Former Catholic school students fight to keep child rapist in prison

Former sexually abused students of John Joseph Merzbacher and some of their family members stand in support to keep Merzbacher in prison after the sexual abuse that took place 40 years ago at the Catholic Community Middle School in Locust Point.
Former sexually abused students of John Joseph Merzbacher and some of their family members stand in support to keep Merzbacher in prison after the sexual abuse that took place 40 years ago at the Catholic Community Middle School in Locust Point. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun)

Standing under a stormy sky, Bill Stankiewicz got chills as he looked toward the old brick building that once housed the Catholic Community middle school in South Baltimore.

"It's kind of creepy," he said, rubbing goose bumps along his forearms. He hadn't been back since graduation in the 1970s, purposely avoiding the school — and the memories of what happened in it.

"Thirty-six years is a long time to bury something. It's time to exorcise the demons."

Roughly two dozen of his surviving classmates gathered at the site last weekend, all bound by a shared childhood tragedy detailed in multiple court filings: repeated sexual and mental abuse by English teacher John J. Merzbacher, now 71. They've come together in middle age to fight for his continued imprisonment, as a federal judge's court ruling threatens to release the convicted child rapist from four life terms.

The former students are posting recollections on a private Facebook page and using their renewed connections to marshal resources. They've reached out to the Archdiocese of Baltimore, along with local politicians and prosecutors, and vowed to bring fresh criminal cases — or push for the reopening of old ones — if Merzbacher is set free.

"We're all either 48, 49, 50 and older now, and what you're seeing is a lot of anger," said Joe Wehberg, 52. "A lot of people didn't talk about this forever. It was a very dark period that everyone wanted to forget about. But there's an outlet now, and people are coming out."

Wehberg and Stankiewicz say Merzbacher did not physically molest them, but they saw things happen to other students — confirmed in legal filings — and were subject to the teacher's harassment and threats. He raped girls, sodomized boys and forced kids to have sex with one another, court records say, then coerced their silence through intimidation.

Prosecutors brought criminal cases involving 14 children against him in the mid-1990s, years after the abuse is said to have occurred, though only one case went to trial: Elizabeth Murphy's. When Merzbacher was sentenced to four life terms for assaulting her, the others allowed their cases to be set aside indefinitely, certain he would never be free again.

Some others, in letters to church and state officials and in interviews with The Baltimore Sun, say they were too afraid to pursue cases, but are ready now, if it means keeping Merzbacher in prison.

For the moment, Merzbacher's fate rests with a federal appeals court in Richmond, Va.

It is weighing another court's 2010 ruling that Merzbacher's constitutional rights were violated when his lawyers failed to tell him of a proposed plea deal before his 1995 trial. The deal would have exchanged a 10-year prison term — combined with a promise to drop all previously known cases against him — for guilty pleas to charges in the Murphy case.

The 2010 ruling, which is being appealed by the Maryland attorney general's office, says he must be offered the deal now. Two recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings, issued last month in similar plea deal cases, appear to support the ruling.

Both the Maryland attorney general's office and Merzbacher's lawyer in the appeal, H. Mark Stichel, declined to comment for this article. Merzbacher's head defense attorney at trial, M. Cristina Gutierrez, died of a heart attack years ago.

A first round of legal filings is due in the appeal Friday, though it could take a year or more to resolve the case. The outcome could set the terms for any extension of the plea deal or strike it down altogether.

If the state wins, Merzbacher must serve his life terms. If he wins, the one-time teacher could be freed.

That's when the real battle would begin, some former students said.

"If he does get out, you know that victims are going to come forward," said Steve Melnick, 50. His criminal case against Merzbacher was one of those dropped when the teacher was sentenced in 1995. "They'll do the right thing to keep a very, very serious criminal" locked up.

'A flat out miracle'

It took decades to come forward the first time.

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.

"It's like living it all over again, even if it's 10, 20, 30 years later, there is still that ongoing trauma," Mandel said. "You've got to go back and open all the wounds up again."

Merzbacher was ultimately convicted of rape, child abuse and perverted practice for his attacks on Murphy, and sentenced to four life terms plus 10 years. The other cases were dropped, because, as then-prosecutor Sharon A.H. May said, "He's 53. He won't go anywhere for a long, long time."

May did not return a message seeking comment, and a second prosecutor on the case declined to discuss it because of the appeal.

At the sentencing, Merzbacher spoke briefly. "I have just one short statement to make to the court," he said, "and that is that I am innocent."

Such persistent claims of blamelessness lead his former students to believe that Merzbacher would not have accepted a plea deal if it had been offered years ago, so it shouldn't be offered today.

"It's a get-out-of-jail-free card, basically on a technicality," said Mary Lewandowski, whose criminal case also was dropped. "It doesn't change the fact that he's guilty. So basically, our legal system is saying 'Yeah, he's a monster, he did all these things to children, but ... we've got to do right by him.'"

'Now we're angry'

Lewandowski would reopen her case in a second, if it were up to her. But it may not be possible, if Merzbacher is offered and accepts the original plea deal, which included a provision to drop those known cases.

If that were the situation, new cases "that weren't known at the time can be prosecuted now," said Doug Beloof, a professor at Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland, Ore., who specializes in the role of victims in criminal procedure.

Merzbacher worked at three other schools in Baltimore County and city before Catholic Community, which was shuttered in 2009, and dozens of people have reportedly said they had experiences similar to Murphy's. At least 40 people came forward in the 1990s, the civil attorney told media at the time.

It's up to Baltimore State's Attorney Gregg Bernstein to determine whether to bring new cases in the city. Through a spokesman, he declined to discuss the issue, saying he preferred to "let the appellate process conclude and then evaluate the outcome before making decisions regarding next steps."

He, along with several area politicians or their designees, signed an online petition in 2010, expressing support for those trying to make sure Merzbacher completes his sentences.

"You have my commitment to do everything in my power to keep this violent child rapist behind bars," Bernstein, then in private practice and campaigning for the top prosecutor spot, wrote in an email to Murphy.

Sean Caine, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, said in a statement that officials there have again "reached out to the State Attorney General and the State's Attorneys for Baltimore City and County, with offers of support and cooperation, including the sharing of information possessed by the Archdiocese that may be helpful in any effort to pursue continued incarceration for Merzbacher," since the recent Supreme Court decisions bolstered the likelihood that he could be released.

But the strongest drivers behind the effort remain Merzbacher's former students. They have a vigil planned for early June at the former Catholic Community School — now home to a Montessori school — across from Latrobe Park on East Fort Avenue, and are talking every day online about what more they can do.

"We're going to do whatever it takes to keep him behind bars," Lewandowski said. "If that means rehashing all of these things and going through the ridicule and embarrassment of being on the witness stand, that's what were going to do, because now we're angry."