State suspends prison worker Employee blamed for Thanos release

October 05, 1990|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,Evening Sun Staff

The state prison system has taken the first step toward firing the employee who released John Frederick Thanos -- now accused in three slayings -- from the Eastern Correctional Institution last April.

Acting Commissioner Elmanus Herndon yesterday ordered John O'Donnell, a former records supervisor at the Eastern Shore prison, suspended without pay, pending charges for removal.

O'Donnell -- most recently a guard but a records supervisor at the time of the Thanos release -- has appealed his suspension. He said he correctly followed a policy in calculating Thanos' release date and consulted with headquarters before signing the release papers.

Division of Correction spokesman Greg Shipley refused to identify the suspended employee, citing state confidentiality rules. O'Donnell, who successfully fought a 1988 attempt to fire him in a dispute over the release of another inmate, identified himself yesterday as the employee involved in the Thanos release.

Herndon anticipates no further personnel actions beyond the steps against O'Donnell and believes appropriate disciplinary measures have been taken, Shipley said.

Thanos was released from ECI in Somerset County on April 5, after serving almost four years of a seven-year sentence for robbing a Harford County 7-Eleven store in 1986.

After his release, Thanos allegedly embarked on a spree of kidnapping, robbery and violence that began Aug. 29 and ended Sept. 4 in a gunfight with police.

Thanos, 41, has been indicted in connection with the slayings of Gregory A. Taylor, 18; Melody Pistorio, 14; and Billy Winebrenner, 16.

Taylor, a Hebron man, allegedly had given the suspect a ride on the Eastern Shore. Winebrenner, a clerk, and his girlfriend, Pistorio, were gunned down during a Labor Day robbery at a Middle River gasoline station.

Public safety secretary Bishop L. Robinson told state lawmakers last week that Thanos was released 543 days too early due to a miscalculation of his "good-time" credits.

Robinson said employees misapplied a March 1990 prison policy that outlines how "good-time" credits, which permit early release, should be calculated for inmates serving concurrent sentences. The policy allows credits from one prison sentence to be applied to a second one if the two terms overlap.

Robinson said employees incorrectly released Thanos on the robbery sentence by crediting him for good behavior he actually earned during a previous 21-year rape sentence.

Thanos was released in 1986 after serving 17 years of the rape term, but he landed back in jail on robbery charges within a month. Officials contend that the rape sentence expired in 1986 and did not count as a concurrent, overlapping term under the new policy.

O'Donnell said he believes he correctly followed the policy. He blamed the policy itself for the problem, saying it conflicts with state law.

O'Donnell, a Somerset County resident, also said he obtained the approval of a higher Division of Correction official before releasing Thanos. Last week, Commissioner Herndon also said that DOC headquarters had approved Thanos' release date.

Shipley, the DOC spokesman, refused to comment on the involvement of the headquarters official, who has not been suspended.

Two years ago, the prison system suspended O'Donnell during a dispute over the correct release date of another inmate. O'Donnell then contended that prison officials misinterpreted the inmate's sentence and were holding him past the end of his term.

The Department of Personnel later ordered the state to give O'Donnell his job back. O'Donnell returned as a records supervisor in 1989. He became a guard last spring after the release of Thanos.

This time, O'Donnell says the DOC claims he was suspended because his continued duty might result in danger to the public and because he had undermined public confidence in ECI and the state prison system.

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