If you strike a child, take care that you strike it in anger, even at the risk of maiming it for life. A blow in cold blood neither can nor should be forgiven. -- George Bernard Shaw
Wayne Dresbach speaks in short, direct sentences. He smiles easily, though not often. Even-featured and deeply tanned, his powerful chest showcased by an open-necked plaid sport shirt, he exudes the gentle strength of an athlete or noted outdoorsman.
An easy interview Wayne Dresbach is, but Dresbach does not care much for interviews. His eys ask hard questions.
Micheal Mewshaw, a writer and childhood friend of Dresbach's in Anne Arundel Country, has written a book about him titled "Life for Death," a book novelist Graham Greene has called "a terrifying account magnificiently presented." Dresbach cooperated in the project. He even thinks it's a good idea. But he'd prefer to forget the crucial event that structures his life story. The five words that put it most simply mask a world of qualifications and torments, but they're the words that have ruled Wayne Dresbach's life.
Wayne Dresbach killed his parents.
Today, his smartly combed wheat-colored hair and trimmed mustache give no hint of that frightened boy, verging on catatonia, who hours after the crime told a Maryland state trooper "I shot my parents" while nervously sipping soda pop with two friends.
On that windless Saturday morning in Franklin Manor, Jan.- 7, 1961, 15-year-old Wayne took a .22 Remington automatic rifle from hs father's office, the office in which prominent divorce lawyer Harold Dresbach handled important business -- and stationed himself in the living room of the Dresbachs' waterfront home on Chesapeake Bay. Moments later, he fired six bullets into his father as Harold Dresbach walked across the dining room. Shirley Dresbach then entered the hallway from her bedroom. Wayne let loose with another four bursts, hitting her in the chest and arm. She staggered into the bedroom and died.
The first newspaper reports depicted Wayne Dresbach as a coldblooded monster, spoiled and ungrateful. Hadn't the Dresbachs offered him and his brother a good life, what with the bikes and motorboats, musical instruments and shotguns? When the papers learned that Wayne had been adopted, they suggested that the close-mouthed unrepentant killer might be the living embodiment of the "The Bad Seed" a popular novel and movie of the time.
Other details about the Dresbachs didn't receive the same attention. Police had confiscated pornographic literature and "other devices" on the premises. Rumors circulated in the community about Harold Dresbach's profane language, his hot temper. Others knew of Harold Dresbach's infidelities, his wife's bruises, the beatings Wayne Dresbach received. But none of those things interfered with the fast working of Maryland justice that sent Wayne Dresbach to prison.
"Your're probably wondering if I think it is justified," Dresbach volunteers in regard to his crime, sensing the litany of his father's flaws sounds like a defense. "Of course it wasn't.
Was it, if not justified, perhaps a rational response?
"Of course not," Dresbach answers with an indulgent laugh. "You don't kill someone being rational."
Mewshaw disagrees. Desbach respects that. Father Paul Dawson, in turn, respects Dresbach. An Episcopal priest from Baltimore, he befriended Dresbach shortly after the crime and has remained close.
"When you realize the kind of childhood he had," Dawson says in the book, "you have to wonder where his goodness and decency come from." Dawson says that Dresbach seemed to form his character in direct opposition to his parents. "That's one of the things I most admire about him," the priest says. "He refused to live the way they did."
Three weeks of psychiatric evaluation followed Dresbach's arrest. He complicated it with his matter-of-fact attitude toward the crime and his unwillingness to excuse himself by talking about life at home. The doctors found him mentally competent to stand trial. He was waived through juvenile court, booked as an adult and indicted for double murder.
Held without bail the whole time from crime to trial, he aquired a lawyer only two months after his arrest -- one of the few gestures made by relatives of his adoptive parents to help him. They hired a local attorney rather than one of Harold Dresbach's powerful legal colleagues from Washington. Wayne Dresbach pleaded not guilty.
