Another family reflects on their desperate hours

Hostages: Doug, Marie and 4-year-old Dougie Wilkinson were held at gunpoint by Joe Palczynski prior to the Dundalk standoff.

March 24, 2000|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,SUN STAFF

CHASE -- While Marie and Douglas Wilkinson sipped coffee yesterday in their kitchen, a man punched holes in the walls of their two-bedroom home to install a security system -- the most visible sign that their lives had been changed irrevocably.

The Wilkinsons and their 4-year-old son spent the past few days sheltered in their house, like many people, glued to television coverage of the 97-hour siege of Joseph Palczynski. But they were special observers. They, too, had been his captives.

Waiting yesterday for police to drive them to pick up their bullet-nicked van, the Wilkinsons recalled the five hours they spent with the fugitive before he left with their van, drove to Dundalk and took his girlfriend's family hostage. They talked about the hope that one day, life would be normal again. Even if their perspectives were forever altered.

"I love when I hear him laugh," Marie Wilkinson said of her son, Dougie, as he played on the floor with a toy motorcycle. "Thank God I can have that treasure."

At first, she didn't think she could continue to live in the home she has tended so carefully. The police, who guarded the family for four days, are gone. Her husband will return to work soon. She's afraid of being alone.

"I don't know if I'll be safe," she said. "Now I have to watch every corner, look constantly."

Utmost in their minds now, as through their ordeal, is the welfare of their son. All week, they kept him out of pre-school, worried about how he might react when people talk about the siege. They asked a neighbor to care for him while they told their story. Off and on, they both cried, something they say they won't do in front of their child.

As Doug Wilkinson showed a reporter where he was held hostage, his eyes welled up with tears and his voice grew weak. The couple hasn't been able to sleep in their bedroom, where they spent most of their time captive and where now on a night table sits a copy of a newspaper with the headline: Joseph Palczynski is dead.

It was an ordinary Friday in some ways, March 17.

Marie, 37, went outside around 8 a.m. to move the trash bins while her husband, Douglas, 38, got ready for his job as a maintenance technician for an apartment manager. The couple had been frightened like everyone in their rural neighborhood after Palczynski was spotted near a neighbor's chicken coop a few nights earlier. But before leaving for work, her husband promised to check on her during the day.

Marie fixed her son breakfast, did the laundry, talked on the phone. She left about 11: 30 to take Dougie to a St. Patrick's Day party. When they returned from the school at 3: 50 p.m., Doug's car was in the driveway. She unlocked the door, hung up her coat, took off her shoes and headed for the refrigerator to get her son a drink. The child, who had run around into the hallway, suddenly called out.

"Mommy, there's that man."

Marie Wilkinson started through the house after her son, expecting to see her husband. But Dougie called out again: "Mommy, it's Joe Palczynski."

"I saw him standing there, guns in his hand -- our guns -- pointing at me," she recalled. "I said, `Oh, my god, oh my god. Don't kill me or my son.' " Shaking, she grabbed Dougie and pleaded with Palczynski again not to kill them.

"Calm down, Marie," said the stranger dressed in fatigues and muddy boots. He had rummaged through the house, studying their photos and learning their names.

"Where's my husband?" she demanded.

"He's in the bedroom; go in there."

Douglas Wilkinson was on the floor, hogtied to the frame of their bed with cable TV wires. He was flushed and sweating. His eyes told his wife of 12 years what words could not: I'm so sorry I can't help you."

He had come home just a half-hour earlier to check on her. He opened the front door, petted the dog, put his mail on the table and turned around to hear Palczynski tell him, "If you move, you're dead. You know who I am, you know I'll do it." A gun on his back, Doug Wilkinson crawled into his bedroom, pleading: "My wife and baby are coming home, let them go."

Now, at gunpoint, Marie got on the bed and lay there, trembling, while Palczynski tied up her legs. To calm herself, she prayed, asking God to put a shield around her family. The little boy lay on the floor behind his father, who rubbed his forehead as he always did at bedtime.

"What can I do to make your son comfortable?" Palczynski asked. He got some pillows, put the boy on the bed next to his mother. The child fell asleep within 10 minutes.

Leaning against the closet door five feet from Doug Wilkinson, Palczynski loaded his gun. The floor was littered with ammunition; he had broken open a gun case in the bedroom closet. In his belt was a .22; two rifles and .357 Magnum lay beside him on the floor.

He had a plan, he told them, and they couldn't mess it up. He would leave once it got dark.

He'd been on the run 10 days now. He'd killed four people in his quest to take his girlfriend, Tracy Whitehead, hostage.

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