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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Card Dealer Is Sentenced in Killing at Club

Courts: Michael Gawlik is given 40 years to life. He calls the fatal shooting of a co-worker a mental lapse.

September 30, 1998|TRACY WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There were no words from convicted killer Michael Gawlik at his sentencing hearing Tuesday. No pleas for forgiveness. No outpourings of remorse.

Instead, the 29-year-old card dealer slumped his shoulders, dropped his head and wept as a Ventura County Superior Court judge sentenced him to 40 years to life in prison for fatally shooting co-worker Craig Gronenthal in April.

Gawlik pleaded guilty in August.

The 36-year-old former Marine was shot five times by Gawlik in what the defendant later described as a dispute at the Ventura card club where they worked. In a letter to the judge, Gawlik said he suffered a mental lapse. A nervous breakdown. His lawyer said he "snapped."

But to Gronenthal's friends and family, Gawlik's excuses were as inconsequential as the $246 gambling debt they believe motivated the killing. And no amount of tears could repay the loss of a man they loved.

"In a moment of selfish rage, all the hopes and dreams of this young man were stolen from him," said the victim's 63-year-old mother, Eleanor Gronenthal.

Sitting beside a prosecutor and leaning into a microphone, the Camarillo widow recalled the losses her tightknit family has suffered. She remembered how in February 1997 she buried Alfred, her husband of 40 years. And in April 1998, she buried her son.

"Losing my husband was hard," she said. "Losing my son was devastating."

Craig Gronenthal was counting the evening's receipts at the Ash Street Card Club the night of April 15 when he was fatally shot. Police say that Gawlik, who was also working that night, had rung up a gambling debt and went to a nearby ATM machine on Main Street to withdraw enough cash to pay it down.

But he was only able to withdraw $100 in $20 bills--and even that he managed to get by tricking the machine with an empty deposit envelope.

Authorities say Gawlik told them he went back to the card club--carrying a 9-millimeter handgun he hoped to sell. Gawlik told police he got in an argument with Gronenthal over the gambling debt. During the dispute, Gawlik pulled out the gun and shot the floor manager in the head, authorities said.

Gawlik then grabbed a handful of cash and fled, leaving the $20 bills he had taken from the bank scattered on the floor of the empty card club, according to prosecutors.

In the probation report filed with the court Tuesday, authorities say Gawlik went back to his Camarillo home after the shooting, washed off Gronenthal's blood and left town.

First, he drove to the Nevada-California border, where he gambled away part of the money he stole from the club, the report said. He went on to Las Vegas and gambled some more. Then, the report said, he headed to Mexico.

*

But apparently overcome with guilt, Gawlik turned himself in to border police in Nogales, Ariz. Inside the blue Chevy Camaro he fled in, police found a letter addressed to his fiancee, Lonelle.

"Please forgive me and forget me," the letter said. "I love you. I don't know how this happened. Goodbye."

Gawlik later led police to the site along Interstate 19 south of Tucson where he had tossed the handgun used in the shooting. At the sentencing hearing Tuesday, Judge Vincent O'Neill ordered the weapon destroyed.

O'Neill sentenced Gawlik to 15 years to life in prison for second-degree murder. And bound by tough laws passed by the Legislature a decade ago, the judge handed down an additional sentence of 25 years to life in prison for the use of a handgun during the murder.

O'Neill told spectators gathered in the courtroom, including two relatives of Gawlik, that he had little leeway in imposing the sentence.

But recognizing the defendant's remorse expressed in the letter to the court, the judge ordered an additional two-year term for the theft of money from the card club to run consecutive to the more severe murder sentence.

After the hearing, Gawlik stared at the floor as he walked to a nearby holding cell, followed by two deputies and the angry stares of more than 30 friends and relatives of Gronenthal.

Many wore matching white, polo-style T-shirts emblazoned with the words "in memory of Craig William Gronenthal." The words wrapped around a picture of the outgoing ex-Marine dressed in his uniform.

"He was a very good man," said card club manager Michael Moore after the hearing. "He was the last person who should have had anything like this happen to him."

*

As for Gawlik, Moore said: "He got the sentence he deserved.

"I would have liked to have seen him turn around and face everyone," Moore said. "He should have faced the family of the man he killed. They have no one to turn to with their anger."

Standing outside the courtroom, Gronenthal's mother and two aunts recalled the charitable and fun-loving son and nephew they knew: a Boy Scout, a Camarillo High School graduate, a Gulf War veteran who was single but financially sponsored three children through a charity organization.

And they did not linger on the tragic circumstances of his untimely death.

"He wasn't perfect, but he was light," said his aunt, Harriet Tunis of Henderson, Nev. "When he walked into a room, your heart tickled."

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