A tragic trail of violence

The rampage that ended in Joseph Palczynski's death was inevitable, say the women who survived his abuse. He died the way he lived.

First of two parts

Cover Story

July 02, 2000|By Written by Linell Smith, Reported by Smith, Patricia Meisol, Ann LoLordo and Marego Athans | Written by Linell Smith, Reported by Smith, Patricia Meisol, Ann LoLordo and Marego Athans,Sun Staff

Long before the murderous rampage, long before the saga of fugitive love and violence, long before the hostages on Lange Street, Joe Palcyznski was known as a ladies' man.

He had GQ looks, a buff body, an expensive sports car, money to burn and a questionable past that clung to him like heady cologne. He was a "bad boy," the type that always seems to attract women, particularly young ones.

Imagine being a high school girl of 16, maybe 17. How can you not be flattered by the attentions of this handsome guy who makes time to pick you up from school in his Nissan 300 ZX? He shows you an album filled with photographs of more than a dozen girls he's known -- young, slim, glossy-haired, smiling. It's clear he can have any woman he wants.

Instead, he chooses you. And it takes your breath away.

In the beginning, dating "Joby" is like starring in a romantic movie. He's 5-foot-8, 175 pounds of martial arts muscle, with sandy-brown hair and hazel eyes. Endlessly polite. Clean-cut, almost preppie; even his jeans are pressed. He has a job as a lifeguard and friends who jump whenever he snaps his fingers. You know he's calling when your pager flashes the number of his hero: 007.

On your first date, he takes you to meet his mom, Miss Pat, who is real pretty and couldn't be nicer. Anyone her son loves, she says, she loves, too.

Joby has seen a few things you'd rather not know about. So you don't listen much when he talks about making hit lists, buying weapons, being locked up. You believe people can change.

You really tune it out when he blames those other girls for getting him in trouble. You know you're nothing like them.

He phones constantly. He buys you flowers and gifts. Takes you horseback riding, arranges picnic lunches in the park. You go out on his Jet Skis, drive around like royalty.

He tells you how beautiful you are, how special. He says he's going to be with you forever -- no matter what.

It seems too good to be true.

It is.

The power of fear

On March 21, 2000, when police fired 27 bullets into Joseph C. Palczynski, his life reached the violent ending he had long predicted. In his last days, the 31-year-old man had followed through on a persistent threat -- to harm the family of any girlfriend who dared leave him -- and killed those who got in his way.

Over a span of 13 years, he had lured at least seven young women into a fantasy relationship. And one by one, each had discovered the truth of Joby's dangerously controlling personality.

Amie was 16 when he beat her and held her captive in 1987.

Kimberly was 16 when he blackened her eye, knocked her to her knees and threatened her with a razor blade in 1988.

Sharon was 17 when he attacked her at her school and threatened "to blow her brains out" in 1991.

A Gooding, Idaho, girl was 15 when Joby assaulted her in 1992.

Michella was 17 when he choked her and slammed her head against the shower tiles on Christmas Day 1995.

Stacy had just turned 17 when Joe grabbed her by the neck, shoved her against a wall and threatened to throw her off a balcony in 1996.

Tracy Whitehead, the last of his girlfriends, was also the oldest. She was 20 when she met him. She was 22 when he murdered the couple sheltering her, then kidnapped and terrorized her.

Joe Palczynski's story began to unfold publicly on March 7. For two weeks, it held the citizens of Baltimore -- and many beyond -- spellbound in horror. But the unknown tale -- the lengthy pattern of domestic abuse preceding Palczynski's rampage -- is chilling as well. The women who shared their stories with The Sun hope that their painful experiences can serve as cautionary tales, demonstrating how difficult it is to stop domestic violence.

"The scary thing," says Stephen E. Bailey, assistant state's attorney of Baltimore County and a prosecutor who faced Palczynski in court, "is that the system worked fairly well."

To the former victims and their families, there was never a question of whether Joby would eventually kill someone. The only question was when.

These young women did exactly what they were supposed to: They left their abuser, sought protective orders or filed charges. And each time, their actions put them at even greater risk.

When he was no longer able to use the power of love to control them, Joby turned to fear. He knew how to cultivate his "badness," to make it a source of influence. He kept his body looking like the lethal weapon he claimed it was, boasted loudly about his dark past and often predicted he would "die by the bullet." Joby believed he could make a girlfriend come back to him -- or drop charges -- if she was terrified by what would happen if she didn't.

Often he threatened to kill the girl's parents and leave her alive to suffer.

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