Plumber sentenced for role in murder

Man gets 10-year term in the 1978 killing of construction worker

`I have been a changed person'

But 1996 tape recording showed him gloating about the homicide

March 08, 2002|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

A 48-year-old plumber was sentenced yesterday to 10 years in prison for his role in the 1978 murder of a Towson construction worker who was beaten, thrown from a railroad trestle and drowned in the Gunpowder Falls.

John S. Derry of the 3300 block of Beech Ave. in Baltimore told Baltimore County Circuit Judge John G. Turnbull II that he has spent the 24 years since Mark Schwandtner was killed trying to help people and working to support his family.

"I have been a changed person," Derry said.

Derry entered an Alford plea to one count of second-degree murder, meaning he did not admit guilt but acknowledged the state had enough evidence to convict him.

Turnbull sentenced Derry to 30 years, suspending all but 10 years. Under terms of the sentence, Derry will remain under the court's jurisdiction for 30 years and could be sent back to prison after his release if he commits another crime.

Assistant State's Attorney James O. Gentry Jr. had recommended a sentence of 30 years with all but 12 years suspended.

In a statement of facts read in court yesterday, Gentry said that witnesses saw an intoxicated Schwandtner "walking on the bar" in a Hampden establishment the night of the killing.

An autopsy showed that he had a blood-alcohol level of 0.21 percent, then more than twice the legal limit for drunken driving. The autopsy attributed Schwandtner's death to drowning and revealed that he had been beaten on the head, Gentry said.

Schwandtner's body was found by fishermen June 10, 1978, under a railroad trestle in the Gunpowder Falls at the Baltimore County-Harford County line.

The investigation into the death remained at a standstill until 1996 when an FBI informant told investigators that a co-defendant, William R. Isaacs, admitted that he and Derry had killed Schwandtner.

The informant, Charles Wilhelm, agreed to wear a wire and taped a Feb. 4, 1996, conversation at Derry's house. On the tape, Derry admitted to hitting Schwandtner, 22, on the head with a baseball bat and telling Isaacs to drown him after they threw him off the trestle.

Isaacs, 48, entered an Alford plea to the murder and was sentenced to 15 years Sept. 26, 2001.

David B. Irwin, Derry's lawyer, argued yesterday that Derry has been a model citizen since the killing, working full-time to support his wife of 11 years, their daughter and a stepson. Four neighbors and relatives also testified on Derry's behalf.

"He's a hundred percent family man," Clifton Freeman, a neighbor, told Turnbull.

Irwin also argued that Isaacs, a career criminal who served time for loan sharking and witness tampering, was the ringleader.

But Gentry noted that in the taped statement -- made in 1996 -- Derry bragged about his role in the killing. "He not only is bragging about what he had done," Gentry said, "he's laughing about it."

Schwandtner's relatives said they were pleased that Derry and Isaacs have been convicted and sentenced.

"It's been a long road," said Rick Schwandtner, an older brother.

Police have not established a motive for the killing. But Schwandtner said yesterday that his brother might have been killed for the cash that he was carrying that night.

"When he went out that night, he had a big wad with him," Schwandtner said.

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