Life sour for official who freed Thanos

October 06, 1991|By William F. Zorzi Jr.

He is singled out by unforgiving strangers as the man who let John F. Thanos go.

From the newspaper photos and television footage, those strangers know his story: He is the bureaucrat who mistakenly released the inmate later accused of killing three teen-agers.

Ever since those shootings last September in a six-day crime spree that stretched from the Eastern Shore to Middle River, John Patrick O'Donnell has been unable to escape accusations of blame.

The correction official was suspended a month after Thanos was arrested and later accused of gross misconduct.

Last week, in three days of hearings on his suspension, state officials accused him of wanting to embarrass the Division of Correction by freeing Thanos 18 months early even though he knew it was improper.

Their key witness was a classification supervisor at the Eastern Correctional Institution in Somerset County who said that Mr. O'Donnell called her up one afternoon in April 1990 and asked, "Who's the biggest a- - - - - - in the institution? Who's the biggest a- - - - - - that you've got?"

Susan T. Donahue testified that she gave him Thanos' name. The next day, April 5, 1990, the prisoner was released.

Mr. O'Donnell said he does not recall the incident, though he conceded that it could have happened. "My job was to get people out at the right time," he said, pointing out that the state was concerned about holding inmates too long and was trying to ease prison overcrowding.

He was looking for the "worst" inmates -- men like Thanos, with long sentences -- because they were the prisoners most likely to be freed under an early-release policy that had just gone into effect, he said. He got permission for the release by a supervisor at headquarters in Baltimore and by an assistant warden at ECI.

Mr. O'Donnell still believes that he did not misinterpret the policy in freeing Thanos, but he deeply regrets the tragedy that followed.

"My heart is broken for those three kids. Their lives are over. I think regularly about their family members who are surviving," he said.

"I feel the pain every day of my life -- not out of guilt, but just concern that in some way I was involved with this whole affair."

Thanos, 42, a convicted robber and rapist, is awaiting trial on charges that he killed Billy Winebrenner, 16, and his girlfriend, Melody Pistorio, 14, at a Middle River convenience store in Baltimore County. He's also accused of killing Gregory Allen Taylor, 18, of Hebron, whose body was found in a wooded area of Wicomico County.

Since Thanos' arrest last year and revelations about his early prison release, the consequences have been tremendous for Mr. O'Donnell, 51.

Within weeks of his suspension, someone tossed two beer bottles through the front window of his rural Somerset County home.

Two months later, a suspicious fire destroyed a building on his property. He was branded by state officials as disreputable and shunned by former colleagues at the Eastern Correctional Institution.

In the towns of Maryland's Eastern Shore -- on the street, at the post office, in restaurants -- and even in Baltimore, Mr. O'Donnell says, people point him out as "the guy who let Thanos go."

"That's a hell of a way to live," he said.

Mr. O'Donnell hasn't drawn a paycheck since last year, when he was suspended Oct. 4 without pay pending a hearing for his dismissal -- a proceeding repeatedly postponed until last week.

At the time of his suspension, Mr. O'Donnell was no longer ECI's records supervisor but had taken a higher-paying job as a correctional officer at the prison.

But now, he says, "I've stretched my credit to the max."

He was turned down for food stamps, and with few options left for employment (joblessness in Somerset County ranks fourth-highest in the state), he declared personal bankruptcy.

He applied for unemployment benefits, but the Division of Correction repeatedly appealed the case. Finally, two weeks ago, a state hearing officer ordered him to repay the $5,500 in unemployment benefits already given him.

Mr. O'Donnell said that he and his wife, Libby, have survived the last year only because of the vegetable garden he tends on his property in Rumbley, and the crabs and fish he catches in the nearby Manokin River.

"There are very few places where you can live off the land; that always struck me about the Eastern Shore, though I never thought I'd have to put it to the test," he said.

Mr. O'Donnell knows that he has made some enemies in the Division of Correction -- a bureaucracy that does not suffer critics well -- and acknowledges that he can be his own worst enemy, as even his wife will volunteer.

He is described by friends and enemies as arrogant, stubborn, outspoken and intolerant.

At the personnel hearing last week, Geraldine L. Fisher, an office supervisor at the House of Correction, told an administrative law judge that she gave up attempting to train Mr. O'Donnell after he took the job as records supervisor at ECI in 1987.

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