Calm words never quite got through to Palczynski

This Just In...

March 24, 2000|By Dan Rodricks

WILLIAM L. "Louis" Terrell sat on the couch in the family room of his farmhouse in Woodford, Va., a Bible at his side and an FBI agent from Quantico a few feet away. The FBI agent sat at the other end of the couch, a cell phone in his hand and a note pad on his lap. Terrell cradled the house phone to his ear and waited to speak for the last time with Joseph C. Palczynski.

This was Sunday night, a few minutes before 10. Palczynski, who had killed four people, was terrorizing three more as he held them hostage in a rowhouse in Dundalk. He had fired shots out the window of the house. Police negotiators, Dr. James McGee among them, had been talking to Palczynski since Friday night.

On Sunday, McGee turned to Terrell, a devoutly religious man who had formed a strange but genuine bond with the violent fugitive nicknamed Joby. On March 10, Palczynski, who had fled from Maryland after the killings, forced Terrell to drive him back to eastern Baltimore County. He had a gun pointed at Terrell for most of the 14-hour trip.

A week later, as he held the hostages in Dundalk, Palczynski delivered a note to police. In it, he mentioned his mother and Louis Terrell. Terrell learned this from McGee, who asked him to join the telephone conversations with Palczynski Sunday night.

Now, with the FBI agent in place to give advice on what to say and what not to say, Terrell waited for the call to go through. It was 9: 57 p.m. Someone picked up.

"Joby?" Terrell said in his mild drawl.

"Who is this?"

"This is Louis. ... I'm glad to get to talk to you. I didn't know if I would. How're you doing?"

"All right," Palczynski said, and Terrell heard heavy fatigue and dark depression in the voice. During the long ride back from Virginia in Terrell's pickup truck, Palczynski had been vivacious, the conversations lively. This wasn't the guy Terrell knew from his experience on March 10.

"How's your eye?" Terrell asked, referring to some ailment or injury about which Palczynski had complained during the ride from Virginia.

"It's much better," Palczynski said. "Thank you for asking."

"Have you had any pizza?"

"No," Palczynski said, "but they brought me some Kentucky Fried Chicken."

"The police took my Kentucky Fried Chicken and those four ears of corn," Terrell said, referring to leftovers from a meal he'd shared with Palczynski during the long truck trip. It was an attempt at mild humor, a way to reconnect.

"We had a good time down by the river, Joby," Terrell said, referring to a nighttime stop he and Palczynski had made along the Patapsco on March 10. "I want to see you again."

There was no answer for a while. Terrell kept talking. The FBI agent scratched a note.

"Have you been thinking about what we'd talked about, Joby?" Terrell asked.

Terrell is a Jehovah's Witness elder, and during the ride from Virginia he'd told Palczynski Bible stories of redemption, and he had recited Psalms. Terrell had made a long effort, over many hours of gentle conversation in the truck and during the stop along the Patapsco, to get Palczynski to surrender to police. Terrell wondered whether any of it had taken hold.

"Yeah, a lot," Palczynski said.

"Have you been praying?"

"I've prayed several times."

"Do you have a Bible in the house?"

"No," Palczynski said.

"The ------- police keep calling on the phone and bothering me," Palczynski said.

"Is there anybody there with you?" Terrell asked.

"Yes."

"Who are they?"

"Tracy [Whitehead]'s mom, her boyfriend and his boy."

"Where are the hostages, Joby?"

"Laying on the floor beside me."

"What's the boy's name?"

"Brad."

"What color hair does he have?"

No answer.

"I'm proud of you for keeping your word not to hurt anyone since I saw you," Terrell said.

"I did have to tie up three people."

"But you didn't hurt them."

The FBI agent scratched another note and showed it to Terrell.

"Joby, it would really mean a lot to me if you let them all go."

No answer.

"Joby, would you let the boy go? He's only 12."

"He's a grown-up," Palczynski said. "I don't know if he'd want to go."

Terrell opened his Bible and read two passages: Psalm 51, and Hebrews 13: 6. Terrell selected them because he believed they continued the conversation from the pickup truck. They refer to redemption, and the humility and courage needed to confess sin.

"Have you spoken to my mom?" Palczynski asked.

"No," Terrell said. "Where is she?"

"She's at my grandmother's," Palczynski said, then gave the phone number.

"Your mom loves you very much," Terrell said. "You can do a lot of good yet, Joby. You're still young."

The FBI agent held up a note: "Get a promise." And several more times, Louis Terrell tried to get Palczynski to agree to let the hostages go. There was no response.

As perhaps only a deeply religious man can, Louis Terrell said, "I love you, Joby. Do you believe me?"

"I love you," Palczynski said.

By 10: 20 p.m., the conversation was fully one-sided.

"Joby?" Louis Terrell said. "Joby, can you hear me?"

Palczynski was still on the line, but he'd stopped talking and drifted into the darkness again.

"Joby, are you there? ... Joby?"

Terrell called out the name until it seemed pointless. He hung up at 10: 22.

Yesterday, on the phone again from his farmhouse in Virginia, he said the Sunday night phone call was important "to close out" his relationship with Palczynski. He said he planned to attend the killer's funeral with Dr. McGee.

He said he planned to visit Palczynski's mother someday soon.

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