Standoff tests police negotiator

Leader starts first day with Palczynski crisis

March 27, 2000|By Nancy A. Youssef | Nancy A. Youssef,SUN STAFF

It was St. Patrick's Day, the first day of a new job for Lt. Mel Blizzard Jr., commander of Baltimore County's Hostage Negotiation Team.

A 47-year-old former narcotics officer from Westminster, Blizzard had 13 years of experience as a hostage negotiator. He had fought successfully to make his team a full-time part of the Police Department.

That day, he moved into his new office on the seventh floor of police headquarters in Towson.

Then he got the call.

Joseph C. Palczynski, 31 -- a fugitive accused of killing four people and kidnapping two more -- had shot his way into a Dundalk rowhouse and was holding a family of three hostage. "I had just been transferred," said a weary Blizzard late last week. "It was uncanny."

That was the beginning of a 97-hour marathon of negotiations with one goal: to keep the hostages alive. It ended late Tuesday, when two of the hostages escaped and county police stormed the rowhouse apartment, shooting Palczynski to death and freeing the third hostage, a 12-year-old boy.

A personable administrator popular throughout the department, Blizzard was instrumental in building the hostage negotiation team that was put to the test in the Palczynski standoff.

"He did an admirable job," said David P. Henninger, a Towson attorney who had represented Palczynski in the past. He was called in by Blizzard on March 14, while Palczynski was on the run.

From the time the negotiation team was set in motion the night of March 17, the talks were a logistical challenge.

Negotiators operated from two sites: a bedroom in Palczynski's mother's house in the first block of Freedom Court, and a temporary command headquarters blocks from the Lange Street rowhouse where the hostages were being held.

With Blizzard in constant contact with his team, a handful of negotiators spent hours on the phone with Palczynski, working to ensure he did not use one of his four weapons on Lynn Whitehead, Andy McCord or their son, Bradley.

The team faced a continuous series of choices, with potentially deadly consequences if they chose wrong: Who should talk to Palczynski? Should police allow Palczynski to sleep? When should the negotiators take a break?

They were dealing with a captor who had a long history of mental illness, complicating their strategy.

Hovering above it all was the question of how to deal with Palczynski's main demand: that he be allowed to speak with his estranged girlfriend, Tracy Whitehead, daughter of hostage Lynn Whitehead.

Negotiators -- after consulting with psychiatrists -- believed that if they let Palczynski talk to his estranged girlfriend, he would kill her mother while Tracy Whitehead listened on the phone to punish her for not continuing the relationship.

The negotiations followed a simple pattern: one negotiator on the phone with Palczynski with another team member in the room, acting as "coach." In another room, the rest of the team would listen on a speaker phone.

To increase their control -- and prevent Palczynski from making calls to anyone but them -- police cut phone lines into the hostage apartment, and using a robot, provided him with a phone that could only reach negotiators.

Throughout the standoff, Palczynski consistently asked for three things: "He did not want to go to jail. He did not want to enter a mental institution. He was obsessed with talking with Tracy," Blizzard said.

Negotiators faced the daunting task of maintaining their emotional composure in the face of verbal abuse and threats, all the while painfully aware of the psychological torture the three captives were being forced to endure.

Faced with Palczynski's shifting demands, they stalled, changed the subject, anything to keep him talking and persuade him to leave the hostages alone.

Palczynski frequently said he was tired, Henninger said -- too tired to make any decisions. At one point, he began firing shots through the window while on the phone with Henninger, saying he was bored.

Ultimately, the negotiators' strategy of round-the-clock patience paid off. Late Tuesday, Lynn Whitehead placed two pills in Palczynski's drink that made him fall asleep, and escaped. Andy McCord escaped 20 minutes later.

At 10: 45 p.m., a heavily armed SWAT team smashed into the home, shooting Palczynski to death and rescuing Bradley.

It was a swift, violent end to a grueling standoff. But the negotiators had achieved their primary goal: keeping the hostages alive until they could be liberated.

"I am so proud of the negotiation team," said Blizzard. "When you save lives, that's the ultimate goal."

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