Victim and investigator share tenacity after blast

December 23, 1990|By Thom Loverro | Thom Loverro,Western Maryland Bureau of The Sun

HAGERSTOWN -- U.S. Postal Inspector Doug Ostwalt, head of a task force investigating the 1989 mail bombing of Washington County Circuit Judge John P. Corderman, can cite the legendary accomplishments of postal inspectors, chapter and verse.

He can tell you that the four men who relentlessly chased Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were postal inspectors. Jesse James, he says, eventually fell victim to the tenacity of postal inspectors.

And just in case you scoff and say that's ancient history, he'll point out that the cases against Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken, the convicted Wall Street manipulators, were built through the efforts of postal inspectors.

So, despite no arrests in the Corderman case with the passing of the one-year anniversary yesterday, Mr. Ostwalt shows no signs of panic or despair as he continues to probe that afternoon when Judge Corderman opened a package that exploded and almost killed him.

"This is not a horse race," Mr. Ostwalt said. "We don't have a finish line up ahead. We are going to pursue this case until all available leads are exhausted and there are no other leads and the case is considered unsolvable."

There is no shortage of leads. Almost every case that has come before Judge Corderman during his 13 years on the bench offers a potential lead. Inspectors have been going through each of those cases, breaking them down into categories, trying to find something that would point them in the direction of the bomber.

Mr. Ostwalt, 43, was called in to run the bombing task force in February. The combined operation, which has included the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, state police and Hagerstown police, got off to a rocky start with several disputes over turf. But Mr. Ostwalt, an imposing man at 6 feet 5 inches, used his 20 years of experience and his Kentucky country manner to bring everyone together.

He has not revealed much about what sort of progress has beenmade. He confirmed reports that the investigation was centering on the tri-state area surrounding Hagerstown, which is less than 20 miles away from either West Virginia, to the south, or Pennsylvania, to the north. "This is the area where we believe we will find this individual," he said.

The task force, which numbered between 25 and 30 investigators early in the probe, now has 10 full-time people assigned to it.

The investigators have conducted hundreds of interviews. They are going back over some court cases, taking a second look at potential suspects. Mr. Ostwalt would not say much beyond, "We may have already talked to the person who did it."

One of his duties includes staying in close contact with Judge Corderman concerning the investigation. A probe as intensive as this one is often difficult for a victim, Mr. Ostwalt said.

"In a situation like this, a person becomes a victim twice," he said. "Once when injured, and again during the investigation. It opens up not only your professional life but your social and personal life -- of yourself and your family and friends."

Judge Corderman agrees that the search for the bomber has caused him some trying times.

"The investigation has bothered me because it has been very intrusive, and it has not been comfortable," he said. "But it has been necessary. I accept it as a necessary part of the process."

Such acceptance has been the theme of Judge Corderman's life since three days before Christmas last year, when he opened a package he had received in the mail -- a package that seemed to be a present of holiday food -- and it exploded, leaving him bleeding on the floor of his Hagerstown apartment.

"When it happened, and I was lying there on the floor, I started to say the serenity prayer -- 'God grant me the serenity to accept those things I cannot change, the courage to change those things that I can and the wisdom to know the difference' -- and said it many times," Judge Corderman said.

"I say the serenity prayer daily, and sometimes quite often, to seek the serenity, to accept the things I cannot change. Somebody trying to kill me is something I cannot affect. So God has granted me the serenity to accept that."

While he acknowledged the horror of the experience -- "It's not something I would recommend for anybody" -- Judge Corderman also said it had made his life richer, his appreciation greater. "It was intended to do great harm, and a remarkable amount of good has come of it," he said.

The 48-year-old judge talks passionately about his transformation.

"When I was lying on the floor of my apartment, I was thoroughly convinced that I was going to die. Three days before Christmas, and I wasn'tgoing to see my children ever again. I had treated Dec. 22 as an afterthought, because I was projecting ahead about what I was going to do that weekend," he said.

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