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Victim's Plea: 'Please Don't Kill Me, Joby, Please'
Hostages, Negotiators Describe Days of Terror At the Mercy of Killer's Threats, Mood Swings

By Fredrick Kunkle and Raja Mishra
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, March 23, 2000; Page A15

The quiet, weathered neighborhoods just east of Baltimore had hung on the edge for 10 days, wondering whether the fugitive who had killed four of their neighbors still lurked in their midst.

On a blustery, chilly Friday night, they got their answer: Joseph C. Palczynski blasted his way through the door of a brick row house in a working-class section of East Point.

As Palczynski took up unwelcome residence in the house on Lange Street, the neighbors needed little explanation as to what was afoot. They knew that it was home to the mother of the woman whose rejection of the 31-year-old electrician with a violent past had led to the spate of killing.

On that Friday evening, Lynn Whitehead, 41, her boyfriend, Andy McCord, 40, and their 12-year-old son, Bradley, were sitting in the living room about 9 o'clock when the man they knew as Joby came pounding on their green front door.

They slammed a dresser against the door as Palczynski began shooting at the deadbolt lock and Bradley rushed to dial 911.

Shooting as he came, Palczynski won the battle, charging into their home carrying an armload of weapons and 200 rounds of ammunition.

He grabbed Whitehead as she cowered behind the door, shouting to McCord, who had retreated to the next room.

"I got Lynn now, and if you don't come out, I'm going to shoot low and keep coming up," he shouted.

Sam Tyler, 7, had just arrived home on Lange Street after an evening out with his father.

"I knew they were gunshots, because my dad told me to get on the floor," Tyler said.

The police, who had been swarming over eastern Baltimore County in search of Palczynski, arrived within minutes.

They burst into Larry Shifflett's house just across the street, cut out the lights and trained their rifles out open windows.

Michelle Weeks, headed home after a visit to her dentist to deal with an aching tooth, was turned back at police barricades.

Three people and a neighborhood had been taken hostage, and by the time their ordeal ended on Tuesday, quiet Lange Street and the tortured life of Joseph Palczynski had catapulted into breakfast table conversation across the nation.

After Palczynski killed three people who tried to protect Tracy Whitehead from his rage and after he inadvertently killed a fourth person, and as his history of violence, confrontation and abuse emerged in the aftermath, there seemed ample reason to cast him as an irrational madman. But there was method to his madness when he took his hostages on Lange Street.

Whitehead had escaped from him nine days earlier, and now he wanted revenge.

He was on the phone to police almost immediately.

"Give me Tracy, I'll give you the hostages," he demanded. "If you don't have her here in 25 minutes, they'll die."

Later, when she didn't materialize, he insisted that she be brought to the telephone, apparently to listen as he killed her mother.

As professional negotiators began their delicate talk that went on for hours at a time over four days, they knew they must deny Palczynski that conversation, which might end in killing number five.

Between phone calls from negotiators, the three hostages suffered through the violent mood swings that characterized Palczynski's mental illness at times like this, when he was off his medication.

They watched television together, and when Palczynski demanded that the police correct news reports with which he found fault, police warned broadcasters to avoid anything that might "agitate" him.

At times they talked as the friends they had become when Palczynski romanced Tracy. But when the gunman's moods turned ugly, there were threats and waves of depression.

The afternoon after his invasion, he turned on Bradley as police negotiators listened in. It was the boy's 12th birthday. His father was tied up. His mother was sobbing.

Palczynski pointed a gun in the boy's face and screamed to negotiators:

"I'll kill him!"

The boy cried and begged, "Please don't kill me, Joby, please."

As tactical units prepared to storm the house, Palczynski backed off, but whenever talks grew tense, he repeated threats to kill Lynn Whitehead, firing his gun to underscore his intention.

"Every day we tried to talk him out of it," McCord said.

So did the professional negotiators, burdened by the awareness that this time they were up against a man whose emotional turmoil was rooted in mental illness.

James McGee knows how to talk with people on the brink of mayhem and self-destruction. As director of violence management at Sheppard Pratt Hospital in Baltimore, he has had a wealth of experience with manic-depressive illness.

On Friday, McGee and a friend were eating Irish stew at the York Inn in Towson when his pager went off.

"Jimmy, we think we got him," said Lt. Melvin Blizzard, of Baltimore County's hostage negotiation team. "It's not an Elvis sighting. I can't talk. Get your [butt] down here."

As McGee raced to the hastily assembled command post in a firehouse in Middle River, he knew he was headed for a vexing professional challenge. He had been called into the case while Palczynski was on the run after the first shootings.

