A determined life cut short

Martha Trinca holds a photo of her sister, Theresa, with her brother Evan at her home in Mechanicsville, Va.
Martha Trinca holds a photo of her sister, Theresa, with her brother Evan at her home in Mechanicsville, Va. (SARAH WALOR / For The Inquirer)
Posted: August 19, 2014

MECHANICSVILLE, Va. - It was only July, but Martha Trinca was thinking about Christmas.

This year was going to be special. Her older sister Theresa was coming.

Among the 10 Hunt children, Theresa stood out. The fiercely independent redhead had left the family farm, put herself through college, and reinvented herself as a social worker in Philadelphia.

So on July 24, Trinca sat at her home outside Richmond, scribbling a list of possible Christmas presents. Hunt, 53, did not have many needs. But Trinca jotted down a few: a paper shredder, a Sodastream machine, a cookbook, nail polish.

The phone rang. On the line was their brother, Dennis, with numbing news.

Theresa was dead.

One of her clients had shot her and wounded a psychiatrist at Mercy Fitzgerald Hospital.

The shootings shook the quiet campus on the border of Darby Borough and Yeadon in Delaware County. They also grabbed headlines because psychiatrist Lee Silverman used his own gun to shoot Richard Plotts, possibly stopping more killings. Police said Plotts had 39 more bullets.

Many details of the case, including Plotts' motive, are still unclear. The 49-year-old Upper Darby man, arraigned last week, has a criminal record and history of mental illness.

To Hunt's family and friends, the events that day were a senseless loss. The strong-willed woman with an infectious laugh, a love of bingo and a passion for helping others died doing a job she loved.

"Why such a good person?" Trinca asked. "Why did this happen?

Farmhouse to rowhouse

Her siblings say Hunt's work ethic came from a job she did not love - working on the farm in Lakewood, Pa., just south of the New York border.

The eighth child of Guerdon and Elinor Hunt, she woke at 4 a.m. to help milk 30 cows and feed the steers. Every day, the children repeated their chores and crowded a table for meat and potatoes.

Hunt dreamed of life in the city. "I'll tell you one thing, I'm never going to marry a goddamn farmer," Trinca recalled her saying.

She studied hard, even when she was bedridden in the eighth grade by surgery to correct scoliosis.

As a teen, Hunt raised her own steer, which she named Eric - after her heartthrob, Eric Faulkner of the Bay City Rollers.

She worked at a shower curtain factory after high school and saved money for college. Then she developed an interest in psychology, taking jobs at facilities for the disabled and troubled teens.

She earned an associate's degree in psychology in 1989 from Keystone College in Lackawanna County, moved to Philadelphia, and began working at a home for boys. In 2003, she added a bachelor's degree in social work.

None of the Hunt children became farmers. But the siblings often reminisce about the farm. Some stories stand out.

Once, as their father slaughtered chickens and their mother stood by to dip them in hot water and pluck the feathers, a headless bird got away and ran toward Theresa.

"She screamed all the way back to the house and that chicken was right behind her," Trinca said. "That was the only thing she was ever scared of, I think."

'Mother Theresa'

If she sensed danger in her job, Hunt rarely let on.

About a month before her death, she told her siblings a colleague at Horizon House, a residential mental-health program, had been attacked by a client. A man stuck a screwdriver into the woman's ear, she said.

"And I said, 'Theresa, carry a can of mace or pepper spray or something,' " said her younger brother, Evan Hunt. "She was kind of indifferent to it when I told her that. "

Hunt didn't want anyone to worry, her siblings said.

"Nobody pushed her around," said her older sister, Dawn Gotthardt. "She was a hotheaded redhead and she used to pride herself on that. She also had a heart just as big."

At Allegheny House, where she first worked in the city, Hunt enforced the rules, but she encouraged the young residents and bonded with them over a shared love of hip-hop. The boys called her "Miss Theresa," "Mother Theresa," and even "'Reese Cup," a play on her name.

She became a case manager at Mercy Fitzgerald in 2007, where she helped people with mental illness look for housing, get treatment, and attend psychiatric appointments.

When clients lacked cash for medication or groceries, Hunt sometimes doled out her own money.

"I just think that people with disabilities tugged at her heart," said Peg Rockett, a close friend and former coworker.

Hunt never married or had children of her own, and had a simple response to those who asked why: Her clients, she said, were her children.

After her death, several former clients were among those who crowded into a Havertown funeral home to remember her.

One, a woman, was crying so hard she couldn't even introduce herself to Hunt's siblings. Another, a tall man whom Hunt had counseled years ago, told Trinca: "I don't know where I'd be if I didn't have her."

Her clients, however, also included Plotts, whose criminal record and history of mental illness span two decades.

Trinca had no clue her sister worked with criminals. But Hunt had mentioned Plotts in conversations with her brother Evan in Virginia.

She told him she accompanied Plotts to court hearings. They even joked about his name - about "plots" he may have devised.

Hunt's siblings do not know whether she was aware that Silverman, the psychiatrist, carried a handgun despite the hospital's weapons ban. But they are glad he had it with him that Thursday afternoon, when an agitated Plotts arrived early for an appointment with Hunt and Silverman in a hospital wellness center.

Not long after, the shots rang out.

Simple pleasures

Thursday was normally bingo night. It was one of Hunt's simple pleasures - like watching episodes of Golden Girls, doing Sudoku puzzles, and spending hours on the phone with friends and siblings.

"You knew when Theresa was on the phone that nothing else mattered," said Rockett. "You were going to be on the phone for a couple of hours."

On Thursdays and Sundays, Hunt took her blue bingo bag and brightly colored markers to St. Eugene Church in Clifton Heights for an evening of games and gossip.

She once won a $1,000 jackpot and gave $100 to her brother and a friend playing with them.

Dennis Hunt, who lives in Bryn Mawr, recalled another bingo game with his sister this summer. As they rode in the car, she told him a thought a client had shared with her.

"When you leave this earth, it doesn't make a difference how much money you have," she said, according to her brother. "It's all about the people you helped along the way and that shows how wealthy you are."

Saying goodbye

Hunt was buried in a light beige blouse dotted with small pink roses.

She wore it when visiting her brother Evan and sister Martha in Virginia in May and they wanted to see her in it again.

"Because she looked so happy," Evan Hunt said.

At a private viewing, her siblings saw the two gunshot wounds to her face. But worse, perhaps, was seeing the bullet wound on her hand.

"I liked to think the whole time that she didn't see it coming," Trinca said. "But she did, because she put her hand up."

The siblings spent two hours greeting a long line of Hunt's friends and colleagues that night. Silverman, recovering from graze wounds to his head and hand, did not attend. Among the bouquets at the funeral home, Hunt's siblings found one with a simple note: "I will miss you, will never forget you. Wish I could have saved you. Dr. Lee Silverman."

Christmas will be difficult for Trinca. One thought comforts her.

"All her goals she accomplished by age 53, pretty much," she said. "And how many people can say that?"


lmccrystal@phillynews.com

610-313-8116 @Lmccrystal

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