Thanos: violent, venomous -- and 'damaged' 'Sick' convicted killer is product of abuse, lawyer says

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Maryland has never seen a killer like John Frederick Thanos.

Arrested and charged with murdering three people during a weeklong crime spree in 1990, Thanos gruffly told reporters he was guilty.

Asked why he spared another victim's life, Thanos said, "I guess it was a lapse of good sense."

Remorseless and arrogant, he astonished judges, jurors and onlookers with curses, threats and sick humor. Given a chance to plead for his life as he was being sentenced for killing two Baltimore County teen-agers, he responded with a torrent of venom.

"If I could bring those brats back right now from their graves," Thanos said, "I would do it so that I could murder them again before their eyes, as they cringe in fear and horror, reliving this eternal nightmare."

Legally, John Thanos is the perfect candidate for execution.

He touches all the bases of the state's death penalty statute. He killed twice during a felony robbery, and there are few mitigating factors.

In decisions on the death penalty, judges and juries are permitted to show mercy to a defendant for being young, for having a nonviolent past, for having been under duress, for having been under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or for not being a danger to society.

Thanos is none of those.

"You have nothing at all that's redeeming," said Sandra A. O'Connor, Baltimore County state's attorney. "In my 26 years of prosecuting in Baltimore and Baltimore County, I don't know if I can think of a greater threat to society than him, if he were to escape."

On top of that, Thanos says he wants to waive his appeals. His execution, originally scheduled for this week, has been stayed while Maryland's highest court considers last-minute appeals filed without his consent. If the execution does take place, he will be the first to die in Maryland's gas chamber in 32 years.

Thanos' public defenders acknowledge that he committed the murders. But they describe him as a sick man, the product of an abused childhood and, ultimately, a creature of the Maryland prison system that has been his home for most of his life.

"What he did was reprehensible, and that's true," said William Kanwisher, who represented Thanos at his trial. "The other thing is, he is extremely damaged. He is an extremely damaged human being. And really, in our society we should not kill sick people. He really is a sick person."

Thanos' courtroom outbursts have long frustrated the attorneys who have defended him. They say Thanos, who has been diagnosed as having a borderline personality disorder, feels he is under stress in court and reacts badly, much like a child who "acts out" in school.

Others who know Thanos outside the courtroom, including prison guards, say he is an entirely different person. They describe him as as quiet, soft-spoken -- even effeminate. He is an avid letter writer and composes poetry.

He has spent most of his 44 years behind bars. He spent so much time in prison that even as he rampaged across Maryland in a car he killed for, he couldn't fill it up with gas by himself. He had never learned how.

In court, he enjoys playing the sinister tough guy. He boasted once that he had never lost a fight. In truth, he is a longtime loser, victimized from an early age in prison.

By the time he was in his 20s, he was wearing women's clothing while serving a 21-year rape sentence at the Maryland Penitentiary.

A prison mug shot from the early 1970s shows a Thanos wearing makeup and earrings, with his long hair braided into girlish pigtails. When the black-and-white photo was shown in court, he screamed that it was a fabrication.

He has never had a girlfriend or a driver's license. His employment history is almost nonexistent. When he embarked on his crime spree in late August 1990, he had been free for six months in 21 years.

Born March 28, 1949, Thanos grew up in Dundalk, the oldest child of John Steven Thanos and Patty Thanos. His mother was a "mountain girl" from Virginia, according to a family history, his father a shell-shocked World War II veteran who drove a truck for Lever Brothers.

There are two versions of his childhood. Prosecutors say young Freddie, as he was known, grew up in a middle-class neighborhood, with the elder John Thanos providing well for his family. They say he was a bad child who got worse. They play down the stories of child abuse that cropped up at his trials.

Defense attorneys, who hired a social worker to document Thanos' early years, say the horror stories are true. If anything, they say, Thanos may have suffered more than anyone will ever know.

His father was a sadist who had been treated for mental illness at the Perry Point veterans hospital in Harford County, according to testimony, and beat Freddie regularly from an early age, once punching him in the scrotum.

