Sins Of The Father

Cover story

May 12, 2002|By MICHAEL OLLOVE | MICHAEL OLLOVE,SUN STAFF

Joseph Stein Jr.'s apprenticeship began on a dark street corner in 1968 when he slammed an ax into an alarm box.

The box hung like a wasp's nest from an exterior wall of a drugstore in southwest Baltimore. When Joe hit it, the box started wailing loudly and fell to the pavement, where Joe's father calmly collected it and dropped it into a bucket of water brought just for this purpose. The clangor stopped. Joe was now ready to commence his first burglary. He was 13.

All these years later, Joe Stein still lacks the vocabulary to adequately characterize his upbringing. So does the English language.

Dysfunction doesn't accommodate the notion of a father who introduces a child into the vocation of breaking and entering. Deviancy doesn't do justice to a man who pushes drugs on his teen-age son to assure his pliability. Aberrance is too wan a description for a parent who sends his boy out on a mission of murder.

So what do you call it when a son reaches middle age and realizes the bonds of blood are the stranglehold that will destroy him? What do you call it when a child not only serves his father up to the FBI, but helps to build the case against the old man brick by brick?

In Joe's case, maybe you call it redemption. That is especially true if redemption implies that his reward will come only in heaven. Certainly, the earthly repercussions for turning on his father have been nothing but punishing. He is near financial ruin, in exile and fears for his life and those he loves.

One other word clearly doesn't apply in the saga of Joseph Edward Stein Jr.

Storybook.

Consider the psychological profile of a man standing amid the ruins of his home in the moments after a tornado blows through. Disoriented, depleted, defeated. At age 47, that is the general bearing of Joe Stein. Only, instead of a tornado, he has weathered a father.

He moves slowly, as though vigor would endanger his health, and he speaks in a voice devoid of energy. His wife, Donna, is livelier but also more visibly pained by the circumstances of their lives. With their three children and one grandchild, they live somewhere in Maryland to the west of Baltimore. To reveal more, Joe believes, could put them at risk, even though Joseph Sr. -- known as Jack or Reds -- is doing a 10-year stretch at a federal prison in Pennsylvania. Arson was the crime federal authorities pinned on Jack in 1998, although Joe had hoped to see his father go down for his central criminal enterprise, the operation of a theft ring that each year moved hundreds of thousands of dollars in stolen merchandise.

The Steins say the FBI gave them $60,000 to help set them up in a kind of poor man's Witness Protection Program. The money didn't go far after they fled Baltimore three years ago. It helped Donna open a gift shop that specializes in religious knickknacks, but the store hasn't turned a profit, and its prospects aren't promising. As for Joe, he hasn't been able to get a regular job. Bad knees caused by gout limit his options, and the only reference from an employer in the last decade would be from a man -- his father -- whom Joe believes would prefer him dead.

Despite repeated requests, Joseph Stein Sr. did not agree to an interview for this story. But in response to one of The Sun's letters asking for a meeting, Stein had this to say about his son's decision to speak to the newspaper: "I am still digesting the avarice that would drive any man's son into searching for yet again, another chance to pick up the additional 30 pieces of silver."

(If by that he was implying that The Sun had paid Joseph Jr. for his story, he is wrong. The newspaper does not compensate those it interviews.)

As for why Joe decided to tell his story, that is a complicated question. On the one hand, he says he wanted to show how a man can turn his life around. But he also thinks it should be known that cooperating with authorities has imperiled him, both physically and financially. The only money he brings in now is from an irregular job transporting cars for $100 a day. It wasn't enough to forestall personal bankruptcy. Not long ago, it wasn't enough to cover the electric bill or to prevent the repossession of his car.

Joe and Donna didn't expect to benefit from helping the FBI. But they didn't think their lives would be made precarious because of it.

"Sometimes," Donna says, "the wrong people pay for doing the right thing."

Accepting that Joe Stein Jr. did "the right thing" is an idea worth pausing to behold. It's hard to imagine anyone less prepared by his earlier life to do the right thing than Joe.

He had parents in a biological sense only. His father, Joseph Edward Stein Sr., you know a little bit about. Jack's malevolence was matched only by the piteousness of Joe's mother, Jolena, a ferocious alcoholic seemingly on a mission to destroy her liver. Joe was 15 when she finally succeeded. Jolena was all of 33.

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