Police reveal tale of terror

Hostages were threatened constantly with death

'Colonel' Palczynski demanded to speak to former girlfriend

He sought 'suicide by cop'

March 23, 2000|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,Sun Staff

A day after ending a siege in a Dundalk rowhouse, police offered a graphic, sometimes chilling picture yesterday of the horrors endured by three hostages terrorized by the man who called himself "Colonel Palczynski."

For four days, Joseph C. Palczynski was commandant of a filthy, suffocating bastille, with the final word on whether his three prisoners would live or die.

He tortured his captives with death threats and repelled his adversaries with bullets.

Finally, one of the hostages spiked his iced tea Tuesday night with an anti-anxiety drug and slipped through a bedroom window, setting in motion the events that ended a 97-hour hostage ordeal.

As authorities began to take stock yesterday of what they called "the successful conclusion of a very horrible event," the hostages were reunited with friends and relatives. Dundalk's Berkshire community tried to return to something resembling normal life.

And the former captives -- with Baltimore County police, who for four days had refused to characterize their talks with Palczynski or publicly identify the people he was holding -- provided a look behind the barricaded door at 7520 Lange St.

In doing so, authorities revealed the foundation of their strategy. They refused to let Palczynski speak with his estranged girlfriend, Tracy Whitehead, out of fear that he would tell her: "I'm about to blow your mother's brains out."

Hostage negotiators talked of a nightmare of near-constant threats from a captor who demanded everything from ice cream to the chance to talk by phone with Tracy Whitehead.

And they described how Tracy's mother, Lynn Whitehead, and stepfather, Andy McCord, finally slipped away, leaving a 12-year-old boy inside with a suspected killer.

McCord said his escape was part of a plan designed to save the boy's life by having officers swarm the apartment while Palczynski was asleep.

"I love my son to death," he said, "and I'd never leave him behind. I was trying to get us out of there."

The SWAT team that stormed the apartment found Palczynski stirring on the couch with a .357 Magnum on his waist and other weapons nearby, police said.

"He was rising up with his arms extended. Within reach were three firearms. The officers shot and killed Mr. Palczynski," county police Chief Terrence B. Sheridan said.

The county's SWAT team commander said Palczynski was "neutralized" by a spray of 9mm bullets from MP5 automatic weapons. A preliminary autopsy report showed he died of gunshot wounds to the upper body and head, police said.

A negotiator who spent hours trying to understand the suspect's mind said it's possible Palczynski sought exactly that outcome.

Lt. Mel Blizzard Jr., head of the county hostage negotiations team, said, "We felt all along the ultimate goal was suicide-by-cop."

Palczynski's death late Tuesday night brought to a close a drama that featured an out-of-work electrician, one whose previous run-ins with the law -- many of them driven by mental illness -- had barely gained notice.

But when he stormed a Dundalk apartment and seized three hostages, the world, and not just his east side cronies, came to know "Joby."

The events that led to his death began March 7, when Tracy Whitehead accused him of assaulting her. A court commissioner released him on $7,500 bond; Tracy moved out of their home and in with friends.

Palczynski came looking for her.

Police said Palczynski abducted Whitehead, and fatally shot the couple she was living with and a neighbor who tried to come to her aid. One night later, Palczynski emerged as a sort of suburban terrorist when he went on a crime spree that included the fatal shooting of a motorist in an attempted carjacking.

That night, Tracy Whitehead escaped from Palczynski at a Rosedale motel. But he slipped away and spent the next 10 days on the run. He went to Virginia and back, and as authorities searched in vain for him in the woods and marshes near Middle River and Chase, his image seemed to evolve from mad killer to one of a cunning adversary to police.

Friday, he stormed into the Lange Street apartment, home of his estranged girlfriend's family.

McCord said he heard Palczynski banging on the door and called 911, but before police arrived, Palczynski fired as many as 50 rounds through the door. One grazed McCord's lip, he recalled.

"I let him in so he'd stop shooting," McCord recalled. He said Palczynski told him that he'd come after Lynn Whitehead and the woman's other daughter, Laura.

"I've got nothing against you, but if you get in my way I'll kill you, too," McCord recalls Palczynski saying.

To the dismay of neighbors and relatives -- who seemed unwilling to accept any explanation for the rowhouse being left unguarded by police -- Palczynski commandeered the home. Much of the neighborhood was evacuated.

As police described the days inside the apartment, another picture emerged of Palczynski. Unpredictable and prone to severe mood swings, he seemed bent on inflicting misery.

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