A deadly calm in the eye of the storm

March 23, 2000|By MICHAEL OLESKER

ON THE TELEPHONE, Joseph Palczynski's voice is as calm as a guy ordering a pizza. And it's not a forced calm, either, like a guy who's showing everybody, "Hey, I'm holding my temper, but don't push me too far." It's a conventional conversational poise, and what sounds like utter reasonableness, while Palczynski held three innocent lives in his gun sight.

It was 2: 55 Sunday afternoon, in the midst of the hostage crisis, two days before the violent end of Palczynski's life. He called Suzanne Collins, a reporter at WJZ-TV's Eyewitness News. Two weeks earlier, Collins had interviewed Palczynski's grandmother, Marie Nardone, and left her two telephone numbers on the long-shot chance that Palczynski might call his family and decide to talk to a reporter.

"Hi, Suzanne Collins, this is Joseph Palczynski," he says on the telephone tape-recording. "I'm in a house on Lange Street, got three people hostage. "

He skips past the known details -- the four people he murdered, the long manhunt -- almost casually. He knows that everyone already knows what happened, and there is neither boastfulness nor remorse in his voice. Nor is there the sound of fatigue, though he had slept little over many days, and no trace of the enormous pressure he must have felt from all of the running, and all of the killing, and all of the lives he still held in his hands.

"All I want to do is talk to Tracy Whitehead, my girlfriend," he says. "I love her dearly, I did not mean to kill those people." It's a run-on sentence, a thought he wishes to put behind him as quickly as possible: He has ended four people's lives.

"They've blocked all communication between Tracy and I," he goes on, "and any outgoing communication. Somehow, I'm not gonna tell you how, we got this phone.

He knew police were monitoring calls from the apartment where he held three people -- his girlfriend Tracy's mother, Lynn Whitehead; her boyfriend, Andy McCord; and 12-year old Bradley McCord -- and he wanted an open line.

Later, Palczynski's mother, Pat Long, said her son and Andy McCord had cut a hole in the ceiling to the apartment above and found a cordless phone. Palczynski used it to call his grandmother's house, where they gave him Collins' number.

She wasn't there. She'd worked the story overtime the day before and taken Sunday off. As she drove to work Monday and heard Palczynski's message, "I almost had an accident," she said yesterday.

On the tape, Palczynski, still speaking calmly, says, "I've been begging for them to just allow me to talk to Tracy and I will surrender peacefully. I won't kill anybody else. I won't hurt anybody else. I did not mean to do any of this. I need to talk to somebody immediately. Police are blocking any means of communication between Tracy and I, and that's all I want to do is talk to her."

His tone of voice stays calm and reasonable. To Baltimore County police, and to hostage negotiators, this meant precisely nothing. The calm was part of a pattern of a very disturbed, very calculating man. One of the hostage negotiators, Dr. Jim McGee, a psychologist at Shepherd and Enoch Pratt Hospital, said that the last thing police would allow was communication with Tracy Whitehead.

"What Palczynski wanted," McGee said, "was to kill Tracy's mother in front of Tracy," the final act of rage, the final act of vengeance against the girlfriend who had left him.

That's why police asked WJZ (a station for which I do nightly commentary) not to air Palczynski's telephone call until the crisis ended late Tuesday night. The sound of his apparent reasonableness might sway public opinion and make a tough police job even worse.

In the modern context, electronic media are the tricky variable in hostage situations. Palczynski watched a variety of television coverage throughout the ordeal. Some of it angered him. He told police he didn't want certain family members interviewed, didn't want recitations about the four people he'd killed.

The police passed those concerns to TV station executives, who had concerns beyond those of newspaper editors. Palczynski wasn't getting newspaper home delivery, but he was monitoring TV news. Station executives had to balance their desire for coverage against the dangers of enraging Palczynski.

It brought back memories of a hostage situation, some years back, at Mondawmin Mall. A man with a gun entered a Department of Social Services office and wouldn't let anyone leave.

Reporters and TV cameras gathered just outside. At precisely 6 p.m., as local stations opened their news programs, the gunman gave himself up and stepped before waiting cameras.

"It's almost as if this were staged for television," one TV reporter declared as the scene unfolded on live TV.

"Almost," indeed. The man had a gripe with the government, and he was staging it precisely for TV. Joseph Palczynski didn't start out that way, but by the end, he knew he had an audience. And those who run the area's television stations had to figure out, on the run, exactly what to do about it.

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