In the early '70s, Eddie Blair was known as a friendly kid to the women at the corner grocery near his Locust Point home.
"Ed worked up there. And those mothers and neighbors, they all just loved him," recalls his aunt and godmother, Mary Cadden, 83.
But as he moved into middle school, a troubling change came over Eddie, the youngest of three boys in the Blair family. He became secretive and sensitive. And he grew angry, storming one day from a middle school classroom and slamming against the lockers until he was sent home.
"I knew in my heart that it was something," says his mother, Nancy Blair, 79. "I said to my sister Mary … 'God bless him, we love him,' but I said, 'Eddie is never going to live to be 40 years old. He has got some kind of a worry or something on his mind.'"
By age 34, Eddie was dead.
His death certificate lists the cause as "narcotic intoxication," an overdose. But the Blairs believe the underlying reason goes back to his childhood — and one man.
John Joseph Merzbacher was Eddie's middle school teacher at the Catholic Community School on Fort Avenue, and the Blairs say he terrorized their son, though they didn't learn about it until years later.
"[Eddie] was petrified of that man," Blair said. She and her husband still are. And they're outraged that Merzbacher could be released from prison under a federal court order handed down a week ago.
That possibility has led a number of Merzbacher's former students who say they were abused and their families to band together after years of silence and to speak out in hopes of keeping him locked up. They've launched an online petition and are making plans to meet with state and local officials who want to keep Merzbacher behind bars.
The lives of some former students continued to unravel after Merzbacher was jailed. Some drank, some used drugs or overate to dampen feelings of shame. At least three have died from hard living.
"Some lives were completely ruined" by Merzbacher, said Mary Lewandowski-Stylc, 46, a former student who says she was one of his victims. "Drug addicts, suicides, prostitution, you know. … I'm a fortunate one, I guess. But not everybody. People had other monsters after him to deal with."
Convicted, but …
Sixteen years ago, Merzbacher was charged with more than 100 crimes involving many Baltimore boys and girls, among them Eddie Blair, most from the public and private schools in which he taught. He was accused of raping and sodomizing students day after day for years without intervention. He beat them, court documents say, and forced them to have sex with each other under threat of death if they told anyone. He even fired a gun in the small Catholic school one day to prove a point, witnesses said.
But today, as then, Merzbacher says he is innocent, according to his lawyer. And the Maryland court system officially recognizes only one victim: Elizabeth Ann Murphy, now 49. Merzbacher was her English teacher from 1972 to 1975, when she was a Catholic middle-schooler alongside Eddie Blair.
In 1995, two decades after she was abused, Murphy finally told her story in court, with the support of a dozen others behind her. Her case was the first to go to trial, and she described for the jury how Merzbacher raped, humiliated, threatened and drugged her, providing the then-11-year-old girl with alcohol and marijuana.
A Baltimore jury convicted Merzbacher of six counts of rape and sexual abuse, and the judge sentenced him to four life terms in prison.
The Baltimore state's attorney's office dropped the cases involving the other students, including Eddie's, believing that the life sentences were sufficient to keep Merzbacher behind bars. "He won't go anywhere for a long, long time," a prosecutor said at the time.
The decision saved the others from having to air their own experiences in court, the shame they felt and the horrendous things they say happened. But it also took away their chance to be recognized. They will forever be known as "alleged victims."
A week ago, however, news came that Merzbacher might be released from prison because of a legal blunder.
His defense attorneys apparently never told him about a plea deal that was offered after his indictment but before the trial. The oversight violated Merzbacher's Sixth Amendment right to effective counsel, a federal judge ruled July 30.
If that ruling stands — the Maryland attorney general's office plans to appeal the federal order — Merzbacher, who has already served 15 years, will be offered the deal, which called for a 10-year term. And Merzbacher, now 69, will accept, his attorney said, in order to be set free.