A year of haunting memories

Palczynski's victims: The scars heal slowly

March 04, 2001|By Lynn Anderson and Tim Craig | Lynn Anderson and Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

A year ago this week, Joseph C. Palczynski, a 31-year-old unemployed electrician, embarked on a rampage that left four dead and one wounded, and sparked the biggest manhunt in Baltimore County history.

It began the night of March 7, when he kidnapped his former girlfriend, Tracy Whitehead, and ended two weeks later, when police fatally shot Palczynski in the Dundalk apartment where he was holding Whitehead's mother and two others hostage.

Since then, individuals and families touched by the violence have been trying to heal deep emotional wounds. Here are their stories.

Tracy Whitehead

Her suffering has been played down, even mocked, by many, including a "shock-jock" celebrity on national television. But for Tracy Whitehead, the Palczynski tragedy is like a sinister carnival ride: Just when she thinks it's about to wind down, shut off for good, it jerks back into violent motion.

"I guess I could end up blaming myself, even though it wasn't my fault," she says. "I guess I could think, `What if I'd never met him?' but I had no control over what he did. ... I never thought he would do something like that. I thought he'd take it out on me. If I knew that would happen, I would have just stayed somewhere by myself. I wouldn't have put someone's life in danger."

During the past year, Whitehead, 23, has lived in three places, worked various jobs and contemplated putting a few hundred miles between her and anything related to Palczynski.

"Sometimes I think about just moving away from Baltimore," she says, sitting in a friend's sunlit kitchen. "Then no one would know me, and people would ask, `What's your name?' People around here know me, and they know what I've been through, and it's embarrassing."

Because of the media coverage the Palczynski case received - during and after the manhunt, the killings and the hostage showdown - Whitehead says, her life has been open for examination.

People who barely know her, including old neighbors and former friends, say that she has blown on drugs and liquor the $100,000 she won in Las Vegas with Howard Stern as the winner of a "best hard luck story" contest. Or that she's heartless because she has never apologized for her former boyfriend's killing spree.

"I don't want people to hold me responsible for what happened," she says, tears flowing down her face. "I'm hurting, too. ... If I could bring them back and give up my own life in exchange, I would do it in a heartbeat."

As for the money she won, about $35,000 of it went to the Internal Revenue Service. She gave $10,000 to a good friend. The rest of it is in a bank. Maybe she'll buy a trailer in Florida or give some of it to a church or a women's shelter. But for now, she says, "it ain't going nowhere."

Her day-to-day life was made easier recently when a man she barely knows agreed to let her live rent-free in his Bel Air home. She spends most days with her mother or her 7-year-old son, D. J., who lives with his paternal grandmother in Dundalk. She has remained close to Palczynski's mother, Patricia Long, who takes her shopping and to restaurants.

Whitehead has spent the past year alone but hopes to date again. "I definitely want to be by myself for a good while, until I know it's right," she says. Even then, she says, she'll seek a criminal background check of anyone she dates.

As for the man she promised to love, the man who went on a killing spree because she wouldn't see him, Whitehead's feelings are a jumble. "I guess I'm not supposed to miss him, but we had a strong bond," she says. "I do miss him. I wouldn't be normal if I didn't."

And yet, there's another emotion.

"I hate what he did. I hate him for what he did," she says.

The Shenks

Twelve-year-old Nathan DiBuono was sitting in front of the television with his niece, his mother and his stepfather when Palczynski burst through the sliding glass doors of their ground-floor apartment in Bowleys Quarters and shouted, "Tracy, get up, you're going."

Tracy Whitehead, who was using the home of Gloria Jean Shenk, 49, and George Shenk, 50, as a haven from her abusive boyfriend, resisted. Palczynski, armed with a shotgun, opened fire, killing the Shenks in front of the children.

The events of the night of March 7 have haunted Nathan ever since. A few weeks ago, at his 13th birthday party, Nathan locked himself in a bathroom and sobbed for a half-hour.

"He said, `Mom is not here to see me be a teen-ager,' " recalls his sister and guardian, Amy Chagnon, 28. "And he talks about how she won't be there when he gets his [driver's] license, when he graduates or gets married."

Memories of that night's horrific events also linger in the mind of his 4-year-old niece, Allison, who has the same birthday as Nathan. Allison moved in with the Shenks three years ago, after her mother was killed in a car accident.

"She'll say, `Bad people came in and took Mama and Papa away with loud guns,' " Amy Chagnon says.

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