly in South Buffalo and the Southtowns. In 2007, according to bankruptcy records, he landed his job with Toys R Us. About a year later, tragedy struck. Heather Grucza was diagnosed with breast cancer. Medical bills, credit card bills and unpaid utility and tax bills from their eight income properties piled up.
“They came to us looking to simplify their lives and seemed like a really nice couple, very personable,” said Candice Jensen, manager of the bankruptcy department at Jeffrey Freedman Attorneys. “They couldn’t afford their real estate and gave up most of the properties except for their home in Elma and a house in Lackawanna.”
Neighbors on the upscale Kettle Run Road in Elma expressed admiration for Heather Grucza when she was battling breast cancer. She could be seen outside wearing a sun bonnet and working in her garden beds. Bernie Grucza appeared to be a friendly and caring husband. And their children, two boys and a girl, were well-liked.
“The kids played with other children in the neighborhood,” neighbor Gwen Platzer said. “Of course, they had a nice big pool.”
In time, though, whispers spread throughout the neighborhood that the Gruczas’ marriage was in trouble. Sheriff’s deputies responded on three occasions to domestic incidents at the home.
Then on June 8, a gunshot rang out at about 1 a.m.
After a heated argument with his wife, Grucza ran up to the master bedroom on the second floor and fired his 9 mm Beretta through the back window. Because the house had been built on a plot of land carved into the hillside, police say, the bullet most likely burrowed into the steep wall of earth.
But Heather Grucza had no way of knowing that when she heard the gun discharge. She rushed upstairs and saw her husband lying face down on the floor. His intention was to make her think he had taken his own life, according to a police report. But when she turned him over, he was alive and unharmed. He wanted to test her.
At about 9 a.m., Heather Grucza called the sheriff’s office and a deputy confiscated the weapon and arrested her husband on charges of criminal possession of a weapon and harassment, according to Undersheriff Mark N. Wipperman.
“His wife obtained an order of protection, and her husband was required to move out of the house,” Wipperman said.
A few weeks later, his downward spiral continued, authorities said.
On June 29 in the predawn hours, police say, Grucza slipped into the Toys R Us store and headed for the assistant manager’s office. He managed to avoid a half dozen employees who were stocking shelves. Once inside the assistant manager’s office, Grucza allegedly disabled store surveillance cameras.
At some point between 4:40 a.m. and 5:10 a.m., Wells entered the office and was stabbed three times in the upper body.
Never came home
Police said at the time of the arrest that it appeared Grucza intended to steal and not kill. But questions remain about what happened inside the office. And Grucza is not cooperating with police or giving a confession.
“My question is did Larry find him stealing something?” said Lucas, the mother-in-law. “The killing was stupid and senseless. Larry took a shower, went to work and never came home.”
She says it is hard to believe that Grucza would enter a store to steal from it when workers were already in the building. That bothers police, too.
“It is common for burglars to not arm themselves and to use stealth,” Wipperman said, speaking in general terms. “They are there to either steal money or property and get out, as opposed to robbers who announce themselves, who come in with guns blazing.”
But the grainy store surveillance video, before the cameras were disabled, shows the killer arriving with a knife in his hand.
The video also shows the intruder wearing a Florida Gators cap that was left behind. DNA taken from the cap proved crucial in building the murder case against Grucza.
Though he had been on the scene hours later helping police retrieve the store video and comforting workers, Grucza soon took a leave of absence from work and was difficult to find months later, when police sought a DNA sample from him. A relative in North Tonawanda assisted Hamburg detectives in locating Grucza. A sample was obtained matching the specimen taken from the cap.
On Wednesday, Grucza was arrested in the Village of Allegany, near Olean, where he started renting a house last month with a girlfriend. The girlfriend also was employed by Toys R Us, police said.
Several aspects in the investigation came together about two weeks ago, according to Hamburg Detective Capt. Kevin A. Trask, and that is when Grucza became the prime suspect.
Trask credited his detectives and members of the FBI’s Safe Streets Task Force with working their way through “a haystack” of information that had led to Grucza.
The Wells family is grateful to the police for never giving up on the investigation, said Lucas, his mother-in-law.
“I hope he is convicted and put away for life,” she said, adding that she finds it hard to believe Grucza would have the audacity to attend Larry’s funeral.
“Larry was in our lives for 20 years,” she said of her daughter Jill’s high school sweetheart. “He was more a son to us than a son-in-law.”
And though gone, he remains a big part of their lives. Before he died, his wife had good news for him. They were expecting a second child, a daughter, who is due to arrive in December. “Larry had picked out the name Paityn,” Lucas said, “and that’s what the baby’s name is going to be.”
On the Web: To view a gallery of photos relating to the “Bernie” Grucza case, go to galleries.BuffaloNews.com