How Palczynski eluded police

Fugitive used luck, cunning, camouflage to escape detection

March 25, 2000|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

He scurried beneath the pines to hide from the police chopper and its infrared eye. He climbed a tree to evade the bloodhounds.

Once, he draped his camouflaged body with twigs and leaves, lying motionless as an all-terrain search vehicle nearly ran him over. Another time, he all but laughed at how easy it would have been to gun down a line of sitting-duck police officers.

These were a fugitive's tales, an account of Joseph C. Palczynski's 10 days on the lam. They were the experiences claimed by a wanted man who seemed both lucky and cunning.

"He took a lot of pride in the fact that he could stay one step ahead of the police," said David P. Henninger, a lawyer who talked with Palczynski frequently during a four-day hostage standoff that ended Tuesday with a police raid and Palczynski's death.

Sometimes, calming Palczynski meant stroking his ego.

"I'd say, `Joe, you're like Swamp Fox,' " Henninger said, referring to Francis Marion, the Revolutionary War guerrilla who fought in the South Carolina wilderness. "You're like Robin Hood -- they couldn't find you in the woods.

"He'd turn around and tell the hostages, `My lawyer says I'm like Swamp Fox!' "

In eluding capture for two weeks, Palczynski combined his rudimentary knowledge of most things paramilitary with a knack for exploiting good fortune and his pursuers' near misses.

Early in the rampage, police swarmed around a Rosedale motel and rescued Palczynski's estranged girlfriend, Tracy Whitehead, who had been taken captive. As viewers watched on live television, police seemed about to capture Palczynski. Before they saw him again, he'd gone to Virginia and come back equipped to live in the woods.

The man he allegedly abducted in Virginia turned out to be a devout Jehovah's Witness who'd recently read an article on cooperating with kidnappers. When Palczynski sent the man into a busy store in White Marsh to buy a television, the man dutifully returned to the parking lot -- without calling police.

At one point during the search in the eastern Baltimore County community of Chase, a SWAT team came within minutes of trapping Palczynski in a trailer.

"Somehow he was able to elude us for a long period of time," said Lt. Kevin B. Novak, a county police spokesman. "Whether it was skill, luck or a combination of both, that we will never know."

Palczynski showed an ability to slip free from constraints long before his face became a fixture on television news programs. For years he bounced in and out of mental hospitals and jails, charged with illegally possessing a gun and with beating his young girlfriends. He survived a police raid with tear gas after a 14-hour standoff in Idaho.

Always, he returned to the familiarity of the county's east side.

In 1996, a Baltimore County judge finally declared: "This man is dangerous. He is out there hurting people. I can't believe that any human being can make so many mistakes and be given so many chances and not appreciate it, and I do not feel, from what I hear, that the mental state is anywhere near as much an excuse as he tries to use it for a crutch."

The judge, John F. Fader II, sentenced Palczynski to three years in prison for violating probation by being convicted of battery.

After serving his sentence, Palczynski returned to Bowleys Quarters. But he soon found himself in police handcuffs again -- just days before his alleged rampage began.

Charged with assaulting Whitehead, he was released on $7,500 bail. A judge later defended the bail set in the case, but some criticized the decision.

"This wasn't a hard case. There are many cases where it's difficult to predict something horrible and tragic will happen in the future, but this isn't one of them," said Lisae Jordan, chief of litigation for the House of Ruth, a program for battered women. "His behavior was absolutely consistent with a perpetrator of domestic violence."

Henninger, who had represented Palczynski in prior cases, said that a higher bail would not have kept Palczynski in jail. Money, it seems, was not an issue; Palczynski had inherited money after his stepfather's death, the attorney said.

The rampage began March 7, when Palczynski allegedly stormed a Bowleys Quarters apartment, kidnapped Whitehead and killed three people. The next night, Palczynski allegedly killed a pregnant woman in a botched carjacking.

That night, Whitehead escaped at a Rosedale motel. But Palczynski slipped away. The next day, as police searched the Joppa area of Harford County, he apparently was in Virginia. There he would meet -- and, allegedly, kidnap -- William L. "Louis" Terrell.

Terrell would drive Palczynski back to Maryland, reciting Bible verses and stopping for supplies. At one point they stopped at the Best Buy in White Marsh, and Palczynski sent Terrell in with cash and orders to buy a battery-operated television.

"He said if I didn't come back, he would shoot whoever was around," Terrell said. "I didn't want to do anything to make him nervous."

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