Housemate Held In New Hope Death

Posted: July 30, 1986

A 26-year-old short-order cook who lived with George R. Keys and helped manage his New Hope restaurant was arrested in Florida yesterday and accused of killing the 68-year-old millionaire with a hammer blow to the skull and then burying the body more than three months ago.

William Gnecco, who last week filed a claim against Keys' estate to collect half of the restaurant's assets, was charged with first-degree murder, robbery and a weapons violation.

He was arrested at 10:15 a.m. by authorities in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., according to Alan M. Rubenstein, the Bucks County district attorney. Gnecco had been working as a cook at Martha's Restaurant in Dania, Broward County, Fla., Rubenstein said.

The suspect was being held without bail in the Broward County Jail pending a magistrate's hearing scheduled for this morning. Rubenstein said he would seek to have Gnecco brought to Bucks County as soon as possible.

Rubenstein said the killing of Keys stemmed from the disintegration of a proposed business partnership between the two men involving Keys' restaurant, the Village Cafe, on Main Street in New Hope.

A grand jury investigating the case released a presentment yesterday afternoon accusing Gnecco of killing Keys with a hammer blow to the skull inside the restaurant on the morning of April 14, the last day Keys was seen alive.

He also is accused of robbing Keys of cash and jewelry - including a $23,000, five-carat diamond ring that Keys almost always wore. That ring has not been recovered, authorities said.

Keys, who retired in 1979 as a department head at Delaware Valley College, met Gnecco about a year ago at the Flemington Mall in Hunterdon County, N.J., according to friends. Gnecco moved into Keys' West Ferry Street home in November.

"Gnecco is a hustler," said Brian Keyes, a friend of Keys' and the attorney representing his estate. "He was in this from the beginning for what he could get out of it. He took advantage of George's attraction to him.

"George was a very, very careful person. He was extremely erudite, multilingual, cultivated, sophisticated, urbane and witty," Keyes said. He expressed surprise that a relationship between the two would have developed in the first place.

In the days after Keys' disappearance, Gnecco allegedly told the restaurant employees that Keys had tired of the business and was going to leave the running of the cafe up to Gnecco, according to the attorney.

Gnecco also tried unsuccessfully to free up money from the business to buy an automobile, according to the presentment.

Keys' body - clad in a work apron and with the pants pockets emptied and turned out - was found last Wednesday buried near the Raritan River in Clinton, Hunterdon County. Rubenstein said Clinton was the town where Gnecco lived with his wife and two children before moving to New Hope.

It was Gnecco who led authorities to the body, according to the presentment.

On the day the body was found, Gnecco told Bucks County detectives that he saw two strangers beat Keys to death with a hammer inside the restaurant on April 14, the presentment said. Gnecco said that he had also been beaten by the assailants and had suffered a broken rib, the presentment said.

In previous interviews, Gnecco had told detectives that Keys was away on a trip, according to the presentment.

After the attack, he told detectives, he cleaned up the area where the killing had taken place, wrapped Keys' body in a plastic bag and placed it outside the restaurant. A few days later, he borrowed a van and transported the body to the burial site, according to the presentment.

In the lawsuit filed last week in Bucks County Court, Gnecco alleges that Keys "suddenly and mysteriously disappeared."

He contends in the lawsuit that he and Keys had made an oral agreement to be equal partners in Keys' restaurant and that he is owed half of the shares of stock from the restaurant.

Keyes, the attorney, denied yesterday that any formal partnership had been agreed on by the two men. In addition, he said that no insurance policies had been taken out on the lives of the two men, as Gnecco's suit contends.

The attorney said that Keys had willed his entire estate - worth more than $1 million - to his sister, Rosa Lee Shawd of Houston.

The attorney said that Keys had at first been eager to work with Gnecco in the restaurant, but in the weeks before the killing had begun to be wary of the man.

Keys began to suspect that Gnecco had lied about his experience in the restauarant business and was upset at Gnecco's apparent inability to run the restaurant, the attorney said.

"This was not fun anymore. He had wanted to play restaurant - be the investor and come in and act as maitre d'," attorney Keyes said. "The concept of a partnership was becoming less attractive to George. He realized that he had gotten carried away."

Friends said yesterday that Keys' fondness for Gnecco was somewhat puzzling to them from the start, because the two men seemed to have very little in common.

"I think he opened himself up to a bad character," said Edwin Hild, a close friend of Keys' for 12 years. "He probably felt sorry for Bill's situation. Bill had no money, and George thought he could help him out."

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