Thanos: Never Far from Trouble THE EXECUTION OF JOHN THANOS

May 22, 1994|By GLENN SMALL

I watched John Frederick Thanos die last week.

He went quietly, without a last-second outburst or change of heart. He looked toward the ceiling, his eyes fluttered, his mouth dropped open, and he was asleep. Death took him moments later.

As a criminal, John Thanos achieved more fame than he ever could have as a law-abiding citizen -- something he never was. From the age of 12, until his death at 45, Thanos was never far from trouble -- most, if not all of it, of his own making.

His crimes were brutal -- he executed three teen-agers with a sawed-off .22 caliber semi-automatic rifle which he carried around Maryland in a leather doctor's bag. He calmly confessed to his crimes while smoking a cigarette, and while complaining that police failed to kill him.

"I just wanted the basics to keep me alive so I could kill until they could kill me," Thanos said in his videotaped confessions. "And goddamn, I'm still alive and in pain."

Thanos was executed for the robbery and murder of Gregory A. Taylor Jr., 18, a welder from Hebron who had given John Thanos a ride. For a moment, he almost did not kill Taylor " 'cause he seemed so innocent." But "my twisted mind was twisting and I said, 'What the hell? What does it matter?' "

At the time of his execution, Thanos was also facing death for the murder of Billy Winebrenner, 16, and Melody Pistorio, 14, two Middle River teen-agers Thanos killed after robbing them of cash Sept. 3, 1990. He killed them despite the fact that they put up no resistance and treated him "perfectly good."

His confessions were sickeningly detailed, describing how many shots he put into each victim and how he spat on his gun afterward to wipe off the blood that splattered. He showed no remorse from the time of his arrest through his trials, sentencing hearings and ultimately his execution.

At one point, he lectured a Garrett County jury on religion. Later, when facing a death sentence, he went to extremes to demonstrate his lack of remorse, claiming he would like to bring his victims back to kill them again, then dig up their bones and crush them. He claimed to be sowing seeds of hate from his prison cell.

Yet Thanos was not always vile in his antics.

In court, he often demonstrated a quick wit, and could turn a clever phrase. He not only shocked judges, lawyers and courtroom observers with venomous statements, but he made them laugh, too.

He always denied that he enjoyed the attention he got in court, but he acted like a class clown. You could see him studying the judge, and he would often wait for the judge to look down or away before he said something or made a gesture.

Sometimes, it seemed he had changed very little since Baltimore County officials grew tired of his act in 1964 and sent him, at age 15 and weighing only 120 pounds, to an adult prison in Hagerstown for stealing a car.

Over the next 30 years, he would spend less than one year in freedom. His crimes grew worse.

In 1969, he raped a woman in Rosedale, and was given a 21-year prison sentence -- and he served almost all of it before being released in 1986.

A month later, he was back in prison on an armed robbery charge -- the sentence he was serving when he was released 18 months early by mistake in April of 1990. In the late 1980s, he did take two semesters of college at the Eastern Correctional Institute, getting good grades.

He developed a passion for writing. He showed some talent, too. His letters and poems were all carefully printed in his neat handwriting.

There were never any cross-outs, and few spelling or grammatical mistakes. He took care in his writing.

What he actually said in many of his letters was often bizarre, and sometimes obscene, but it was obvious he worked hard at expressing himself creatively, and that he enjoyed it.

"Around here," he wrote in January 1990, "I'm known as the Hound of Hell./I brew an evil potion, cast a wicked spell./Some call me beezlebub, others call me Satan./A Demon no doubt, be not mistaken./I come from down deep, call it Hell's Hole./Heaven can't match my bounty of souls."

The expression of an earnest belief that he had supernatural powers, a clear sign of mental illness? Or just a writer playing with words?

In June 1992, given the chance to apologize or beg for mercy, Thanos shocked the packed courtroom with what must rank as the top anti-apology of all time.

He read from pages of notes he had written, in anticipation of giving his allocution.

"There is no innocent people in this world, as far as I'm concerned," he said. "I know how to hurt people. I take the things away they love, and if people go back and start checking around, anybody that comes into contact with me, will see that there is a trail of tragedies that always befall the things they love and they can point the finger at me and I accept it proudly."

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