Some expected a spectacle because of the widespread publicity that followed the crime and the anticipation that prominent Washington-area figures would testify. But Dresbach's trial for the murder of his father -- he was never tried for his mother's death -- took little more than half a day. His brother Lee testified that Wayne had threatened to kill his father the Monday before the crime. The prosecutor raised frequent objections to attempts to introduce testimony about the Dresbach's home life. The judge frequently sustained them, accepting the view that such testimony was largely irrelevant to a defense of legal insanity under the Maryland's strict M'Naghten Rule, requiring only that Dresbach know that the difference between right and wrong. r
Wayne Dresbach's jury deliberated for 12 minutes. The foreman of the jury fumbled his chore at first, reading aloud a verdict of "insanity" even though the jury had found Dresbach guilty of first-degree murder. The foreman later explained that he was illiterate.
On July 7, 1961, Judge Benjamin Michaelson ordered Dresbach "confined to the Maryland Penitentiary for the period of your natural life." His lawyers filed a petition to transfer Dresbach to the Patuxent Institute in Baltimore in order to determine whether he was a "defective delinquent." Dresbach pumped iron and tattooed himself to project a tough image and protect himself against rape and abuse. He attempted suicide with a pill overdose. But he came back from that nadir, helped in part by Mewshaw's mother and family, who visited Dresbach while Lee, his brother, increasingly sought to distance himself from the crime. On Feb. 18, 1971, he was granted parole. The Alliance
Wayne Dresbach thinks of boys like himself a lot, especially as he explains his reasons for cooperating with Mewshaw, who learned of the killings the morning they occured from Lee.
"High school kids might pick it up in a bookstore or something," he says, "take a look at it and maybe realize that they don't have to be beaten. There are places they can call, people they can see."
Mewshaw nods, still giving the sense of one who is observing Dresbach as much as agreeing with him. The contrast between the two has grown sharp.
Two years older than Dresbach, Mewshaw aspired to a literacy life in high school and pursued an academic route, attending Bard College in New York and the University of Virginia, where he earned a PH.D. in English. Now an associate professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of five novels, Mewshaw, almost wholly gray at 37, talks the language of a mainstream man of letters, bolstering his own accounts of Dresbach and the book with literary allusions.
His childhood friend, who earned his high school equivalency in prison, sometimes reading a book a day, listens quietly. The possibility of exploitation is broached.
"Oh, no, no, no, no," Dresbach interrupts, his voice leaping. "I'm closer to him than I am my own brother."
"I'm glad wayne said that," remarks Mewshaw, agreeing. He adds that he is "as close" to Dresbach as to his own brothers. "The last couple of days," says Mewshaw, "we've had a hell of a good time seeing each other.
Mewshaw mulled over writing the book soon after the crime, discussing it with Dresbach when both were still in their teens. He visited Dresbach whenever he came to the area, and the two occasionally corresponded. Anticipating that we would write it as a novel, Mewshaw put it off from year to year, uncertain with his own career and extended stays in Europe. Also, Dresbach didn't feel comfortable about it.
"But you grow up through the years," he continues, "and, I like to think, advance somewhat. The time came. Mike called me up and said come over and see me. I drove from Baltimore to Washington, we had a couple of beers and started talking about it. I said okay, now's the time."
Still, Dresbach retains the instincts of someone who knows that "you don't advertise that you were in jail for 10 years."
Asked for whom he now works, he immediately glances at Mewshaw in a silent request for guidance. Mewshaw looks noncommital. "Might as well put it in," Dresbach decides for himself, giving the name of the Baltimore ship chandler that employes him as a salesman.
Dresbach thinks it's his 19th job since he left Patuxent. He's worked as a carpenter's helper, a counterman at Gino's, a truckdriver, bartender, bouncer, house painter, foreman and more. "I've poured concrete for driveways, dug ditches, run jackhammers," says Dresbach, extending his list. "But that's because I wanted to change," he quickly adds, his voice rising as though suddenly wary of creating a bad impression. "I never got fired."
Since the people privy to Dresbach's past have been "few and far between" since his parole, many of his co-workers learned about his past only a month ago, when the book began to be publicized around Baltimore.
"It was tougher on me, their not knowing," says Dresbach. "I didn't get fired. I'm thought of more there, I think, because I try to do a good job. I do do a good job."
He says that no one aware of his past has ever tried to insult him or make him feel uneasy about it. "I sense a curiosity from people on occasion," he admits, "but I can deal with that."
