Thanos: violent, venomous -- and 'damaged' 'Sick' convicted killer is product of abuse, lawyer says

October 31, 1993|By Glenn Small | Glenn Small,Staff Writer

Maryland has never seen a killer like John Frederick Thanos.

Arrested and charged with murdering three people during a weeklong crime spree in 1990, Thanos gruffly told reporters he was guilty.

Asked why he spared another victim's life, Thanos said, "I guess it was a lapse of good sense."

Remorseless and arrogant, he astonished judges, jurors and onlookers with curses, threats and sick humor. Given a chance to plead for his life as he was being sentenced for killing two Baltimore County teen-agers, he responded with a torrent of venom.

"If I could bring those brats back right now from their graves," Thanos said, "I would do it so that I could murder them again before their eyes, as they cringe in fear and horror, reliving this eternal nightmare."

Legally, John Thanos is the perfect candidate for execution.

He touches all the bases of the state's death penalty statute. He killed twice during a felony robbery, and there are few mitigating factors.

In decisions on the death penalty, judges and juries are permitted to show mercy to a defendant for being young, for having a nonviolent past, for having been under duress, for having been under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or for not being a danger to society.

Thanos is none of those.

"You have nothing at all that's redeeming," said Sandra A. O'Connor, Baltimore County state's attorney. "In my 26 years of prosecuting in Baltimore and Baltimore County, I don't know if I can think of a greater threat to society than him, if he were to escape."

On top of that, Thanos says he wants to waive his appeals. His execution, originally scheduled for this week, has been stayed while Maryland's highest court considers last-minute appeals filed without his consent. If the execution does take place, he will be the first to die in Maryland's gas chamber in 32 years.

Thanos' public defenders acknowledge that he committed the murders. But they describe him as a sick man, the product of an abused childhood and, ultimately, a creature of the Maryland prison system that has been his home for most of his life.

"What he did was reprehensible, and that's true," said William Kanwisher, who represented Thanos at his trial. "The other thing is, he is extremely damaged. He is an extremely damaged human being. And really, in our society we should not kill sick people. He really is a sick person."

Thanos' courtroom outbursts have long frustrated the attorneys who have defended him. They say Thanos, who has been diagnosed as having a borderline personality disorder, feels he is under stress in court and reacts badly, much like a child who "acts out" in school.

Others who know Thanos outside the courtroom, including prison guards, say he is an entirely different person. They describe him as as quiet, soft-spoken -- even effeminate. He is an avid letter writer and composes poetry.

He has spent most of his 44 years behind bars. He spent so much time in prison that even as he rampaged across Maryland in a car he killed for, he couldn't fill it up with gas by himself. He had never learned how.

In court, he enjoys playing the sinister tough guy. He boasted once that he had never lost a fight. In truth, he is a longtime loser, victimized from an early age in prison.

By the time he was in his 20s, he was wearing women's clothing while serving a 21-year rape sentence at the Maryland Penitentiary.

A prison mug shot from the early 1970s shows a Thanos wearing makeup and earrings, with his long hair braided into girlish pigtails. When the black-and-white photo was shown in court, he screamed that it was a fabrication.

He has never had a girlfriend or a driver's license. His employment history is almost nonexistent. When he embarked on his crime spree in late August 1990, he had been free for six months in 21 years.

Born March 28, 1949, Thanos grew up in Dundalk, the oldest child of John Steven Thanos and Patty Thanos. His mother was a "mountain girl" from Virginia, according to a family history, his father a shell-shocked World War II veteran who drove a truck for Lever Brothers.

There are two versions of his childhood. Prosecutors say young Freddie, as he was known, grew up in a middle-class neighborhood, with the elder John Thanos providing well for his family. They say he was a bad child who got worse. They play down the stories of child abuse that cropped up at his trials.

Defense attorneys, who hired a social worker to document Thanos' early years, say the horror stories are true. If anything, they say, Thanos may have suffered more than anyone will ever know.

His father was a sadist who had been treated for mental illness at the Perry Point veterans hospital in Harford County, according to testimony, and beat Freddie regularly from an early age, once punching him in the scrotum.

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