Breaking point

Joseph Palcyznski could not live without his girlfriend. Tracy Whitehead had to escape his abuse. His mother, Pat Long, feared it would all end in tragedy.

July 03, 2000|By Written by Linell Smith. Reported by Smith, Patricia Meisol, Ann LoLordo and Marego Athans | Sun Staff

As Joseph Palcyznski neared the violent end he had predicted, two women loomed largest in his life: the one he asked to marry him and the one who gave him birth.

Tracy Whitehead was 20 when she met the man she knew as "Joby." She was older than his previous girlfriends, and their relationship would last the longest, 18 months. By the time his violent jealousy finally drove her away, Tracy had suffered his abuse but had not forgotten his generosity. Joby was the one who helped her find a better life, Joby was the one who believed in her.

And Pat Long was the one who believed in him.

Before Joby met Tracy, his mother often packed his lunch and left it in his mailbox. She helped him buy the flashy cars, Jet Skis, designer label clothes - "the finer things"- that attracted people to him. And when trouble started, as it often did, she tried her best to make things right between her son and his girlfriends.

Whoever Joseph loves, I love, she would say.

More than anyone, Pat knew her son's moods. When his yelling and belittling progressed to a slap or a punch, her instinct was to defend him. Over the years, he had been convicted three times for beating teen-age girlfriends. Pat blamed the behavior on mental illness. Joseph was "bipolar," she'd say - but something had to trigger him. A girl's half-serious kick, throwing a pillow at him - even little things could "make them kind of people snap."

Tracy knew Joby had mental problems. She knew he had gone to jail for assault. But she believed him when he said he would never hurt her.

And she believed him when he said he would never hurt her again.

When Tracy finally left him last March, Joby's pursuit of her triggered a rampage in which he killed four people and took her family hostage. His life would reach the tragic ending he had long predicted - and that his mother had spent years trying to prevent.

The day her son was arrested for beating his girlfriend, Pat Long had begged Tracy to change her story and warned police: If you charge him, you're going to read about him in the paper!

Both women knew Joe Palcyznski's temper was explosive. They knew he would do almost anything to stay out of jail. And they knew how much he hated to be alone.

But one had to leave him.

The other would never let go.

From kindness to rage

On their first date, in the summer of 1998, Joby brought Tracy home to meet his mother. His new girlfriend was 20 years old but so thin that she looked younger. Her long arms and legs made her seem taller than her 5-foot-5 frame; her brown hair fell in a cascade of gold-tinged curls. Self-conscious, nervous, Tracy could see Joby came from a prosperous household.

Pat Long's house in Chase had a swimming pool in the back yard and woods that ran down to the river. Proud of her housecleaning business, Long kept her own home immaculate. She decorated in pastel colors, collected pretty soaps and sweet-smelling candles and displayed photographs of her four grown children. Petite and blonde, "Miss Pat" was energetic and openly affectionate, a woman who believed in lots of hugs.

Tracy was starved for attention. Pregnant at 15, she had dropped out of school to care for her baby and eventually slipped into drugs. She decided her son would be better off living with his paternal grandmother while she tried to get clean.

When Joby came into her life, she was still fighting her addiction to heroin. Needing cash, she went into the Super Fresh in Middle River one day in July. As she asked the cashier where she could get a refund for medicine she was returning, she noticed a customer watching her. Later, when she waited outside for a cab to take her to Dundalk to buy drugs, the man cruised up in his sports car. He teased her for interrupting him at the register. They chatted; he got her phone number.

Then he began calling every day.

Joby was tan, good-looking, had a Mazda RX7 sports car, Jet Skis and a good job as an electrician's helper. He was so clean-cut he didn't even smoke cigarettes. He took her on picnics, sang ballads to her at karaoke bars and accompanied her to Narcotics Anonymous meetings. He drove her wherever she needed to go; with no money to buy a car, Tracy had never gotten her driver's license.

She knew he'd been in jail, but she certainly didn't hold it against him - not with the struggles she'd had.

And Joby seemed as determined as she was to get her life on track. He had never loved anyone as much, he told her. Soon, they were sharing an apartment. With his encouragement, Tracy didn't miss a day of work at Dante's Frozen Pizza for a whole year.

She had no doubt she was stepping up in the world.

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