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Shot fired in hostage apartment

Baltimore Co. police rely on fugitive's word that no one was hurt; Standoff drags into 4th day

By Joe Nawrozki and Jay Apperson

Sun Reporters

March 21, 2000

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The tense stalemate between police and Joseph C. Palczynski, the suspect in four killings, ground through its fourth day in Dundalk yesterday as officials wrestled with their newest worry -- the gunshot fired in the apartment where the fugitive was holding three hostages.

After that shot -- one of 10 incidences of gunfire over the past two days, but the first inside the besieged brick rowhouse -- police relied on the fugitive's word about the hostages' welfare.

As of 1 a.m., the standoff continued as media and police huddled in a cold, steady rain.

"As far as we know, no one is seriously wounded or hurt," said Bill Toohey, spokesman for Baltimore County police, who have been in touch with Palczynski since Friday by telephone, and occasionally by bullhorn.

Palczynski, 31, would not allow an ambulance crew into the apartment in the 7500 block of Lange St., but Toohey said, "As far as we know, there's been no need to use that medic unit."

One fact was clear last night: While most residents of the eastern Baltimore County neighborhood had been escorted to safety in armored vehicles Sunday night, authorities still could not estimate when the standoff would end and when the safety of the hostages could be determined.

Police also said yesterday that members of the Whitehead family rejected offers to be guarded by police at their home, countering other family members' claims that they had asked for protection Thursday, the day before Palczynski stormed into the apartment and took the hostages.

Police could not determine yesterday the conditions of the hostages, believed to be Palczynski's ex-girlfriend's mother, Lynn Whitehead; her stepfather, Andy McCord; and her 12-year-old brother, Bradley McCord.

Meanwhile, nearby Berkshire Elementary School was to be closed today for the second consecutive day, and trauma specialists remained on standby at Franklin Square Hospital Center.

Late last night, after police cleared spectators from the command center near the scene, a handful of people pretended to be reporters and began shouting questions at a police briefing.

The ruse was soon discovered and the ersatz media dispersed.

On Sunday night and yesterday morning, police made 16 trips to escort about 30 people from their homes. Some walked out, others were taken in an armored vehicle.

To some, the ordeal has grown frustrating.

"We're sick and tired of being prisoners in our own home," said Bob Haffler, who lives with his wife and two small sons in the 900 block of Elton Ave., less than two blocks from the siege site.

Residents such as Haffler complained yesterday about the lack of information coming from police, noting as one example the shot fired inside the apartment.

At one point yesterday, Toohey said of that shooting, "We don't have a real clear fix on what's going on."

Toohey said information on the shot fired in the apartment is "filtered" through conversations between negotiators and Palczynski. The fugitive had reinitiated negotiations just before the shot was fired about 3 p.m. -- after nearly six hours of silence.

Officials said that apparently was the longest period of silence since the standoff began Friday. Police believe Palczynski might be sleeping at such times.

Before that, police had delivered an order of French toast and sausages by robot for Palczynski's breakfast about 9:30 a.m.

"There's something wrong here, the police getting their information from the guy who's shooting at them," Haffler said.

The shooting inside highlighted the on-again, off-again talks with police by the unpredictable Palczynski, who apparently has demanded that his ex-girlfriend, Tracy Whitehead, be brought to the scene.

On four other occasions yesterday, police said the fugitive fired bursts of shots out the apartment window and, in one volley, flattened a tire on a police armored personnel carrier.

Police said no one was injured by those shots aimed outside the house.

Palczynski has been on the run, police said, since March 7 when he allegedly abducted Tracy Whitehead. Friends said their relationship had been stormy.

Whitehead was staying with 50-year-old Gloria Jean Shenk and her husband, George Shenk, 49, after her most recent split with Palczynski.

Police said that as Palczynski dragged Whitehead from the Town & Country Bowleys Quarters Apartments, he fatally shot the Shenks and David M. Meyers, a neighbor who tried to help. Whitehead later escaped.

Police also accuse Palczynski of shooting and killing Jennifer McDonel, 37, a passing motorist, during an attempted carjacking the next night.

Palczynski, police said, then traveled, probably by train, to Virginia and stole two guns and cash from a house. They believe he forced a man at gunpoint to drive him back to eastern Baltimore County.

After eluding a massive manhunt through woods and marshes, Palczynski reappeared Friday night, police said, when he shot at the rowhouse in the 7500 block of Lange St. and took the three hostages while armed with two "long guns," a .22-caliber pistol and perhaps another handgun.

Police insisted yesterday that they offered adequate protection to the family eventually grabbed by Palczynski as hostages, even though a relative said Tracy Whitehead's family had asked for police protection the day before the suspect allegedly took over the Dundalk apartment.

"We offered security inside and outside that property and were turned down" by the family, said Toohey. "I'm confident we did a responsible job watching that house."

Police said the Whitehead family had been taken to a "secure location" the day after Tracy Whitehead escaped from Palczynski at a Pulaski Highway motel, the El-Rich. Toohey would not describe the location or protective measures used by police, but he said "they were in no harm and in no danger, in fact, a week went by without any threat to them."

Then, he said, on Thursday family members said they wanted to move back to their home. "Authorities told them that was a very bad idea. But they moved back in against police advice," Toohey said.

According to the spokesman, police wanted to station at least one officer inside the Whitehead home, with others outside.

Instead, Toohey said, the police and family agreed on "selective enforcement" -- police patrolling the street in front of their house. He said a patrol car apparently passed the house about three hours before Palczynski's arrival.

Asked whether police could have guarded the outside of the house to prevent Palczynski's attack, Toohey said, "From a practical point of view, one officer standing outside or sitting outside isn't likely to have stopped something like this. You would have needed to totally secure the house with people inside and outside. People inside is the key issue here."

In all, police estimated 20 sites were considered potential targets for Palczynski after he returned from Virginia. Toohey said the Dundalk apartment was not considered one of the fugitive's "priority targets."

Yesterday, Palczynski fired his weapons several times, beginning about 12:45 p.m., when he squeezed off about four rounds.

He fired a rapid volley several minutes later and again about 1:20 p.m. Police and neighbors heard the single shot fired inside the house about 3 p.m., and he shot out the armored vehicle's tire about 3:35 p.m. when an officer with a bullhorn tried to bring in the ambulance.

Sun staff writers Nancy A. Youssef and Dan Thanh Dang contributed to this article.