But the worst abuse may have been mental. When his wife was working, the social worker testified, the elder Thanos would turn the power off in the house, then whisper eerily through the heating vents that he was the devil and that he was coming after Freddie.

At night, according to the testimony, the elder Thanos would put sleeping pills in his wife's coffee so that he could have sex with his oldest daughter. The incest would take place in the same bedroom where Freddie slept, often in the same bed, with only a blanket separating them, the social worker said.

As Freddie got older, his father increasingly kept the boy away from the house, sometimes locking Freddie out so that the elder Thanos could have sex with his daughter, the social worker testified, adding that Mrs. Thanos knew little about what was going on or could do little to stop it if she did know.

Typically, psychologists say, Thanos denies all this and lionizes his father, who died in 1982.

By age 12, Freddie was in trouble. He acted out in school and was expelled for exploding a homemade bomb on school property. Officials called him "ungovernable."

Easy prey

He was sent to Boy's Village in Prince George's County, a home for troubled youngsters. But things got worse. He ran away repeatedly and wound up at the Maryland Training School for Boys in Cub Hill, which is reserved for the toughest cases.

He ran away again. When he was 15, he stole and wrecked a car during one escape. Juvenile officials washed their hands of him.

In May 1964, Thanos was sentenced to two years in an adult prison for larceny. A psychiatrist described him then as "a highly disturbed youth" full of "hostility and irresponsible acting out." He recommended that Thanos be sent to the Patuxent Institution for treatment, although he expressed doubts that Thanos would benefit from any "presently known means of therapy."

Instead, at 15, Thanos went to the Maryland Institution for Men in Hagerstown. At 5 feet 7 inches and 120 pounds, he was easy prey for older inmates. An early entry in his prison record notes that he was given isolation time for "allowing two other prisoners to sodomize him."

Records show that he was constantly in trouble during that first prison stay. He set fire to his tier, broke the window out of his cell and fought with other inmates. His defense attorneys said that was his way of dealing with fear. He would break the rules to be placed in isolation, where he was safe from other inmates, they said.

It was during that first prison stay that prison doctors began giving Thanos Mederill and Thorazine to calm him.

Thanos' attorneys have argued that the early incarceration was "inappropriate" and made an already troubled youth worse. Sue A. Schenning, the deputy state's attorney who prosecuted Thanos, countered that officials did their best to deal with him but couldn't.

From March 1966, when Thanos was released from his first prison sentence, to October 1969, he was in and out of trouble. He stole several cars and assaulted a police officer but spent only a brief time in jail.

Arrested and charged with raping a Baltimore woman in October 1969, Thanos proclaimed his innocence to the end. A jury found him guilty, and a judge sentenced him to 21 years. Typically, Thanos threatened the jury that convicted him.

Later, while serving the rape sentence, he sent a prison photo of himself to the woman he had raped, boasting that he planned to escape.

He did exactly that in 1971, hiding in a laundry bin and riding out of the prison on a laundry truck. He was recaptured shortly afterward.

Because he was such an unruly inmate, Thanos did not taste freedom again until April 1986, his mandatory release date. A month later, he was back in jail for robbing a Harford County convenience store.

Thanos was serving an eight-year sentence for that armed robbery when he was released by mistake in April 1990. A prison official -- later fired -- mistakenly applied so-called good time credits from the rape sentence to the robbery sentence. The mistake put Thanos on the street several years before he should have been out.

His prison records portray a man who used whatever drugs he could get and constantly made homemade wine. He stabbed another inmate, and he once was given 10 months of solitary confinement for hitting a fellow prisoner with a table leg.

Suicide attempts

In prison, he attempted suicide repeatedly. After his last arrest in 1990 for the Baltimore County murders and the Eastern Shore murder of Gregory Taylor, 18, a welder from Hebron, Thanos wrapped his long hair around his neck in an effort to strangle himself.

His trial attorneys said the suicide attempts were real, part of his mental illness. Prosecutors suggested they were ruses to get to a hospital, where he would have a better chance to escape.

Whatever the truth, Thanos was considered "crazy" and "sick" by his fellow inmates. He went by the nickname of "The Hound" and sometimes said he was the devil. Thanos has long been diagnosed as suffering from a borderline personality disorder. Its symptoms include self-mutilation, suicide gestures and an inability to sustain relationships.

