The card from John Frederick Thanos arrived four years after the rape, an unwelcome and frightening intrusion into the life of a Baltimore woman.
The woman, whom Thanos raped in 1969, said the card contained a photo of Thanos standing next to some prison buddies. "He said there was a prison break. He said he didn't make it out this time but next time he would," said the victim, who is now 67.
"I was frightened," the mother of three recalled in an interview this week. "My husband -- he was alive then -- said to tear it up and put it behind me."
She eventually did, although she would never forget Thanos, who now faces charges in the deaths of three Maryland teen-agers.
It would not be the last time Thanos would try to reappear in his victims' lives, either through letters or personal visits, during the next two decades, according to court documents and interviews. Thanos allegedly used the mails to threaten a prison guard who charged him with harassment this year. And one evening last summer, he returned to the scene of a Harford County robbery to look for a woman who identified him as the robber.
Thanos, who has spent the bulk of his 41 years in reform schools and prisons, stands accused in a recent weeklong spree of robbery, kidnapping and gunfire. The spree ended with Thanos' capture Sept. 4 after gunfights with Salisbury and Delaware police.
Thanos is charged with murdering Gregory A. Taylor, 18, a Salisbury area man who gave him a ride. He also is accused in the fatal shootings of Melody Pistorio, 14, and her 16-year-old boyfriend, gas station clerk William "Billy" Winebrenner, during the Labor Day robbery of a Middle River gas station.
News reports this week that state correction officials mistakenly released Thanos from prison 18 months too early last April angered state legislators and the families of the dead teen-agers.
But others say Thanos, who has lived in institutions almost constantly since he was 14, illustrates the problems of a correctional system that often seems unable to rehabilitate people.
Despite the furor around him, Thanos appeared unusually calm during his brief forays outside jail walls this month. Although he faces the death penalty if convicted, he nonchalantly incriminated himself in front of television cameras and in a courtroom. He said he "just killed" and wanted to "outrage people."
Thanos grew up in Dundalk, a working-class neighborhood bordered by brick rowhouses and filled with the families of factory and steel workers. Several former schoolmates remember him as a skinny little kid who went by his middle name, Freddy.
None could recall Freddy ever having a close pal. He got himself into occasional scrapes, they said, but he was too small to get into serious trouble with the neighborhood boys.
He attended Bear Creek Elementary School from September 1955 until March 1962, when he transferred to an unnamed institution, according to Baltimore County public school records.
A string of offenses landed him in reform school in Cub Hill, a mental treatment facility in Catonsville, and possibly another institution on and off during the next five years, according to three sources familiar with his juvenile records.
By age 18, he graduated to adult prison. He served one year at the Maryland Correctional Institution in Hagerstown for assault and unauthorized use of a car. He was paroled in May 1968.
Police and appellate court records give this account of his first major crime: Thanos checked into Room 6 at Rawls Cabins on Philadelphia Road in eastern Baltimore County on Sept. 17, 1969. On Oct. 1, a 46-year-old Baltimore woman and her boyfriend checked into Room 8. After the couple had sex, the man left to get a drink. Minutes later, the woman heard a knock from a man who identified himself as the manager. She opened the door to find a nude stranger, whom she would later identify as Thanos in court.
Thanos forced his way into the room and said, "Be quiet or I will kill you," the woman said. He raped her and punched her in the face. At one point, her boyfriend returned, but the rapist scared him away. Thanos then dragged the woman into his cabin and assaulted her again.
He told her of his hatred of women and anger at his mother, the woman recalled this week. "He said his father deserted him and his mother sent him into a corner while she entertained people," the woman said. "I told him his mother was still his mother and she probably loved him. That calmed him for a few minutes. Then he said, 'Don't con a con artist.' "
The woman paused and said, "I thought there was something very wrong with this one."
The man eventually let her go, and she returned home. She first told her husband and police she had been attacked on the way back from an Orioles game, but she later said the rape took
place at Rawls Cabins.
Convicted of rape, Thanos received a 21-year sentence, of which he served 17 years.
