The frightening world of John Merzbacher

March 23, 2012

With new talk that convicted child rapist John Joseph Merzbacher could regain his freedom because defense attorneys failed to disclose a plea offer back in the 1990s, let's take a moment to review the sordid history of this case.

The Sun's Tricia Bishop reports on a petition drive to keep the now 70-year-old behind bars. TwoU.S. Supreme Court cases decided this week have bolstered Merzbacher's claims that he was wronged. Had he known about the plea deal, he says, he might've taken it and would already have served the 10 years put on the table.

Instead, he was convicted and sent to prison for four life terms.

Here is some background on Merzbacher, who Tricia wrote had been accused of terrorizing students at a Baltimore Catholic school in the 1970s and convicted two decades later of six counts of child rape and sexual abuse in connection with the allegations.

It's from a 1994 story by several Sun reporters, including myself:

To some of the kids, he was "Mr. John." To others, he was "Merz." To parents who met him at Saturday afternoon Little League games, PTA meetings and school plays, he was the curly-haired teacher who seemed to understand their children's innermost thoughts and feelings like no other.

John Joseph Merzbacher Jr. appeared to be the ideal guide to lead the kids through those confused and awkward years of adolescence.

But in the shadowed places -- in classrooms and locked closets -- another Mr. Merzbacher emerged, police and former students say. He is accused of doing things to them that they say they could never forget, no matter how hard they tried.

What the students say happened to them in a South Baltimore Catholic school from 1972 to 1979 forms the basis of a stunning criminal case against Mr. Merzbacher.

But the 86 indictments do not begin to explain how a teacher who gained the trust of so many students and their families could have damaged so many young lives without anyone finding out until now.

"Everything that is described in this case fits a typical pattern," says J. Peter Isley, a psychotherapist from Milwaukee, Wis., who specializes in counseling people who have been sexually abused by priests, ministers and teachers. "It is a classic profile, and I can all but guarantee that you've only seen the beginning at this point."


Then, one day that winter, the teacher picked out three of his sixth-graders and told them they were going "somewhere special." They piled into his car after school and speddown Route 40 with high expectations. Half an hour later, they pulled into the parking lot of Sherrie's Show Bar, according to Mr. Vega and the 40-year-old city worker.

Inside, exotic dancers milled around in robes, getting ready for the night's performance in the dimly lighted bar. The boys hoisted themselves onto stools, and their teacher ordered a round of sodas.

"It was the coolest thing any of us had ever done," Mr. Vega said. "I remember thinking, 'There's no other teacher in the world who would have done that for us.' "

A few days later, Mr. Merzbacher took a group of the boys to a movie, then drove them to a rambling house in Essex with a pool in the back yard. The teacher turned on the television in the living room and told the kids to relax, then called one of them into the hallway.

"He took me into a back bedroom like he wanted to show me something," said the 40-year-old city worker, repeating a sworn account he gave to police.

"It was like the dam broke after that, and he wouldn't or couldn't stop, no matter what I said or did. It was the first of many times."


Within a few months, the eighth-grade class at Catholic Community Middle School in South Baltimore had a new English teacher.

And, as he had at Highlandtown Elementary, Mr. Merzbacher quickly endeared himself to students. A pipe-smoking jokester with an easy manner and a fondness for rock 'n' roll, he brought fun and games into his classroom.

In one corner, he set up a traffic light that flashed red and yellow and green. At the back of the room, he plugged in a stereo and spun hard rock records by The Who.

In one song by the band that Mr. Merzbacher played repeatedly for his students, the lyrics were laced with tortured yearning.

"I know there's a place you've walked where love falls from the trees," came the words from the classroom stereo. "My heart is like a broken cup, I only feel right on my knees. I spit out like a sewer hole and still receive your kiss.

"How can I measure up to anyone now after such love as this."

Students said Mr. Merzbacher would assign them to write an essay about the song.


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