Dresbach wanted his story written to help other children faced with a physically abusive parent, but it has helped him as well. Some time ago, the mother of a woman he has been seeing for five years inadvertently found out about his past. Now she knows the part of the story he could never bring himself to tell her. Domestic Strife
According to "Life for Death," the punishments came first, and they came like this:
During the junior high school Wayne, experiencing eye trouble, flunked all his courses and his father beat him with a garrison belt, the buckle cutting through Wayne's shirt and drawing blood. At the duck blind, his father, ignoring Wayne's pleas, pumped two shots into a swan and made Wayne pluck it, clean it, and eat it. The punishments came in the insults and humiliations before guests, teasing of Wayne and Lee with the false threat of the Dresbach's imminent divorce, the brutal response to imperfect obedience.
Once Harold Dresbach, in a familiar stream of abuse related to his son's school work, scornfully asked Wayne whether he wanted to be a ditchdigger all his life. "Yes, that's what I'd like to be," Wayne replied in a rare flicker of defiance. Harold Dresbach punched Wayne in the face, knocking him over a coffee table.
The punishments came all the time.
Who was Harold Dresbach? A smalltown boy from Kansas who made good by graduating from George Washington University's law school and marrying Shirley Shaffer, a neice of former governor Harry Woodring of Kansas.
A prominent man in local politics.
A frequent entertainer of important people.
And, according to Mewshaw, a heavy drinker, chronic liar, nudist, sexual swinger and wife-beating sadist who collected pornography, encouraged zoophilism, enlisted his wife into his swinging practices and practiced them in his own living room, at least once in the view of young Wayne Dresbach.
A man who outfitted his Chrysler with a carriage bell that he rang whenever he passed an attractive women. A father who berated his son Wayne when an older boy bloodied him, then knocked his son unconscious.
It is not clear whether Harold Dresbach was Wayne's natural father. Dresbach always told his kids they were adopted, but the adoption appears to have had no legal basis. At least one person Mewshaw spoke to during his research reported that Harold Dresbach had acknowledged them as his own by one of his many partners.
Shirley Dresbach, it is certain was not their natural mother. Her inability to conceive formed part of Harold Dresbach's ammunition when he ridiculed her. Mewshaw characterizes Shirley Dresbach as a classic "battered wife." A wife who stood by as her husband abused the children. A frequently depressed woman who attempted suicide several times. A mother who couldn't or wouldn't protect Wayne Dresbach through the agonies that provoked him to run away five times before the balmy winter-day on which Shirley Dresbach stood by mutely for the last time. Unanswered Questions
When he is not smoking a cigarette, Wayne Dresbach keeps his hands folded on his lap, like a student waiting for the dismissal bell to ring. As helpful as he wishes to be, there are questions he doesn't care to answer. He answered Mewshaw's so he wouldn't have to answer them again.
The topic of his brother plainly causes pain. Lee was in the house the morning of the killing. It was he who gave Mewshaw the news of the killing on the telephone that morning. But he refused to cooperate with him in the writing of the book. Lee and his brother have not been in contact since 1974. w
"The last time he came to see me, I think he stayed seven minutes, eleven minutes, something like that," says Wayne Dresbach in a flat voice. He doesn't know where Lee lives, though Mewshaw does.
"I would like to see some kind of reconciliation," says Dresbach, "but he wants nothing to do with me." By Mewshaw's account, Harold Dresbach always treated Wayne much worse, with many of his outbursts apparently provoked by his sense that Wayne compared unfavorably with his brother. "He never did take my side, as long as I can remember," Wayne Dresbach recalls of his brother. "I don't dnow what he thinks," he says, asked whether his brother has ever shown some sign that he forgave or at least understood what Wayne did."I'm sure he thinks I've done a wrong."
He also resists attempts to take him back to Jan. 7, 1961. A television interviewer recently tried that. "They were sort of asking, 'Okay, you have the gun in your hand, you're coming down, to see your mother . . .'" Mewshaw says acidly, adding that he had the feeling the interviewers were thrilled to have "a real-live murderer" on the show.
"I don't want them to ask me to relive every second of the actual crime," Dresbach remarks. "I've been through it too many times."
Is it fair to ask him how he thinks of his parents today? "No, it isn't," he says, politely, but firmly.