Ottinger, nearing parole, says he's now 'an invalid' Ex-judge to be released after years in prison.

March 05, 1991|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,Evening Sun Staff

Former Washington County Circuit Judge Paul Ottinger says he is "an invalid or semi-invalid" after nearly four years in prison. A few days from freedom, he is 76 with an uncertain future.

Ottinger is to be paroled this month from the Eastern Correctional Institution on the Lower Eastern Shore. In a phone interview from prison, he said he has a "rare, severe anemic condition" that requires transfusions every four weeks.

Once a respected lawyer in Hagerstown, Ottinger is in prison for stealing thousands of dollars from his clients, lying on financial statements to banks, and forging checks and insurance papers.

He made headlines in January 1987 when he vanished from Hagerstown. Three months later, FBI agents arrested him in York, Pa.

Ottinger had assumed a false identity, dyed his white hair brown, lost 38 pounds and hidden at a ramshackle farmhouse outside Gettysburg before moving to York. He was studying in his apartment for a real-estate license exam when he was arrested.

Before his shocking disappearance, the heavyset and white-haired Ottinger was one of Hagerstown's most recognizable citizens. An inveterate walker, his strut was erect, purposeful and described as "Southern aristocrat."

Now, he said, "I can walk maybe two or three city blocks before having to sit down and rest."

Ottinger is eligible for parole this month, but the exact day of his release is uncertain. Prison officials will not say when Ottinger might be freed.

He said in the interview it probably will be after Friday. That is when he is scheduled for his next blood transfusion, he said.

He has been receiving transfusions for eight or nine months, he said. He said doctors have told him his anemic condition is not curable, but is controllable by regular transfusions.

He said his health also has suffered from a lack of exercise and a poor diet.

After his release from prison, he said, he plans on seeking treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital. A private doctor in Salisbury as well as his therapist in Baltimore have arranged for him to be examined at Hopkins, Ottinger said.

His therapist, Dr. Valerie C. Lorenz, executive director of the National Center for Pathological Gambling, said Ottinger's health the first priority.

Ottinger plans on living for a while at Lorenz's center in the 900 block of E. Baltimore St. When it opens in about two weeks, Lorenz said, it will be the first residential treatment center for compulsive gamblers in the country.

She believes that Ottinger is not only a compulsive gambler, but also a compulsive person in general. During periods of his life, she said, he excessively studied, worked, smoked, ate, took vitamins, drank and gambled.

After his arrest, Ottinger claimed that he had gambled away most of the money he had stolen. According to the provisions of his parole, he must obtain therapy for gambling and alcoholism.

Ottinger said he eventually plans on moving back to Washington County to live with a friend in Cearfoss, near the Maryland-Pennsylvania line. Frank P. Spickler, who owns Spickler Coal and Motor Line there, said he is anxious to find out when Ottinger will arrive.

"Paul is the best friend I ever had," said Spickler, 69. "I told him years ago he could always come and live with me when he got out of prison."

Ottinger was a Circuit Court judge in Hagerstown from 1971 until 1977. He resigned to return to private practice. He was considered one of the best, if not the best, defense lawyer in Western Maryland.

But after his disappearance and arrest, his lawyer portrayed him as a sad and depressed workaholic who was a victim of childhood poverty, abandonment and abuse. Ottinger said he had been drinking and gambling secretly for years.

He was sentenced to 5 1/2 years in federal prison and 8 1/2 years in state prison. The sentences were concurrent. He has served nearly four years primarily in three prisons: the minimum-security federal prison at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, the House of Correction in Jessup and ECI on the Eastern Shore.

He also was ordered to pay more than $300,000 in restitution to clients and banks. But that may be impossible, he said, because he probably will never work again.

Ottinger has been disbarred and cannot work as a lawyer in Maryland. He plans to live on $1,100 a month Social Security, he said.

"Who the hell is going to hire a 76-year-old invalid who only knows how to practice law, but can't practice law?" he asked.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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