Merzbacher had a sort of Tom Jones quality at the school in Locust Point school, students said. He smoked a pipe, doled out marijuana and alcohol, and spun records by The Who in class.

"Initially, everyone thought he was the coolest teacher ever," Wehberg said. But the charm hid a monster.

Murphy was in sixth grade when Merzbacher first assaulted her, a naive 11-year-old in a plaid, school-issued jumper. He plied her with sherry, hidden in a set of fake books, then removed her underwear and violated her in a classroom, according to court records.

"I had never tasted alcohol before," she said in an affidavit, "I was 11, and he used that pattern repeatedly. Sometimes ... he would also pull out his revolver and point it at my head when he raped me."

He pointed the gun at Murphy's face one day and pulled the trigger, and he "played Russian roulette" on another day, firing the loaded weapon over several students' heads, according to court records.

"I will blow your [expletive] brains out if you ever tell anyone what I have done to you at this point in time. I will find you, I will come and get you," Merzbacher told Murphy, documents show. "I will kill your father, I will kill your family. You're a bad little girl."

Others say they underwent similar abuse and saw the same happen to their classmates. Complaints to the principal, a nun, went nowhere, according to court records, and most of the children couldn't even talk about the events among themselves.

It wasn't until Murphy ran into an old classmate, Bill Mannion, at a funeral in the early 1990s that she opened up. He brought up the subject of abuse at the school, and she told him what happened to her.

"We [also] talked about how many people were dead, how many suffered with drug and alcohol abuse," Murphy, now 51, recalled in an interview. Mannion urged her to talk to others, and, after a lot of thought and prayer, she said, she began to organize a group of former students, which eventually led to a wave of indictments in Baltimore Circuit Court.

Addiction and depression were common among Merzbacher's one-time students, as was early death. Of the 14 who filed criminal cases against Merzbacher, three died young.

"It's a flat-out miracle I didn't hang myself because of him; it's a flat-out miracle that I survived," said Melnick, who moved to California as a young adult.

Murphy tried to drown the memories in alcohol, but has now been sober for years, having realized long ago, she said, that there wasn't enough alcohol in the world to make her forget.

"None of us could possibly forget what he did," Murphy said. "I wish that memory wasn't seared in my brain."

'Ongoing trauma'

Their recollections led to the rape and sexual abuse indictments against Merzbacher, who vehemently denied the accusations. Fifteen students, including Murphy, also brought civil suits against Merzbacher, though they were eventually thrown out for being filed too late.

There is no statute of limitations on felony sexual offenses, however, which allowed the criminal cases to go forward.

Before the first trial was set to begin in 1995, the plea deal was outlined, according to court records, but the complainants say they, like Merzbacher, were never told of it.

"When it comes to plea agreements, the prosecutor has the final say in what's [offered]," said Pauline Mandel, legal services director for the Maryland Crime Victims' Resource Center.

"The state's job is to get the bad guys off the street, and if they feel the best way to do this is the plea agreement ... they may well do that over trial."

Murphy's case was the first to go to trial, and it was excruciating, according to onlookers. Defense attorneys suggested she was framing Merzbacher for money, and questioned her credibility, while prosecutors dredged up details of the sexual assaults.