Nothing is predictable in madness of attacks

This Just In...

March 20, 2000|By DAN RODRICKS

CRYSTAL SMITH, an 18-year-old senior at Patapsco High School, was supposed to baby sit a couple of kids Friday night at her house on Lange Street in Dundalk. When she saw a Baltimore County police officer with a gun in the street behind her father's parked van, she knew in an instant the weekend would go differently. She spent most of it in the basement with her father. The baby-sitting job didn't happen. Her mother never made it home from work at Ames and had to stay with a relative in Essex.

Joseph C. "Joby" Palczynski had come with guns to Lange Street, just six doors away.

I spoke to Crystal Smith by telephone yesterday after learning of her predicament from the Rev. Terry Sowden, pastor of the Dundalk Church of the Nazarene. Sowden had prayed for her safety with members of his congregation yesterday morning.

As night fell on Lange Street, Crystal Smith seemed calm, but admitted to "jumping at every little noise."

I asked when, in the noise and turmoil of Friday might, she realized it was Palczynski who had taken hostages up the street.

"It didn't take a genius to figure it out," she said. "We've been saying he was going to come here for a week."

Crystal Smith isn't the only one who has said that Palczynski's house invasion and hostage-taking were predictable. We'll hear that said many times as anxious and angry residents of Lange Street and amateur criminal profilers second-guess the Baltimore County police on this.

But who knew -- who really knew -- that this Joby could stay loose for so long, leave the state, return, elude police, their dogs and the latest manhunt technology, find more guns, steal another car, and slip into the neighborhood of his ex-girlfriend's mother, and take her and two others hostage?

There's been nothing predictable about this story. The night it began -- when Palczynski is alleged to have killed Gloria and George Shenk, who'd offered their home as refuge to his ex-girlfriend, and David Meyers, who courageously tried to stop him -- the shooting sounded like one of those horrific domestic affairs that we see on the 11 o'clock news and engage only on the edges of our consciousness. Man Kills Girlfriend, Other Man, Self.

But that wasn't the headline.

What followed was a series of events that captivated and terrified people across the region. And you didn't have to live or work in eastern Baltimore County to get the creeps from this Joby Palczynski, who stayed on the loose, mostly in our midst, and even came back to the area when a more rational man would have kept running.

If it was Palczynski's goal to gain attention, inflict pain and terrify his native community -- assuming his brain could devise such a thing -- then he's succeeded.

He's made his name synonymous with violent derangement, and a generation of kids will grow up around here with Palczynski's March madness -- and his face -- imprinted on their memories. His actions, along with the television stations' breathless rush to chronicle his every exploit and bring it to us live, place Joby on the twisted pedestal of grotesque celebrity. That appears to be what he wanted. He told the man he forced at gunpoint to drive him from Virginia back to Essex that he expected to see himself on national television. Palczynski seems to be profoundly self-conscious about how he is depicted on Baltimore TV, and he's spent the last few days manipulating news coverage of his actions.

Here's a man with a history of mental illness. You'd think such a man could never think straight, understand his surroundings or solve problems logically.

But Palczynski is obviously a survivor -- of the courts, the mental hospitals, the jails, even the marshy outdoors of Baltimore County's eastern edge. He appears to know a lot about guns -- at least how to get them. He obviously understands something about police operations.

Because he'd come back to Baltimore County, and because Palczynski seemed bent on ending this thing in a high-profile way, it was correct to expect him to emerge again.

In our midst.

Close to home.

So, did you make doubly sure to lock your doors, even if you lived miles and miles away?

Did you get a chill when you learned that, on his way back here from Virginia, Palczynski ordered his driver to purchase a battery-powered television at the Best Buy store in White Marsh? Palczynski was out in the parking lot, in a pickup truck, with a handgun on Friday night, March 10.

Did you hear the familiar names of streets in television news reports or see them on maps in this newspaper? Were you shaken by the randomness of that second shooting spree on Ebenezer Road, in which Jennifer McDonel was killed?

Did you find it absolutely impossible to shield your kids from news of the manhunt? Do you wonder how all this madness affects how they view their world?

If so, you're among the victims of this guy.

Even though we know where Palczynski is, other questions linger.

Do you wonder whether neighbors who heard Palczynski screaming at his girlfriend in an "angry, mean sort of voice" ever did anything about it?

Are you upset that a man with mental illness and a history of assault against women could walk out of a Baltimore County jail on $7,500 bond a couple of days before all this started?

Do you find it stunning that he keeps getting guns? The Baltimore County police spokesman says Palczynski has an "uncanny knack" for finding houses with guns. Maybe Joby just understands that the numbers are with him; he could break into any house in America and stand a chance of finding what he needed to continue.

It's bad all around.

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