Teacher was troubled as boy, hapless as man

January 16, 1994|By Jim Haner, Gary Gately and Jay Apperson | Jim Haner, Gary Gately and Jay Apperson,Staff Writers Staff writer Peter Hermann contributed to this article.

To some of the kids, he was "Mr. John." To others, he was "Merz." To parents who met him at Saturday afternoon Little League games, PTA meetings and school plays, he was the curly-haired teacher who seemed to understand their children's innermost thoughts and feelings like no other.

John Joseph Merzbacher Jr. appeared to be the ideal guide to lead the kids through those confused and awkward years of adolescence.

But in the shadowed places -- in classrooms and locked closets -- another Mr. Merzbacher emerged, police and former students say. He is accused of doing things to them that they say they could never forget, no matter how hard they tried.

What the students say happened to them in a South Baltimore Catholic school from 1972 to 1979 forms the basis of a stunning criminal case against Mr. Merzbacher.

But the 86 indictments do not begin to explain how a teacher who gained the trust of so many students and their families could have damaged so many young lives without anyone finding out until now.

"Everything that is described in this case fits a typical pattern," says J. Peter Isley, a psychotherapist from Milwaukee, Wis., who specializes in counseling people who have been sexually abused by priests, ministers and teachers. "It is a classic profile, and I can all but guarantee that you've only seen the beginning at this point.

"There will be more victims coming forward. Don't be surprised in the end if there are dozens. Sex offenders are not created

overnight, and they don't just suddenly stop with one victim."

Events of recent days bear out that prediction. Baltimore attorney Joanne L. Suder says she has been contacted by 40 alleged victims of Mr. Merzbacher since his arrest. Twenty-one witnesses interviewed by The Sun say they either were molested or witnessed assaults on their classmates.

In these and other interviews -- and in more than 200 pages of court records -- a portrait emerges of a man who struggled through a tortured childhood, foundered in his efforts at self-improvement and took comfort in the company of children. He finally found success in middle age -- just as his past was closing in on him.

A pleasant, helpful man who endeared himself to neighbors on his quiet block in Essex, Mr. Merzbacher had fashioned a comfortable life since he left teaching in 1979 and took a job as an emergency radio dispatcher for Baltimore County. The charismatic leader of the county white-collar workers union was at the height of his power and popularity when he was arrested Jan. 6.

Mr. Merzbacher's lawyer, M. Cristina Gutierrez, said Friday that she expects to call a news conference this week to discuss the case, adding, "We're going to issue a categorical denial."

In the story that follows, the names of alleged victims have been withheld because of the nature of the charges. Witnesses who do not claim to be victims are named. Mr. Merzbacher and three members of his family would not comment.

Born Nov. 2, 1941, Mr. Merzbacher was adopted as an infant by a man who was a brewery worker and a woman who was a bartender at a striptease club in Baltimore's red-light district -- at a time when the couple was in deep financial trouble.

John Merzbacher Sr. had been implicated six years earlier in an embezzlement scheme that helped to bring on the collapse of Free-State Brewery Co., court records show. Free-State's stockholders accused the company's chairman of appointing "straw men" to the board of directors so he could funnel thousands of dollars into his personal accounts.

Chief among the defendants in the stockholders' lawsuit was John Merzbacher Sr., who had been elevated to president of the company.

With Free-State teetering on bankruptcy, he lost everything. His wife, Helen, went to work tending bar at the now-defunct Copa Club on The Block in downtown Baltimore. He found work driving cab.

Trouble struck the family again in 1948, court records show. When the boy was 7 years old, doctors diagnosed his father with tuberculosis and ordered him quarantined at a Towson hospital, leaving his wife alone to raise their son and daughter.

Released four years later, the father returned to his home on Rockaway Beach Avenue in Eastern Baltimore County to learn his wife was having an affair with a bouncer from another burlesque club.

"I was a kind, faithful and good husband," Mr. Merzbacher's father said in a sworn statement at the time. "She was staying out at nights and was interested in another man."

Arguing continually

For two more years, the couple lived under the same roof with their children, arguing continually over Helen Merzbacher's late-night visits to her lover and her plans to hire him as the manager of a small bar she had purchased on Pulaski Highway.

In an incident described in an interview with Helen Merzbacher's lover, Matt Gartner, the husband and wife had a heated argument in her beer joint -- Sherrie's Show Bar -- that ended with them throwing drinks in each other's faces.

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