Unrepentant Thanos put to death

THE BALTIMORE SUN

John Frederick Thanos, the unrepentant killer of three teen-agers in a weeklong 1990 crime rampage, was put to death early today at the Maryland Penitentiary -- the first person executed here in 33 years.

Thanos was pronounced dead at 1:10 a.m., his body strapped to a 300-pound steel table in Maryland's first execution by lethal injection.

The remorseless, arrogant murderer, clad in an orange prison jumpsuit, met his fate at the hands of anonymous prison officials who injected three drugs into a blood vessel in his leg. The first drug rendered him unconscious, the second paralyzed his muscles, and the third stopped his heart.

While a handful of demonstrators for and against the execution paraded outside the prison, Thanos' final moments were observed by a dozen witnesses and, at Thanos' request, two priests.

As the official witnesses, including a Sun reporter, entered a room adjacent to the death chamber shortly before 1 a.m., Thanos was lying on his back, strapped to the table. He was wearing a blue skull cap, and his head, resting on a pillow, was turned toward the witnesses' table. He was shoeless but wore white socks.

Execution commander Frank Mazzone asked if the condemned man wanted to proceed.

"Get on with it," Thanos replied.

Asked if he had any last words, Thanos said, "Adios."

And, as the drugs administered through a vein in his leg began to take effect, Thanos uttered his final words: "Here it comes now."

He was looking up at the ceiling when his mouth went slack and his eyes fluttered and shut. His chest continued to rise and fall for several minutes, then stopped. He showed no sign of distress.

Mr. Mazzone said the intravenous lines were put in Thanos' legs because he had been a drug user and the veins in his arms were not suitable. Officials said Thanos received oral doses of the tranquilizer Valium twice during the day to combat nervousness.

In a statement released moments after the execution, Gov. William Donald Schaefer said he had weighed arguments on both sides of the capital punishment issue before deciding not to intervene.

"In the end," he said, "I was moved by the appeals from the victims' families. People are suffering because of these crimes, and their lives will never be the same. We have a responsibility to the families, to recognize what they have been through, and to not disregard their pain."

Word of the execution brought cheers from a group waiting in the Essex home of Ed Pistorio, whose daughter, Melody, 14, was one of the murder victims.

In his final evening, the 45-year-old Thanos received a standard prison dinner and was informed of the time of his execution about an hour before being led from his hospital wing cell into the execution chamber at 12:27 a.m.

Time not announced

The time of the execution was not announced in advance in accordance with a 1922 state law, when the death penalty was carried out at public hangings.

The official witnesses -- six from the news media, the others chosen by state public safety officials -- were given three hours notice and gathered at 11 p.m. in Pikesville at state police headquarters.

A psychologist tried to assure that "they had no problems and were willing to go through the process" before they were driven in two vans to the penitentiary, according to state corrections spokesman Leonard A. Sipes Jr.

Thanos, who had declared himself an outlaw and once said he yearned to die in a blazing gunfight with police, hastened his own execution by refusing to appeal his convictions and opposing attempts by others to spare his life.

The last legal maneuver to halt the execution was an emergency request by Tyrone Gilliam, one of the 13 killers remaining on Maryland's death row, for an injunction against the state's new lethal injection statute. It was denied without comment yesterday by U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist.

Thanos died within feet of the gas chamber where the state last carried out a death sentence on June 9, 1961, executing Nathaniel Lipscomb for the rape and strangulation of three East Baltimore women over a two-week period in late 1958 and early 1959.

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down the death sentence nationwide in 1972, telling the states to draft more equitable laws -- statutes that it began affirming as constitutional in 1976.

Thanos was the 240th person executed in the United States since 1977, when killer Gary Gilmore was dispatched by a Utah firing squad. Fourteen prisoners have been put to death nationwide this year.

Thanos' execution was carried out under a death warrant for his murder of Gregory A. Taylor Jr., a welder from Hebron who picked him up hitchhiking Aug. 31, 1990, along U.S. 50 on the Eastern Shore.

In a telephone interview from her Hebron home, Mr. Taylor's tearful mother, Lois Dennis, 38, said, "It's been ongoing for four years and every time we believed that it was about to end something changed."

Waiting for it

She added, "We sat waiting here all night for it to happen again -- for some last-minute thing to come up. It's a little bit hard right now to accept the fact that it's finally over. I'm still not sure I believe it."

Thanos was also under separate death sentences for the robbery-murders three days later of 16-year-old Billy Winebrenner and his girlfriend, Melody Pistorio, at a Middle River gas station managed by the boy's father.

A career criminal who spent most of his life behind bars, Thanos was paroled by mistake 18 months early in April 1990.

He spent three months as a mason's helper and as a processor at a Perdue chicken factory, then declared himself an outlaw and went on a Labor Day weekend rampage across Central Maryland and the Shore.