Years later, Thanos complained to acquaintances, family and co-workers that he had gotten a bum rap. Last summer, he told co-workers that he hated cops, who he claimed had set him up on several charges.
The year of his rape arrest was the last time he would spend any length of time outside prison. When talking about his life to an acquaintance last summer, he pulled out a pocket calendar from 1969. "It was the last one he had," the acquaintance said.
Thanos earned enough "good-time" credits to get out of prison in 1986, even though he later told psychiatrists he attempted suicide in prison and was stabbed by another inmate.
Within a month of his release, he was back in jail on charges that he robbed a 7-Eleven convenience store in Harford County, where his family then lived. He later claimed he had been taking drugs and drinking and didn't remember the robbery in May 1986, court records show.
After his 1986 arrest, he scuffled with police and threatened them, court records said. "I should've started killing police when I got out of prison. I would shoot as many in the back as I could," Thanos told police then.
He also told the deputy sheriffs who arrested him in the 1986 robbery that he would be waiting for them in their living rooms when he got out of jail.
While in jail awaiting trial, he tried to kill himself, according to court records. The judge ordered him to be examined by the psychiatrists at Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center, where doctors determined he was fit to stand trial. In addition to a history of drug and alcohol abuse, Thanos had "an anti-social personality disorder," court records said. His personality has "paranoid features," and his IQ appears to be above 110, which is better than average, court records said.
Acquaintances and relatives alike say they believe Thanos has a death wish.
Thanos told authorities tales about his family, including that an ancestor had been exiled from Greece for patricide, court records said. Thanos' mother, Pattie, said she never heard anything like that from her first husband, John Thanos' father, who died years ago. She said she has been told that Thanos means death in Greek. The family name does, in fact, resemble "Thanatos," the Greek word for death personified.
When he was released from Eastern Correctional Institution last April, Thanos returned to the family's Joppa home and worked as a laborer for Aberdeen Mason Contractors Inc. until July. Although a good employee, he expressed some bitterness about his life, said Stephen Deller, co-owner of Aberdeen Mason Contractors. Deller said some of his laborers later told him Thanos had spoken about Satanism, his resentment toward police and his desire to obtain a gun.
Deller said Thanos was a polite, punctual worker who never said anything like that to him personally.
In early July, Thanos dropped a brick on his foot and couldn't work for a week or two. He quit and told his employer he planned to move to Salisbury to live with a woman he claimed was his girlfriend. The woman, a guard at ECI, has accused him of sending her threatening and obscene letters.
Before leaving for the Eastern Shore last summer, Thanos showed up one evening in the 7-Eleven he had robbed in 1986. He asked about the clerk he had robbed. A deputy sheriff who had arrested him in 1986 happened to be in the store then. Deputy Lillian Williams said she wondered if the long-haired man was Thanos, who had short hair the last time she had seen him.
She assumed Thanos would still be serving his seven-year robbery sentence, but she realized it was him a few weeks later, when she saw television reports on his arrest. "That was an eerie feeling," she said.
While living in Salisbury, Thanos worked for a Perdue chicken processing plant and told people he had been arguing with his girlfriend.
On Aug. 25, he was charged with indecent exposure in Talbot County after he hitched a ride with a Baltimore Sun delivery woman. The indecent exposure charge may have panicked Thanos because it could have counted as a violation of his prison release and landed him back in prison, said an acquaintance who requested anonymity.
Another acquaintance said Thanos was crushed by his estrangement from the ECI guard he believed to be his girlfriend. The woman said Thanos became obsessed with her, even though she never dated him.
On Aug. 29, he allegedly bought a .22-caliber semiautomatic rifle at a Salisbury sporting goods store and embarked on a spree that ended Sept. 4 when he ran out of bullets in a shoot-out with Delaware state troopers.
He told his mother of his desire to die during a Sept. 1 phone conversation. "He said to me, 'I want to kill, in order to be killed,' " said Pattie Thanos, 61.
She said she barely knew the son who spent so many of his years behind bars. "Maybe the system did fail."