2021 | Police & Fire

Woman accused of killing Kensington sculptor had moved in this year

92-year-old victim lived in same home for more than 50 years

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Nancy Frankel.

Photo courtesy of Margery Goldberg

A woman charged with killing a 92-year-old Washington-area sculptor in Kensington on Wednesday had moved in to keep the older woman company, according to the victim’s family.

Julia Birch, 26, was charged on Wednesday with killing Nancy Ann Frankel. Montgomery County police found Frankel dead inside the home.

Birch told detectives in an interview that she suffocated Frankel, according to charging documents. Police have released few details about the circumstances of Frankel’s death, including a possible motive.

Birch moved in with Frankel in January, her son, Steven Frankel of Brooklyn, N.Y., told Bethesda Beat on Thursday.

His mother lived in the same Kensington house for more than 50 years, he said.

“We were worried because my mom was by herself in the house,” he said. “And so, we actually thought it was great for her to have somebody live there in case she fell or hurt herself, so … now, obviously …. you can second guess it, but it really seemed like the perfect thing for her at the time.”

Birch and Frankel became friends because their families were involved in the Catholic Worker Movement to better society, The Washington Post reported.

Steven Frankel told Bethesda Beat on Thursday that he only met Birch once, but she “seemed like a really lovely person.”

“She seemed very sweet. And I can’t believe anyone would have done that to my mom. … So, it’s like a complete shock,” he said.

Frankel spent a career in sculpting, attending institutions such as the Tyler School of Fine Arts at Temple University in Philadelphia, where she earned her bachelor’s degree. She also attended the Hans Hoffmann School of Fine Arts in New York City and the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, Germany.

Her work has been featured at exhibits, competitions and collections locally and nationally, according to a resume posted on her website. Some of her work is at the University of Durham in England.

Steven Frankel said he is particularly fond of a series of sundials his mother created, as well as a sculpture called “cosmic bearing” featuring concentric circles. Many of Frankel’s works were inspired by nature and human relationships, he said.

Frankel taught generations of young art students, including drawing and sculpture classes at Montgomery College and from her home studio, her son said.

“Even at 92, she had a group of students that she taught from her studio in the backyard. So, she’s always been a teacher and a mentor, and a lot of people love her and have learned from her,” he said.

Steven Frankel said his mother still had youthful energy into her 80s and 90s.

“A few years ago, when she was 89, we all went to Cuba together. And I couldn’t believe at 89, she was able to get around the island and she was always full of energy. Even at 89, she was able to retain that energy and enthusiasm. She’s interested, always reading books, always wanting to learn,” he said.

“If you would pick up the phone and talk to her and didn’t know she was 92, you would think you were talking to a much younger person. Because her mind was fast as ever.”

Steven Frankel said he has been in shock from his mother’s death because she is “the last person I can imagine anybody getting upset with.”

Margery Goldberg, the owner of Zenith Gallery in Washington, D.C., told Bethesda Beat on Thursday that she represented Frankel the past few years. Frankel was well known in D.C.’s community of sculptors.

“This is upsetting a lot of people. … I mean, when you’ve been sculpting in this town that long, everybody knows you,” she said.

Goldberg is struggling to make sense of the tragedy. Frankel “couldn’t have been more delightful,” she said. “She just was an extraordinarily sweet, nice person who did not deserve this.”

Birch has been charged with first-degree murder.

Her attorneys told a Montgomery County District Court judge on Thursday during a hearing that they were not seeking to have her bond reviewed, Allen Wolf of the public defender’s office told Bethesda Beat on Thursday. She will continue to be held without bond.

“We have barely even spoken to her at this point, because this just happened. So, I don’t have any comment about what the next steps would be,” Wolf said.

Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com