Near the end of his prison stay, John Thanos earned his high school diploma and took some college courses while serving time at the Eastern Correctional Institute, earning A's and B's. In early 1990, just before he was released, he fell in love with a female correctional officer, Rose Lofton. He wrote her letters and poetry -- much of it obscene.

The day of his release from prison in April 1990, Ms. Lofton filed harassment charges against Thanos in District Court. Her fellow correctional guards delayed Thanos' release until the paperwork was filed, so that the moment Thanos walked out of prison he was immediately arrested. The guards laughed at him.

The harassment charges were placed on an inactive docket, and Thanos went free shortly afterward. In the spring and summer of 1990, he worked as a bricklayer, then as a chicken processor on the night shift at the Perdue plant in Salisbury.

He continued to pursue Ms. Lofton and believed she was in love with him, although she has continually denied any involvement.

In the late summer of 1990, a woman on the Eastern Shore charged Thanos with exposing himself to her after she gave him a ride. He was worried that those charges would land him back in prison.

Did that trigger his crime spree? In court, Thanos said he had been hit by a car, that his jaw was broken and his head damaged. But in his videotaped confessions, he said he decided to become an outlaw because he thought his parole was about to be revoked.

Whatever the reason, Thanos quit his job Aug. 29, 1990, cashed his paycheck and bought a .22-caliber, semiautomatic rifle from a gun shop in Salisbury. He carefully sawed the barrel down so that it would fit into a black doctor's bag.

That night, Thanos robbed Salisbury cabdriver Milton Marsey, 21. He ordered Mr. Marsey into the trunk of his cab, and when the driver objected, Thanos said, "If you don't stop all this nonsense, I'm going to blow you away."

'I shot him'

On Friday, Aug. 31, Thanos was hitchhiking on U.S. Route 50 when Greg Taylor, on his way home from work, stopped to give him a ride. Thanos pulled the gun from the doctor's bag and told the welder to turn around. Thanos told Mr. Taylor to drive down a deserted logging road to a wooded area, where he planned to tie the young man to a tree. But Mr. Taylor, frightened, didn't want to be tied up.

"He was a constant nuisance," Thanos said during his confession. "Whining. He didn't want to cooperate, so I got fed up and just shot him in the head. I took him, found a place, laid him down. He still didn't want to be tied up, so I shot him in the head three times, and I left."

Driving between Baltimore and Salisbury in Mr. Taylor's blue Ford Festiva, Thanos bought hair dye and colored his hair black to make himself look more like Mr. Taylor.

On Saturday, Sept. 1, driving through Middle River, he stopped at the Big Red gasoline station in the 9000 block of Pulaski Highway. Billy Winebrenner, 16, was working as a clerk. His father, Marty Winebrenner, managed the station.

With no money, Thanos bartered with young Winebrenner. He traded his father's gold watch to Billy for $20 and some gas. Under the terms of the deal, Thanos could get the watch back by paying $60.

Two days later, on Labor Day 1990, Billy Winebrenner was managing the gas station with only his 14-year-old girlfriend, Melody Pistorio, there to keep him company.

Thanos returned, but the teen-agers didn't have the watch. It was in Melody's jewelry box in her bedroom at home. Her sister later found it and turned it over to police. Inscribed "John S. Thanos," it had been given to the elder Thanos when he retired.

Thanos pulled the gun from the bag and ordered Billy to fill the bag with cash. Billy and Melody gave Thanos money from the cash register, then Thanos shot them each twice in the head.

"I shot that boy in the head," Thanos said in his video confession. "He tried to duck, but I shot him on his way down. And she tried to duck and I shot her on the way down. Then I shot him two more times in the head, I think. And I shot her one more time. . . . Blood spattered back on the gun and a little bit on me."

After he was captured Sept. 4 in a shootout with police in Smyrna, Del., detectives asked him what the teen-agers behind the counter did to provoke him into shooting them.

"Oh, nothing at all. Nothing at all," Thanos said.

"How did they treat you?"

"Perfectly good."

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