For teacher in sex case, an unsettling childhood

January 11, 1994|By Jim Haner and Peter Hermann | Jim Haner and Peter Hermann,Staff Writers Staff writers Norris P. West and Jay Apperson contributed to this article.

John Joseph Merzbacher Jr. -- a former teacher who witnesses and police now say may have sexually molested more than 40 students at two Baltimore schools from 1962 to 1979 -- grew up in a home wracked by divorce, arrests and repeated allegations that his parents were involved in prostitution and other sexual misconduct.

At least one neighbor tells of wild pool parties behind the family home in Essex when Mr. Merzbacher was a boy that were attended by nude dancers and regulars from Sherrie's Musical Bar, his parents' topless bar on Pulaski Highway.

Years later, witnesses allege, after the lounge was renamed Sherrie's Show Bar, Mr. Merzbacher took his sixth- and eighth-grade students there and plied them with drinks before sexually assaulting them in his mother's home and in two schools where he taught.

"I remember there was big black dog, a Doberman I think, just inside the door," said a 33-year-old former student of Mr. Merzbacher's at Catholic Community Middle School in the 1500 block of E. Fort Ave. in Locust Point.

"He took me in there and got me drunk on two or three mixed drinks, then drove me back to the school that night, took me upstairs to the principal's office and sodomized me on her desk."

Mr. Merzbacher, 52, was jailed Friday without bail on an 86-count indictment charging him with sex crimes two decades ago against 10 students at the school.

Joanne L. Suder, an attorney who has filed $350 million in lawsuits against the Archdiocese of Baltimore, said yesterday that 30 more alleged victims have come forward since Mr. Merzbacher's arrest.

Many are former students from his days as a public school teacher in the 1960s. Mr. Merzbacher taught at three city elementary schools, John Rurah on Rappolla Street, Tench Tilghman on Patterson Park Avenue and and Highlandtown Elementary on South Eaton Street.

He is scheduled to appear today in city Circuit Court for a bail review hearing. The hearing was postponed yesterday, when officials seemed confused over whether the hearing should take place in District Court or Circuit Court.

Yesterday, prosecutors Sharon A. H. May and Roberta G. Siskind, along with Aroy Crowell, an official with the state's Pretrial Release Services Program, told a judge that Mr. Merzbacher should continue to be held without bail because he is a threat to public safety. Ms. Siskind also said Mr. Merzbacher was a threat to flee.

Because Mr. Merzbacher has been indicted in Circuit Court, District Judge Robert J. Gerstung questioned the legality of any bail he might set and referred the matter to Circuit Court.

Meanwhile, details of Mr. Merzbacher's past continued to pour forth Monday from state records and interviews with new witnesses. They included descriptions of horror at the teacher's hands and insights into a troubled man described variously by neighbors and former students as "an ordinary guy," "a polite family man," "a father figure" and "a monster."

John Merzbacher's wife and daughter refused to comment at yesterday's court proceedings, and efforts to reach his foster son were unsuccessful. Mr. Merzbacher turned down a request for an interview yesterday.

"He was a father figure to me and a lot of other kids who were looking for some direction in life.

Joe Allum, a 33-year-old former student at the Catholic Community Middle School, said he thinks the charges against the man he called "my teacher and my friend" have been exaggerated.

"He was a father figure to me and a lot of other kids who were looking for some direction in life," Mr. Allum said. "He wasn't like -- the nuns and other teachers. He understood us. He spoke our language. If it wasn't for him tutoring me and taking me under his wings, I never would have made it into high school.

"I would take a lie detector test today that I never saw any of that sexual stuff going on -- and I hung out with the guy day and night for a year."

'An ego thing'

Mr. Allum said the eighth-grade teacher was so popular that girls in the school "came on to him, not the other way around.

"There's no other way to say this: There were some loose girls in that school. But he never molested them or stuck a gun in their faces or anything like that. He never forced anybody to do anything. They wanted it.

"When those girls went up to him, flirting with him and touching him, he just ate it up. It was an ego thing with him. You could tell he was proud that they liked him that much. And I do remember one girl sitting on his lap and all like that. But as far as him forcing her, that just didn't happen.

"She was always smiling."

Mr. Allum confirmed other students accounts' that Mr. Merzbacher kept a revolver in his desk drawer and once fired it in the classroom and that he sometimes shared drinks with students after school.

But Mr. Merzbacher never forced anyone to participate. Mr. Allum said. "We were on our way to being adults, and we wanted to do it. Anybody who says he forced them to drink, that's just bull."

Delight and terror

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