Prison official who signed Thanos release papers suspended


The Maryland Division of Correction suspended without pay yesterday an Eastern Correctional Institution records supervisor who signed the early-release papers for rapist and robber John F. Thanos, the ex-inmate subsequently charged with killing three people.

John P. O'Donnell, 50, who was a records supervisor at the time the release papers were signed in April but has since become a correctional officer at the Somerset County prison, was suspended yesterday morning, pending an appeal and personnel hearing. It is the first step in the firing process.

Sgt. Gregory M. Shipley, spokesman for the Division of Correction, refused to identify the "correctional employee" who had been suspended or say where the employee worked. He also said he could not say what specific charges were filed against that employee.

But Mr. O'Donnell acknowledged that after he worked the midnight-to-8 a.m. shift at the prison yesterday, Assistant Warden Kathleen S. Green informed him he had been suspended without pay, although she would not specify the charges.

Sergeant Shipley did say the charges "obviously relate to the investigation that relates to the release of John Frederick Thanos." Elmanus Herndon, acting correction commissioner, was satisfied "that appropriate disciplinary action has been taken, and that no further personnel actions are anticipated," he said.

Bishop L. Robinson, state secretary for public safety and correctional services, said last week that Thanos was released from prison early by mistake and that a new policy on calculating so-called "good-time" credits for overlapping sentences was misapplied in his case.

Thanos' release date was calculated in error, Mr. Robinson said, when 543 "good-time" credits from an earlier rape sentence were applied to a robbery sentence he was serving at the time of his April 5 release -- 18 months earlier than he would have been released before the new policy was implemented.

Thanos, 41, of Joppa, was arrested Sept. 4 after a six-day crime spree that left three people dead. He is being held at the Worcester County Detention Center, charged with three murders, two robberies and a host of other crimes.

Mr. O'Donnell said yesterday that Thanos was released in accordance with the provisions of a policy, known as Division of Correction Information Bulletin 9-90, which became effective March 9. The first memo clarifying the application of the policy was issued Sept. 18 -- two weeks after Thanos' arrest.

Mr. O'Donnell said that on April 4, the day before Thanos was released, he sought advice and received approval on the Thanos case from Warren R. Sparrow, chief of classification for the Division of Correction at the headquarters offices.

"It's his job to give me advice," he said. "I made the phone call, made the inquiry and he concurred."

He also said that Thanos' release was approved by ECI Assistant Warden Lewis Williams, who asked to see the inmate's release papers April 5.

"Thanos was released in accordance with Division of Correction procedure and policy, and anyone who disagrees with that statement is either extremely misinformed or they're lying," Mr. O'Donnell said.

He said that although no one mentioned the Thanos case to him yesterday, he was sure that the suspension involved that former inmate, since state troopers assigned to the Division of Correction's internal investigation unit had interrogated him about the case on three occasions in the last month.

The troopers, who taped their interviews with him, "have telephone records showing that I called Warren Sparrow at 4:19 p.m. on April 4, 1990, and they have Warren Sparrow saying that he concurred with my interpretation of the policy," Mr. O'Donnell said.

"I'm outraged and devastated," he said. "I'm the villain that released Thanos -- but DCIB 9-90 was properly applied, and two of the best people who work in this area in the Division of Correction -- myself and Warren Sparrow -- concurred in the release," Mr. O'Donnell said. "Would that outrage you?"

He said he was handed a form letter that stated he was being suspended because "continued duty may result in danger to the public," and that "the actions charged undermine public confidence in this facility" and "in this division." Those actions were not specified on the document, he said.

It is the second time the Maryland Division of Correction has sought to fire Mr. O'Donnell. In July 1988, he was suspended for releasing an inmate who a judge had determined was being held illegally at ECI. A state personnel hearing officer later ordered that he be given his job back because he did not violate state regulations, as the Division of Correction had alleged. Mr. O'Donnell returned to work in January 1989.

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