A stop at a St. Petersburg street corner known for drug activity ends in violence.
By LEANORA MINAI
© St. Petersburg Times, published September 22, 2000
ST. PETERSBURG -- After tending bar Wednesday night, Brian Gronholz went to another hangout, drank a few vodka and sodas and offered a ride to a stranger.
They ended up on a corner known for drug dealing, where an unidentified man opened fire early Thursday, killing 43-year-old Gronholz and critically wounding Matthew D. Snell, 22.
Detectives investigating the city's 10th homicide of the year say Snell probably went to Second Avenue S and 29th Street to buy drugs, and that the deal went bad.
"Whoever did this was just ruthless," said Snell's brother, Michael Snell, 25.
Snell's family said he was shot in the stomach five times. Bleeding, he managed to drive himself and Gronholz to a public phone, but the receiver was broken, so Snell drove on to the St. Petersburg Police Department. By then, nothing could be done for Gronholz. He was pronounced dead at Bayfront Medical Center.
Snell remained in critical condition Thursday while police worked to identify suspects. No one has been arrested.
Gronholz's death is the fourth apparent drug-related homicide in a three-block area of Palmetto Park since 1998. The last slaying occurred July 29 when 47-year-old Francis Wayne Geary, a machinist, was found face down at Second Avenue S and 27th Street.
Thursday's shooting happened at 12:45 a.m. after Gronholz finished working happy hour at Sharpa's Lounge. He drove to the West Side Lounge, formerly the Dew Drop Inn at Central Avenue and 49th Street. He met Snell there.
"We're not sure what their purpose in being together was, but they ended up down in that area sometime around 12:35 a.m.," said homicide Sgt. Mike Puetz.
Gronholz was known to offer people rides, said Jeff Landrum, owner of Sharpa's Lounge. Gronholz did not do drugs and did not have a criminal history, according to police and friends.
Snell, however, has a drug record. Among other charges in his criminal history, Snell pleaded guilty in 1998 to possession of cocaine.
"He tells me he wants to straighten up, but he doesn't," said Michael Snell. "He's a young kid who got involved with the wrong stuff, wrong people."
Gronholz, a former resident of St. Pete Beach, recently bought a house in St. Petersburg with his partner, Carl Capobianco, 53. Last weekend, they planted a dogwood tree in the front yard in memory of a friend who died of cancer. Capobianco was too upset to talk Thursday.
"You don't know how bad of a loss this is, especially to the gay community because the guy was a total sweetheart," said Landrum, the owner of Sharpa's. "He would do anything for you, and that's what probably got him in trouble."
Detectives are interviewing neighbors and looking for witnesses in the area of the shooting to determine what happened to provoke someone to fire at Gronholz's maroon 1990 Toyota Cressida. Anyone with information was asked to call homicide Detective Bob Schock at (727) 893-7782.
Several bullets pierced the driver's side, striking Gronholz and Snell, police said.
"No matter what he did, he didn't deserve to be shot," said Snell's uncle, Clarence Snell, 31.
When Snell drove the car to the police station at 1300 First Ave. N seeking help, a few officers were getting off work and noticed the car pulling into the lot.
"Apparently, the driver opened up the driver's door and fell out on to the ground," said Officer Dan Bates, police spokesman.
Gronholz was unresponsive in the passenger seat.
Snell was able to tell police only that he was robbed by an unknown man, then he lost consciousness.
Landrum said he hired Gronholz at Sharpa's six months ago.
Landrum said Gronholz had a great smile and loved animals and life. He hired him at Sharpa's six months ago.
"He was always there to give somebody a hand," he said. "I just think he got hooked up with the wrong guy in the wrong spot."
- Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.