In aftermath of spree, a grieving father wonders 'who do you blame?'

September 27, 1990|By William F. Zorzi Jr.

Marty Winebrenner understands that people make mistakes. He can accept that.

The part he has trouble with is that his only child, Billy, is dead -- because of a mistake by the Maryland correction system that allowed the early release of the man now accused of killing his son and two others.

"We're all human, we all make mistakes," Mr. Winebrenner said yesterday. "It's just that this mistake cost three lives and maybe more -- all kids at that, just starting their lives."

Billy, 16, was one of them, shot in the back of the head at the Middle River gas station and convenience store his father manages.

"Somebody did make a mistake, and I guess somebody's got to pay for it," he said. "I'm not one to capitalize or profit from that situation, but you got to pay for your mistake."

Mr. Winebrenner, 37, was to meet with a lawyer last night to discuss whether to pursue a lawsuit against the state.

Officials of the state Division of Correction told a legislative committee Tuesday that rapist and robber John F. Thanos was released 1 1/2 years early by mistake because of the misapplication of a new policy for applying so-called "good time" credits to overlapping sentences.

He was freed from Eastern Correctional Institution in Somerset County April 5, about 18 months earlier than he would have been released before the policy was implemented March 9.

Correction officials said Thanos was released early because 543 "good time" credits from a 1969 rape sentence were incorrectly applied to a robbery sentence he was serving, because of a misinterpretation of the policy.

Thanos, 41, of Joppa, was arrested Sept. 4 after a six-day crime spree that left three people dead: Billy; his girlfriend, Melody Pistorio, 14, of Middle River; and Gregory Allen Taylor, 18, of Hebron.

Thanos is being held at the Worcester County Detention Center, charged with the murders of Melody and Mr. Allen, two robberies and a host of other crimes.

He also was charged with attempted murder in the shooting of Billy, who lived for six days after he was wounded. After Billy's death Sept. 9, Baltimore County prosecutors said they would take the case before the grand jury to upgrade the charge to murder.

Under questioning by legislators, Alan D. Eason, an assistant attorney general assigned to the correction agency and author of the new policy, acknowledged that the state could be liable in a negligence lawsuit if the families of Thanos' alleged victims decided to sue.

Donna Dillon, Melody's mother, has said she has retained a lawyer and has declined to comment.

But Mr. Winebrenner, still clearly distraught by his son's death, asked aloud: "Who do you blame? Who can you blame?"

"I am mad at corrections, yes," he said. "The guidelines were set up wrong, and the administration did not give information or training to the people who do the early release program.

"These people weren't properly trained, so you can't blame the little guy -- it was the higher-ups," Mr. Winebrenner said. "They're talking about bringing civil [personnel] action against these people, but who wrote the book? Who gave it to them? You got to go to the head potato."

The result of the mistake, he said, was the death of his son, a young man cut down senselessly and left to die in a convenience store.

"Billy was such a good kid. All he wanted to do was work, save his money to buy the things he wanted, and be with his girlfriend," Mr. Winebrenner said. He "wanted to graduate and go into the Marine Corps. That made me the proudest father on this earth."

The killer "will never know this pain," he said. "The gas chamber is too good for him, too fast."

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