William R. Isaacs, a career criminal who has served prison time for loan sharking and witness tampering, pleaded guilty yesterday to the murder of a Towson construction worker found beaten and drowned in Gunpowder Falls in 1978.
Isaacs was convicted in 1997 of second-degree murder in the killing of Mark Schwandtner. But the conviction was reversed on appeal after a judge failed to share with lawyers in the case a note he had received from jurors.
Yesterday, instead of going to trial a second time, Isaacs accepted a plea agreement from the Baltimore County state's attorney's office. The agreement calls for a 15-year sentence, beginning with the date of his first conviction.
Isaac's lawyer, Clarke Ahlers, said his client would likely be paroled "in the near future."
Isaacs, 48, entered an Alford plea, which means he did not admit guilt but agreed there is enough evidence to convict him. An admitted loan shark and bookmaker who spent most of the last decade in federal and state prisons, he has been in the Baltimore County Detention Center awaiting retrial since August of last year.
Isaacs showed no emotion when prosecutor James O. Gentry Jr. recited the details surrounding the beating of Schwandtner, 22, on a railroad trestle above Gunpowder Falls at the Baltimore County-Harford County line June 10, 1978. Police were not able to establish a motive in the killing.
Gentry noted that the government's key witness in Isaacs' 1997 trial was Isaacs' former friend and partner, Charles Wilhelm, who became a paid FBI informant. Wilhelm testified that Isaacs admitted to the murder the morning after it happened.
During the first trial, Isaacs told the jury, "I had nothing to do with anybody being killed, nothing," according to the court transcript.
After yesterday's hearing, Isaacs' lawyer took an unusual step to distance his client from the crime, handing a reporter a "defendant's press release" that stated, "Mr. Isaacs denies that he is guilty of any offense in the 1978 death of Mark Schwandtner."
Ahlers wrote that Isaacs took the Alford plea to take advantage of the prosecutor's offer of a 15-year sentence. If Isaacs had been convicted of second-degree murder by a judge or jury, he could have faced a 30-year sentence.
Ahlers' press release attacked the FBI for failing to give him access to records that might show Wilhelm was lying.
"What all of this means is that if Mr. Isaacs elected to go to trial, he would be forced to defend against a case accusing him of a crime 23 years ago ... without any understanding of what evidence the FBI has that Wilhelm is not telling the truth and that others may have committed this offense," the press release says.