Records supervisor fired for early release of Thanos

April 12, 1992|By William F. Zorzi Jr. | William F. Zorzi Jr.,Staff Writer

It took 18 months, but the state has fired former prison records supervisor John Patrick O'Donnell for the early release of killer John F. Thanos.

In an 82-page decision, Administrative Law Judge Kenneth S. Watson, ordered that Mr. O'Donnell be dismissed and never again hired by the state. He was found to have violated a handful of administrative personnel regulations, stemming from the 1990 release of Thanos 18 months early from the Eastern Correctional Institution in Somerset County.

Five months after his April 5, 1990, release, Thanos went on a crime spree during which he killed three teen-agers. He has been sentenced to death for one of the slayings and awaits sentencing in the other two.

Since the early release of Thanos was discovered after his arrest in September 1990, the Maryland Division of Correction has blamed Mr. O'Donnell almost exclusively for freeing him, despite headquarters' approval of the release and a change in policy regarding the way inmates' release dates are calculated.

And while Mr. Watson's March 31 decision centered on Mr. O'Donnell's actions and credibility, the Office of Administrative Hearings judge also took a few shots at the handling of Thanos' release by the Division of Correction, which he said, "has not always covered itself with glory in this matter."

As for Mr. O'Donnell, Mr. Watson concluded, "He has basically been found culpable in six employment offenses, one of which helped maintain John Thanos at large. Four of these infractions reflect negatively on his veracity and integrity, thereby undermining the perception that he can fill a position of trust in the correctional system."

Mr. O'Donnell termed the decision "vicious, without basis, and imaginative," but said he would not appeal it, adding that he was "relieved" to have the matter finally resolved. "For a year and a half I was strung out seeking justice. That's what I really wanted, though I didn't expect it," said Mr. O'Donnell, 51, who has been been suspended without pay since Oct. 4, 1990. "This fiasco doesn't represent justice any more than a fish can fly.

"The state expended extraordinary resources and effort to ensure that the responsibility for John Thanos' release was placed on my shoulders. I had to take the load for the heinous things that John Thanos did, and the load has been very handily passed on to me," he said.

Mr. O'Donnell has not drawn a paycheck in 18 months and has declared personal bankruptcy. "The opportunities on the Eastern Shore to make a living are very limited," he said.

In addition to his financial woes, he faces a $1 million negligence lawsuit filed against him and the state by the mother of one of the slain teen-agers.

J. Edward Davis, the Maryland Classified Employees Association lawyer who represented Mr. O'Donnell, did not return a reporter's phone calls last week.

Stuart M. Nathan, an assistant attorney general who pressed the DOC's case against Mr. O'Donnell, said, "No one's ever happy when a state employee's ever terminated, but it's been our position through the entire proceeding he failed to perform his job. So, to that extent, we obviously agree with the administrative law judge that he should be terminated."

In his decision, Mr. Watson found that Mr. O'Donnell was negligent for failing to arrange to have Thanos re-arrested after being told that the way in which he was calculating some inmates' release dates under a new policy was no longer correct.

Mr. O'Donnell initially was told by Warren R. Sparrow, then the prison system's director of classification, that the method he used to figure the release date was proper. But, according to testimony, Mr. Sparrow called Mr. O'Donnell three weeks later and told him that the way he had calculated some dates was no longer correct.

Mr. Watson ruled that Mr. O'Donnell should have acted after the second telephone call from Mr. Sparrow, who also was reprimanded, demoted and reassigned for his role in Thanos' release. The judge also found Mr. O'Donnell negligent for not attending a May 14, 1990, meeting in Baltimore during which the calculation of so-called "good-time" credits under a new Division of Correction policy was discussed.

No written clarification of the policy was circulated to prison officials, however, until Sept. 18, 1990, two weeks after Thanos' arrest for the teen-agers' murders.

In addition, Mr. Watson ruled that Mr. O'Donnell falsely told the state police investigators that he did not recall Mr. Sparrow telling him about the incorrect release dates.

Last, the judge found that Mr. O'Donnell's release of Thanos brought "discredit" to the Division of Correction.

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