Palczynski still haunts Dundalk

CRIME SCENES

Locked-down neighborhood remembers the gunfire, and unkept promises

March 14, 2010|By Peter Hermann | peter.hermann@baltsun.com

Theresa Swayne remembers being shut in her house and hearing "the bullets outside."

Bonnie Edelenbos remembers trying to stop her two boys, 5 and 2, from looking out the back kitchen window at police carrying assault weapons in an alley designated the "kill zone."

This month marks a decade since Joseph C. Palczynski went on a murderous rampage that left four people dead and five others wounded, led police on a 10-day manhunt and then held hostage his ex-girlfriend's mother, her boyfriend and her 12-year-old child for 97 hours, putting a small Dundalk community on lockdown and on the national news.

The sounds and the memories haunt Swayne, who still runs a day care center on Jeannette Avenue, and Edelenbos, a homemaker who raised three children in a house that was a gift from her grandmother on Berkshire Road. "This is not something we're ever going to forget," Edelenbos told me.

But both women say what they remember more are all the promises made in the aftermath - a new community made stronger, cleaner streets, an end to drug dealing - and how they say those promises were broken.

On Monday, The Baltimore Sun's Internet site is presenting a retrospective on the hostage siege and its deadly preamble that captured the attention of the nation much in the same way the D.C. sniper did years later. The lead police hostage negotiator, Mel L. Blizzard, describes on video the intense talks with Palczynski, who tortured his victims with death threats and shot at police from the apartment window on Lange Street.

The siege ended only after a captive spiked Palczynski's ice tea with Xanax and led a daring escape out a bedroom window. Then, two cops stormed in and riddled Palczynski with bullets as he lay on a couch, three guns within his reach.

Two weeks after the crisis ended, residents had a block party to help the community heal. Politicians promised to clean up Dundalk's Berkshire neighborhood, a community of townhouse-style homes built for Bethlehem Steel workers in the 1950s. Edelenbos started an association. Neighbors promised to be neighborly.

On Thursday, 10 years later, Edelenbos stood at her kitchen window - the very spot from where her young son had watched in awe the machine-gun toting cops take aim at Palczynki's windows, waiting for a clean shot to take him out - and saw a white trash bag spilling from a lidless garbage can. The trash doesn't get picked up until Tuesday.

The scene is emblematic of what both Edelenbos and Swayne say has become of Berkshire since the Palczynski siege and when, a week after the ordeal ended, some 250 beleaguered residents bonded over burgers and moon bounces to celebrate their freedom from four days of home confinement and living at an emergency shelter at an elementary school.

"It's gotten worse, not better," Edelenbos told me.

She remembers then-County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger pledging support and urging them not to hesitate "to call on the county when there are issues that bother you. I call out to you to keep this momentum going."

Edelenbos said she gave up on the community association when internal bickering and gossip replaced putting on work gloves and cleaning a stream.

She's called the county to get inspectors to fine the people for putting their trash out too early, attracting rats, but said her pleas go nowhere. Her husband built wooden lids for their trash cans because the plastic ones keep getting stolen. His car is in the garage this weekend because a rat chewed through a hose line.

She gave up picking trash up herself when someone drove by and threw an empty pizza carton at her head.

A block away on Lange Street, the old home of Palczynski's ex is still run-down and littered with trash, the street pockmarked with potholes, lined with squat, two-story red brick apartments, faded yards with more dirt than grass, and divided by broken chain-link fences. Residents complain of running an obstacle course around dead rats in the alleys.

Lange Street remains a hodgepodge of renters and transient boarders that is the scourge of the neighborhood. Cops busted a suspected drug house earlier this month five doors from Palczynski's old address. The first man I encountered on the street last week told me he had just moved in after getting out of prison, having served 23 years for shooting a man in the face.

"We still have our bad seeds," said Swayne, who is now 48. "But I guess it's OK. We're still drug- and crime-infested, and I guess that won't change until those apartments are torn down."

Edelenbos takes no prisoners when she talks. She moved into the house on Berkshire Road while pregnant with her first child. She and her husband planned to fix it up, sell it and move to a nicer suburb north of the city, but a growing family and downward economy has kept them in place. They never built the porch they wanted.

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