Spikes iced tea gambit opens window to freedom

After 4-day standoff, a lightning conclusion

March 23, 2000|By Nancy A. Youssef | Nancy A. Youssef,Sun Staff

The end that everyone had anticipated for days lasted about 30 seconds.

That's how long it took police to storm the first-floor Dundalk apartment where three hostages had been terrorized for four days by their captor, Joseph C. Palczynski, who was accused in four killings.

At 10:45 p.m. Tuesday -- knowing that Palczynski lay asleep on a sofa in the apartment, drugged by one of the hostages -- SWAT team members stormed the rowhouse, shooting Palczynski to death and freeing the last captive.

After a 97-hour standoff, a lightning conclusion left SWAT team members little time to be scared, said Baltimore County Officer David J. Sweren, one of the 10 heavily armed police who carried out the operation.

"We do risky things every day," he said. "We couldn't lose. ... [Residents] shouldn't need to look in their windows and make sure it's OK."

Though the end came swiftly, it resulted from days of patience, planning and endurance by teams of law enforcement tactical units from the Baltimore-Washington region.

A day earlier, officers -- many of whom had not slept for two days -- cut down all chain-link fences between properties around the Lange Street rowhouse so they could approach their target faster when the time came.

The team leaders -- Officers Robert Jones and Brian Cromer -- planned for possible scenarios: What if Palczynski runs out the back? Or starts shooting randomly at the officers when they go in?

They practiced executing their plans at another home in the Berkshire neighborhood.

But while police officials were discussing strategy Tuesday, just blocks from the house where the hostages were being held, they had no immediate plan to go in -- until hostage Lynn Whitehead forced their hand.

The Whitehead gambit

Sometime before 10 p.m., Whitehead -- who was being held in her home with her boyfriend, Andy McCord, and his 12-year-old son, Bradley -- slipped ground up Xanax anti-anxiety pills into Palczynski's iced tea.

By 10:20 p.m., Palczynski was asleep on a sofa in the four-room apartment, and his four-day grip on the hostages began to loosen.

In a nearby bedroom, Whitehead acted on a plan she'd come up with earlier in the day: She crawled through the bedroom window, dropped six feet and ran from the scene.

"We had an observer saying someone is coming out," said Sweren, one of the county's 23 SWAT team members. When Whitehead got to police, "she was shaking. She was yelling he is going to kill her boyfriend and her son."

Two blocks away, at the command center, a tactical officer got the first word from his team over his earpiece that Whitehead was free.

After he announced the news, several commanders, who had been making decisions all day, began running toward the scene. Others, such as Lt. Mel Blizzard Jr., commander of the Baltimore County Hostage Negotiation Team, had to stay in the command center and help lead the team.

SWAT team officers immediately began questioning Whitehead and deciding what to do.

She told them Palczynski had been asleep for 20 minutes. She described what he was wearing, and where her boyfriend and his son were. She said there was nothing blocking the locked door, although it was nailed shut from the inside.

Inside, McCord, whose son was asleep on the kitchen floor in sight of Palczynski, realized his girlfriend was gone. He faced an agonizing choice: to try to wake his sleeping son and risk waking Palczynski, or to flee himself.

"The plan was, Lynn would go out the window first," McCord recalled yesterday. "We couldn't wake Bradley up -- he would have said, 'What's happening? Where's Lynn?' And that would have woken [Palczynski] up."

At 10:42 p.m., McCord escaped through the same front bedroom window that Whitehead had.

McCord told officers where Palczynski was and detailed the situation inside.

"They were both frantic. They said, 'If he wakes up, he will kill the boy,'" Sweren said. "We made them show us exactly where he was sleeping."

Officers had seconds to make a decision. Baltimore County police Chief Terrence B. Sheridan said that they had to go in or "the boy was dead."

SWAT team assault

"I was just waiting, and all of a sudden they said we were on standby," said Howard County police Pfc. Doug Catherman, the first officer to enter the apartment. "We used a specialized shotgun to breach the door."

At first, neighbors thought they were hearing gunshots from Palczynski.

"I heard two major blasts," said David White, 34, who lives in the 7600 block of Berkshire Road, a block from the scene.

SWAT team members with weapons drawn moved closer to the house to make sure Palczynski could not escape. Officers looked through the front left window for the suspect.

SWAT team officers smashed through the front living room windows. The noise woke Palczynski and his young hostage, and Palczynski began to rise from the sofa. Officers could not see his hands and began firing with machine guns through the window, shattering more glass.

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