Former prison whistle-blower jailed by police Official involved in Thanos case charged with disorderly conduct

November 30, 1991|By William F. Zorzi Jr.

The one-time whistle-blower at Eastern Correctional Institution who the state is trying now to fire for the early prison release of John F. Thanos found himself behind bars this week.

State Police arrested John P. O'Donnell, 51, on a charge of disorderly conduct at ECI, when he arrived late Wednesday afternoon at the Somerset County prison to pick up a letter faxed to him there by the Maryland Attorney General's office.

After obtaining the letter, Mr. O'Donnell was met in the warden's office at ECI by a handful of troopers, including a corporal attached to the Division of Correction's Internal Investigation Unit who was a key state witness against him at a personnel hearing in the Thanos case.

Mr. O'Donnell was later charged with one count of being intoxicated and disturbing the peace by refusing to obey a lawful order of a police officer to leave the prison. After being detained for about two hours in the Somerset County Detention Center, he was released on his own recognizance and ordered to stay away from the prison.

Mr. O'Donnell denied that he did anything wrong or that he had been drinking, though he acknowledged he had two beers earlier in the day.

"I not only feel I was set up, but I believe with all my heart that this was a pre-planned, pre-conceived and deliberately executed action against me by the Division of Correction to further their position that I'm unworthy," he said.

The Division of Correction suspended Mr. O'Donnell without pay more than a year ago, pending a personnel hearing on charges that he should be fired for mistakenly releasing Thanos from prison in April 1990, 18 months earlier than he should have been. Thanos, a convicted robber and rapist, was later charged with killing three teen-agers during a crime spree in the summer of 1990 and is now awaiting trial.

Corrections officials maintain that Mr. O'Donnell should have recognized a mistake in releasing Thanos under a new policy and arranged for the inmate to be rearrested -- despite the fact that his supervisor at headquarters approved the release. A decision in the personnel matter is expected early next year.

Sgt. Gregory M. Shipley, spokesman for the Division of Correction, said "nothing about [the Wednesday arrest] was out of the ordinary, at all," and that it had nothing to do with the JTC Thanos case. "There was an incident at the administration building at the prison, and the police were called to handle it."

Under an arrangement with an assistant attorney general in Baltimore and prison officials, Mr. O'Donnell went to ECI to pick up a letter regarding his legal representation in a lawsuit against him and the state. They are being sued by the mother of one of the teen-agers Thanos is charged with killing.

Mr. O'Donnell said that after he obtained the letter from a secretary, he was called into a private office by Assistant Warden Lewis Williams, who was acting warden last week, the former records clerk said. But within minutes of his arrival in the warden's office, two troopers -- one uniformed, one in plain clothes -- entered the office and told him to leave, he said.

Mr. O'Donnell said that as he left the office with the officers, he encountered Cpl. Harry Edwards, of the prison system's Internal Investigation Unit, who ordered him locked up.

Sergeant Shipley said troopers were called to ECI Wednesday by "someone in the warden's office" who told them Mr. O'Donnell "appeared intoxicated, was abusive and used profanity," though he declined to be specific.

Mr. Williams refused to talk about the matter yesterday.

Mr. O'Donnell first ran afoul of officials in 1988, when the state tried to fire him for releasing an inmate he maintained was being held illegally. After the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that such inmates were indeed being held illegally, Mr. O'Donnell was reinstated.

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