Crime

How Palczynski eluded police

Sun Reporter

He scurried beneath the pines to hide from the police chopper and itsinfrared eye. He climbed a tree to evade the bloodhounds.

Once, he draped his camouflaged body with twigs and leaves, lyingmotionless as an all-terrain search vehicle nearly ran him over. Another time,he all but laughed at how easy it would have been to gun down a line ofsitting-duck police officers.

These were a fugitive's tales, an account of Joseph C. Palczynski's 10days on the lam. They were the experiences claimed by a wanted man who seemedboth lucky and cunning.

"He took a lot of pride in the fact that he could stay one step ahead ofthe police," said David P. Henninger, a lawyer who talked with Palczynskifrequently during a four-day hostage standoff that ended Tuesday with a policeraid and Palczynski's death.

Sometimes, calming Palczynski meant stroking his ego.

"I'd say, `Joe, you're like Swamp Fox,' " Henninger said, referring toFrancis Marion, the Revolutionary War guerrilla who fought in the SouthCarolina wilderness. "You're like Robin Hood -- they couldn't find you in thewoods.

"He'd turn around and tell the hostages, `My lawyer says I'm like SwampFox!' "

In eluding capture for two weeks, Palczynski combined his rudimentaryknowledge of most things paramilitary with a knack for exploiting good fortuneand his pursuers' near misses.

Early in the rampage, police swarmed around a Rosedale motel and rescuedPalczynski's estranged girlfriend, Tracy Whitehead, who had been takencaptive. As viewers watched on live television, police seemed about to capturePalczynski. Before they saw him again, he'd gone to Virginia and come backequipped to live in the woods.

The man he allegedly abducted in Virginia turned out to be a devoutJehovah's Witness who'd recently read an article on cooperating withkidnappers. When Palczynski sent the man into a busy store in White Marsh tobuy a television, the man dutifully returned to the parking lot -- withoutcalling police.

At one point during the search in the eastern Baltimore County community ofChase, a SWAT team came within minutes of trapping Palczynski in a trailer.

"Somehow he was able to elude us for a long period of time," said Lt. KevinB. Novak, a county police spokesman. "Whether it was skill, luck or acombination of both, that we will never know."

Palczynski showed an ability to slip free from constraints long before hisface became a fixture on television news programs. For years he bounced in andout of mental hospitals and jails, charged with illegally possessing a gun andwith beating his young girlfriends. He survived a police raid with tear gasafter a 14-hour standoff in Idaho.

Always, he returned to the familiarity of the county's east side.

In 1996, a Baltimore County judge finally declared: "This man is dangerous.He is out there hurting people. I can't believe that any human being can makeso many mistakes and be given so many chances and not appreciate it, and I donot feel, from what I hear, that the mental state is anywhere near as much anexcuse as he tries to use it for a crutch."

The judge, John F. Fader II, sentenced Palczynski to three years in prisonfor violating probation by being convicted of battery.

After serving his sentence, Palczynski returned to Bowleys Quarters. But hesoon found himself in police handcuffs again -- just days before his allegedrampage began.

Charged with assaulting Whitehead, he was released on $7,500 bail. A judgelater defended the bail set in the case, but some criticized the decision.

"This wasn't a hard case. There are many cases where it's difficult topredict something horrible and tragic will happen in the future, but thisisn't one of them," said Lisae Jordan, chief of litigation for the House ofRuth, a program for battered women. "His behavior was absolutely consistentwith a perpetrator of domestic violence."

Henninger, who had represented Palczynski in prior cases, said that ahigher bail would not have kept Palczynski in jail. Money, it seems, was notan issue; Palczynski had inherited money after his stepfather's death, theattorney said.

The rampage began March 7, when Palczynski allegedly stormed a BowleysQuarters apartment, kidnapped Whitehead and killed three people. The nextnight, Palczynski allegedly killed a pregnant woman in a botched carjacking.

That night, Whitehead escaped at a Rosedale motel. But Palczynski slippedaway. The next day, as police searched the Joppa area of Harford County, heapparently was in Virginia. There he would meet -- and, allegedly, kidnap --William L. "Louis" Terrell.

Terrell would drive Palczynski back to Maryland, reciting Bible verses andstopping for supplies. At one point they stopped at the Best Buy in WhiteMarsh, and Palczynski sent Terrell in with cash and orders to buy abattery-operated television.

"He said if I didn't come back, he would shoot whoever was around," Terrellsaid. "I didn't want to do anything to make him nervous."

Andy McCord, who would later be held hostage by Palczynski, said: "You knowwhat amazes me? The guy that brought him back from Virginia." McCord said hewould have called police from the store and directed them to the truck in theparking lot.

"Terrell could have prevented the hostage situation," McCord said.

During that drive, Palczynski also ordered Terrell to buy outdoors suppliesfrom a surplus store. Equipped with camouflage clothing, a shovel, a knife andrations, Palczynski was ready to take to the woods.

Still, on the day he returned, he was nearly caught, police said.

A 23-member Baltimore County SWAT team received a report that Palczynskiwas seen on a farm in Chase. His presence near a trailer was confirmed bytracking dogs, said Officer David J. Sweren.

"We just missed him," Sweren said.

Henninger said Palczynski was a formidable adversary for police because hewas an outdoorsman and was interested in police techniques, weapons andmartial arts -- schooling himself by watching the Discovery Channel.

Henninger learned the details of Palczynski's days in the woods after thesuspect took McCord and two others hostage in a Dundalk apartment. Brought into help with the negotiations, Henninger talked frequently with Palczynski byphone.

He said Palczynski was not impressed with the Baltimore County police.

"He kind of laughed at them," Henninger said. When the lawyer suggestedthat Palczynski make a deal with federal authorities, the suspect wasintrigued. "He thought they were more on his level," Henninger said.

The lawyer said Palczynski's knowledge of police techniques apparently wassound. For instance, to avoid the heat-sensing cameras on the helicopter, hestood against a tree trunk or stayed beneath pine trees.

He says Palczynski told him how he placed twigs and leaves in netting, andhid beneath it as the all-terrain vehicles roared past.

"He said they almost ran him over," Henninger said. "They were about fourfeet away.

Once, he saw a large group of officers walking with search dogs in aclearing along a power line.

"He said he sat there and thought about it: `I could have taken them out.'"

And, another time, Palczynski claimed that the search dogs passed close tohim.

"But he was up in the tree," Henninger said, "watching the whole time."

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

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