Out of control and on the loose

Four dead: Joseph Palczynski's mental history and guns made for a lethal combination.

March 14, 2000

COULD someone have prevented the southeast Baltimore County rampage last week that resulted in deaths of George Shenk, Gloria Jean Shenk, David Myers and Jennifer Lynn McDonel and the maiming of a two-year-old boy?

Joseph C. Palczynski was a violent man, with a criminal past. As early at 1987, he had been arrested for assaulting his girlfriend. He had violated federal law by purchasing a firearm even though he was a convicted felon. In the mid 1990s, he was arrested for another assault on a girlfriend. Mr. Palczynski had been imprisoned and released.

The district court commissioner had records of his criminal history. What the commissioner did not have were the details of Mr. Palczynski's history of mental illness. Had the commissioner been better informed about the severity of his illness and his need for medication, perhaps Mr. Palczynski's most recent arrest might have been handled differently.

Court commissioners must make decisions on the records they have. Mr. Palcyznski had committed a number of violent assaults but had never been charged with crimes, such as murder, attempted murder, assault with a deadly weapon that usually set off alarm bells.

Coupling his history of mental illness with the most recent assault, a case might have been made that Mr. Palczynski would be a danger to others -- grounds for a commitment for an evaluation of his mental state.

When Mr. Palczynski was brought before a commissioner on March 4, after being charged with assaulting his latest girlfriend, Tracy Whitehead, bail was set at $7,500 -- appropriate for an assault. His mother posted the money the next day, and Mr. Palczynski was back on street.

Had Mr. Palczynski's history of violence been linked to mental illness, the criminal justice system might have had a better idea that he was a time bomb ready to explode into a frenzy of violence.

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