He kidnapped and robbed a Salisbury cab driver, shot and killed Mr. Taylor, wounded a Salisbury convenience store clerk and then executed Billy and Melody.

Captured after a gunbattle with officers in New Smyrna, Del., he calmly told police in videotaped confessions how he had robbed and killed his victims.

"I knew I was going to do outrageous things because I wanted the police to be able to come down on me heavy in a shootout so they could put me out of my pain. . . . But it didn't happen that way," he said.

Convicted of the three murders and given three death sentences, Thanos never helped his state public defenders. Through two trials, he constantly disrupted the courtroom, making obscene gestures to prosecutors, threatening his own attorneys and taunting the families of those he had killed.

By the end, Thanos had fired his attorneys and declined to file appeals. He said he didn't really want to die -- he would rather escape and kill again -- but that he didn't want to participate in the judicial system any longer.

He told a psychiatrist last fall that he viewed his legal condition as "terminal," that there was little reason to prolong the appeal process, since it would ultimately end in failure.

Last week, he told a federal court judge that he believed in an afterlife and would rather go there than spend the rest of his days in prison. He also taunted a lawyer who had filed an appeal without his permission, saying he would come back as a spirit to haunt him.

When his mother and sister filed appeals on his behalf, without his permission, Thanos was outraged. In letters, he described his anger toward his family and talked of escaping so he could torture them.

Aided by federal public defenders, Thanos' family argued that he was mentally incompetent -- a position that carried little weight with the judges who came into contact with him.

On May 10, a federal judge threw out the appeal and Thanos said, "Thank you."

Carl Marty Winebrenner, whose son Thanos killed, sat in court during Thanos' trials as the killer taunted his victims' families. He listened as Thanos said he would like to "bring those brats back right now from their graves" so that he could murder them again.

Mr. Winebrenner said he has had a difficult time dealing with the murder of his only son. Since then, he has struggled. He developed a drinking problem that landed him in jail. More than anything, Mr. Winebrenner wanted to see Thanos die for his crimes.

But it's not so simple.

'We all make mistakes'

"Here is another life that has to be lost because something went wrong somewhere," Mr. Winebrenner said. "Is the system looking at that? Could this have been prevented 20 years ago?"

"I'm not trying to be soft-hearted," Mr. Winebrenner said. "I'm trying to be realistic. The system is not doing anything to rehabilitate these people. We all make mistakes. I have."

Mr. Winebrenner said he is glad Thanos was executed -- that he deserved to die for the crimes. But despite Thanos' lack of remorse, Mr. Winebrenner said he is grateful that Thanos volunteered to be executed. He knows appeals could have dragged on for years otherwise.

"Maybe this is his way of showing a little remorse," said Mr. Winebrenner. "Did you ever think of that? Maybe it's one little part of his body saying he's sorry."

In life, Thanos never apologized for anything he did or said. He astonished judges, lawyers and others with his courtroom outbursts -- threats, curses and often sick humor.

As Thanos drew closer to death, his courtroom behavior improved. But even last week, in Baltimore's federal court, he taunted public defenders who were trying to spare his life, telling one she looked like an aardvark and threatening to harm another.

Asked to comment on a 300-page written appeal filed on his behalf, Thanos said, "It's a shame a tree had to die for something so full of lies and half-truths."

Efforts to declare Thanos incompetent always failed, despite arguments from lawyers that he was suffering from a borderline personality disorder that made him irrational and suicidal.

A jail house author, Thanos penned hundreds of letters and poems over the last few years, often displaying wit and creativity. He had normal intelligence -- his IQ was measured at 101 -- and he completed two semesters of college while in prison.

But his writing and behavior were often bizarre. He called himself "The Hound" and once told a judge that he didn't think the court had jurisdiction over him because he was from the canine family.

Details of his abusive childhood and early incarceration always seemed to upset him. He said stories about sadistic treatment at the hands of his father were lies and he threatened those who recounted them.

Thanos grew up in a middle-class area of Dundalk in eastern Baltimore County. He was the oldest of three children, and the only boy.

At an early age, he was in trouble and by 12 he was in a juvenile home. At 15, he was sent to an adult men's prison where he was sodomized by older inmates. At age 20, he was serving a 21-year sentence for rape. Released from prison in 1986, he was back in jail a month later for robbing a Harford County convenience store.

Released by mistake

In April 1990, a prison official mistakenly released Thanos from that sentence 18 months early.

On Friday, Aug. 31, 1990 Thanos was hitchhiking when Greg Taylor, on his way from work to see his girlfriend, stopped to give him a ride. Thanos pulled his sawed-off .22-caliber rifle from a 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 his victim.

On Saturday, Sept. 1, driving through Middle River, he stopped at the Big Red gasoline station in the 9000 block of Pulaski Highway. Billy was working there as a cashier.

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 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.

After he was captured Sept. 4 in the Delaware shootout, detectives asked Thanos 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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