Former Circuit Judge Paul Ottinger


Former Washington County Circuit Judge Paul W. Ottinger, whose disappearance in 1987 opened the book on a woeful tale of deceit and desperation, died Friday of a rare blood disorder at a Baltimore center for compulsive gamblers.

Mr. Ottinger, 78, died of myelodysplaspic syndrome with severe anemia at Harbour Center in the 900 block of E. Baltimore St. The facility houses the Compulsive Gambling Center, which operates a residential treatment program for gambling addicts.

Mr. Ottinger became the center's first and most prominent resident when he turned to the facility for court-ordered therapy. He suggested the name Harbour Center to imply a haven.

Since his release from prison in 1991, Harbour Center had been a haven for the once-distinguished lawyer and judge from Hagerstown.

Mr. Ottinger spent nearly four years in prison for stealing from clients, lying on financial statements to banks, and forging checks and insurance papers.

Those crimes prompted headlines across Maryland after the respected lawyer vanished in January 1987. He was arrested three months later in York, Pa., after dying his white hair brown, shedding 38 pounds and assuming a false identity.

Investigators discovered that Mr. Ottinger had stolen money from estates of dead clients, lied to banks about assets to borrow money illegally and settled lawsuits without clients' knowledge, then forged their names on settlement checks.

Mr. Ottinger pleaded guilty to mail fraud, defrauding a bank and forgery. He was sentenced to 5 1/2 years in federal prison and 8 1/2 years in state prison. He was paroled after serving three years and 11 months.

His public defenders and therapist, Dr. Valerie C. Lorenz, executive director of the Compulsive Gambling Center, characterized Mr. Ottinger as a victim of childhood abuse, poverty and abandonment who developed a compulsive personality as an adult.

In 1988, during interviews with a reporter from The Evening Sun, Mr. Ottinger said he stole from clients and borrowed illegally from banks in a desperate attempt to pay off suffocating debts. His life had been a spiral of debt, he said, the result in part of supporting two families, paying for his children's college educations and financing an expensive judicial campaign.

Paul William Ottinger was born Feb. 7, 1915, near Newport, Tenn., and grew up in rural Tennessee poor and neglected, but a voracious reader, as he recalled in the 1988 interviews. He said his mother abandoned the family, and his father was indicted for child neglect.

"We didn't have any money to go to the movies in those days," Mr. Ottinger said. "It took a whole dime to go to the movies. So I used to hang around the courthouse for free entertainment, and watch these guys trying cases holler and jump up and down and stomp and yell and scream and snap their galluses and throw their coats on the floor. That's what got me interested in the law."

He was valedictorian of his high school graduating class in Newport. Paying for college with scholarships and jobs ranging from waiting tables to milking cows, he graduated in 1938 from Tusculum College in Greeneville, Tenn., summa cum laude and again valedictorian. He earned a master's degree in political science from Oberlin College in Ohio.

After his second year at the University of Iowa working on his doctorate, he ran out of money and got a job for an insurance company training agents. He was transferred to Washington, then moved to Baltimore in 1942 to work at the Glenn L. Martin Co. as a supervisor building B-26 bombers. Mr. Ottinger worked there until the end of the war. At night he attended law school at the University of Maryland at Baltimore. He graduated in 1947 and was a member of Phi Beta Kappa.

He moved to Hagerstown that year and, at age 32, began practicing law and building a reputation among colleagues as the best trial lawyer west of Rockville.

He served as a trial magistrate in District Court from 1952 to 1958. In 1971, Gov. Marvin Mandel appointed Mr. Ottinger, 56, to fill a vacant judgeship in Washington County Circuit Court. The next year Mr. Ottinger won election to a full 15-year term by defeating Daniel W. Moylan, then the county state's attorney and now a Circuit Court judge.

But Mr. Ottinger resigned in 1977 and returned to private practice, where he could earn more. Still, he said, his money problems persisted.

After his disappearance and convictions, his judicial portrait was removed from the walls of the Hagerstown courthouse. Judge Moylan led a drive to hang it back up this July.

"When Paul was a Circuit Court judge he served well and honorably; he had a long and distinguished career here," Judge Moylan said recently. "There's a time to put all that rancor behind you."

After his release from prison, Mr. Ottinger lived in an apartment in Baltimore or at Harbour Center, the gambling-treatment center. He walked around the city, visited museums and the library, and generally lived the quiet life of a retiree. Dr. Lorenz, head of the gambling center, befriended him and helped make his final years comfortable.

"He was an extremely lonely man, a fearful man with a lot of insecurities," Dr. Lorenz said. "People would accept him for his brilliance, for his position. They did not recognize him for the man he was, the human being that was in there."

Private services will be held Tuesday at Harbour Center.

Mr. Ottinger is survived by his wife, Joan; their daughter, Jola; and four children from an earlier marriage. He was estranged from both families.

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