McGee's team drew up the profile of Palczynski that had been used as the cornerstone of the massive manhunt.

His findings: "She was young, he was young. Love in bloom. Sounded like the kind of guy who would love you to death. . . . He's physically handsome, and a real charmer." The gifts were plentiful--jewelry, clothes--but so were the demands. If she wore the wrong clothes or jewelry, he'd get upset. "It was about control. 'You have to account for every single second before I blow your brains out.' "

McGee's bottom line: Palczynski was so obsessed with Tracy, he would return to his old neighborhood, even though he was being hunted.

Now that his prediction had proven true, McGee was being drawn into the middle of the mess.

McGee's immediate advice demanded a tricky balance: Don't meet Palczynski's demands, but convince him that he's calling the shots.

"It's a linguistic waltz," McGee said. "He was having fun. . . . He was boasting and gloating. He was watching it all on TV. We called it the Joby Show. You guys are idiots, he'd tell us."

A new low came on Sunday, when depression seemed to overcome Palczynski.

He fired a single shot and issued a deadline for producing Tracy Whitehead. He began counting down toward a time when he said his hostages would be shot. Negotiators begged him to stop, to take his hand off the trigger.

Then there was another shot, followed by the voices of Lynn Whitehead and Bradley, pleading that Tracy be brought to the house.

Then the negotiations took on a more sedate tone. Negotiators sensed that Palczynski's manic behavior had leveled off. Perhaps it was increasing fatigue.

"Now we're doing traditional negotiating," remarked Terrance B. Sheridan, Baltimore County chief of police.

That night the professionals brought Louis Terrell into the talking game. He had been kidnapped and forced to drive Palczynski back to Baltimore from Virginia, where the gunman had fled after the four killings. They had forged a bond before Palczynski left him unharmed in East Point.

An FBI hostage negotiator was dispatched to Terrell's farm to coach him. His job was to make Palczynski see that he had to "fight the devil in him," Terrell said.

Terrell, an elder in the Jehovah's Witnesses, read to Palczynski from the Book of Psalms. He made small talk. He even joked that the police had gathered the fried chicken left over from their last meal and bagged it as evidence.

He asked whether the hostages were safe and whether Palczynski would release Bradley. Palczynski replied that the "boy probably doesn't want to go."

But Terrell sensed that Palczynski was inattentive.

"His voice showed almost no expression," Terrell said. "It sounded remote. It was a different Joby."

Palczynski was fading out. The 20-minute conversation ended as it had begun, with Terrell calling Palczynski's nickname "Joby," again and again. But there was only white noise on the other end, and the police hung up.

Palczynski resumed talking with the police negotiators, still discussing the same topics, demanding his freedom and Whitehead.

Tuesday evening, as late as 9:45 p.m., they continued to talk.

The pelt of a steady rain was caught in the glow of the porch light on Lange Street on Tuesday night as the heavily armed police moved in to bring an end to the confrontation.

Several officers crept toward the brick row house with ladders, while others appeared as if from out of nowhere on the roof. A neighbor who peered from a nearby second-floor window through mini-binoculars sensed that the police were poised to burst into the house.

Then something startling--even by these standards of extraordinary circumstance--occurred. A woman came tumbling out of the first-floor window.

"Oh, my God, she's out!" said Sarah Schaaf, recognizing the woman as Lynn Whitehead, her neighbor.

Whitehead stumbled to her feet on the lawn.

"It's me. It's not Joe. It's me," she said, rushing toward the officers.

About 10 minutes later--at 10:47 p.m.--another body came through the window.

Andrew McCord, a large, balding man dressed in a dark shirt and pants, braced himself against a ledge beneath the open window, awkwardly somersaulting to the ground below, landing feet first, vaulting a chain link fence into his neighbor's yard and then scampering to safety.

"Where's the boy?" Schaaf asked herself.

Four minutes after McCord's escape--with Bradley McCord and Palczynski still unaccounted for--the dim light outside filled with a mass of armed officers, dressed from head to toe in black.

With a muffled crack, one of the officers blew open the front door with a special device that looks like a shotgun. With that explosion, officers perched on stepladders outside the windows opened fire on Palczynski, who lay sleeping on the living room couch after his captives drugged his iced tea.

At that very instant, other officers crashed through the kitchen door at the rear of the house, one covering the sleeping 12-year-old with his body until they were satisfied that Palczynski was no longer a threat.

The noise sounded like explosions across the way, and Sarah Schaaf dropped instinctively to the floor.

"Those were the gunshots that killed him," she said. "I was thinking, why did they have to take him like that. I mean, that gunshot sounded like a bomb. It must have been a bloody mess in there."

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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