A tragic trail of violence

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Long before the murderous rampage, long before the saga of fugitive love and violence, long before the hostages on Lange Street, Joe Palcyznski was known as a ladies' man.

He had GQ looks, a buff body, an expensive sports car, money to burn and a questionable past that clung to him like heady cologne. He was a "bad boy," the type that always seems to attract women, particularly young ones.

Imagine being a high school girl of 16, maybe 17. How can you not be flattered by the attentions of this handsome guy who makes time to pick you up from school in his Nissan 300 ZX? He shows you an album filled with photographs of more than a dozen girls he's known -- young, slim, glossy-haired, smiling. It's clear he can have any woman he wants.

Instead, he chooses you. And it takes your breath away.

In the beginning, dating "Joby" is like starring in a romantic movie. He's 5-foot-8, 175 pounds of martial arts muscle, with sandy-brown hair and hazel eyes. Endlessly polite. Clean-cut, almost preppie; even his jeans are pressed. He has a job as a lifeguard and friends who jump whenever he snaps his fingers. You know he's calling when your pager flashes the number of his hero: 007.

On your first date, he takes you to meet his mom, Miss Pat, who is real pretty and couldn't be nicer. Anyone her son loves, she says, she loves, too.

Joby has seen a few things you'd rather not know about. So you don't listen much when he talks about making hit lists, buying weapons, being locked up. You believe people can change.

You really tune it out when he blames those other girls for getting him in trouble. You know you're nothing like them.

He phones constantly. He buys you flowers and gifts. Takes you horseback riding, arranges picnic lunches in the park. You go out on his Jet Skis, drive around like royalty.

He tells you how beautiful you are, how special. He says he's going to be with you forever -- no matter what.

It seems too good to be true.

It is.

The power of fear

On March 21, 2000, when police fired 27 bullets into Joseph C. Palczynski, his life reached the violent ending he had long predicted. In his last days, the 31-year-old man had followed through on a persistent threat -- to harm the family of any girlfriend who dared leave him -- and killed those who got in his way.

Over a span of 13 years, he had lured at least seven young women into a fantasy relationship. And one by one, each had discovered the truth of Joby's dangerously controlling personality.

Amie was 16 when he beat her and held her captive in 1987.

Kimberly was 16 when he blackened her eye, knocked her to her knees and threatened her with a razor blade in 1988.

Sharon was 17 when he attacked her at her school and threatened "to blow her brains out" in 1991.

A Gooding, Idaho, girl was 15 when Joby assaulted her in 1992.

Michella was 17 when he choked her and slammed her head against the shower tiles on Christmas Day 1995.

Stacy had just turned 17 when Joe grabbed her by the neck, shoved her against a wall and threatened to throw her off a balcony in 1996.

Tracy Whitehead, the last of his girlfriends, was also the oldest. She was 20 when she met him. She was 22 when he murdered the couple sheltering her, then kidnapped and terrorized her.

Joe Palczynski's story began to unfold publicly on March 7. For two weeks, it held the citizens of Baltimore -- and many beyond -- spellbound in horror. But the unknown tale -- the lengthy pattern of domestic abuse preceding Palczynski's rampage -- is chilling as well. The women who shared their stories with The Sun hope that their painful experiences can serve as cautionary tales, demonstrating how difficult it is to stop domestic violence.

"The scary thing," says Stephen E. Bailey, assistant state's attorney of Baltimore County and a prosecutor who faced Palczynski in court, "is that the system worked fairly well."

To the former victims and their families, there was never a question of whether Joby would eventually kill someone. The only question was when.

These young women did exactly what they were supposed to: They left their abuser, sought protective orders or filed charges. And each time, their actions put them at even greater risk.

When he was no longer able to use the power of love to control them, Joby turned to fear. He knew how to cultivate his "badness," to make it a source of influence. He kept his body looking like the lethal weapon he claimed it was, boasted loudly about his dark past and often predicted he would "die by the bullet." Joby believed he could make a girlfriend come back to him -- or drop charges -- if she was terrified by what would happen if she didn't.

Often he threatened to kill the girl's parents and leave her alive to suffer.

Joby liked people to be afraid of him, thrived on it, says George Coleman, who became a close friend when he was 14 and Joby was a high school senior. Joby's male friends were almost always younger than he and easily impressed by cars and weapons. In that circle, toughness equaled status, and guns added to the equation. When Coleman first knew him, Joby had a rifle and a Magnum handgun. He played Russian roulette. He never possessed a high regard for life, Coleman says, and wanted to make sure everyone knew it.

Fear controls people, Joby told his last girlfriend. And when it didn't, when the young women persisted with their charges, Joby benefited from powerful cultural stereotypes about domestic violence and its victims: It's her word against his ... That's their private business ... He's always been so polite and well-mannered ... She doesn't look beat up to me ... She must have done something to provoke him.

In one sense, their collective efforts did work: Joby went to jail twice. But when he was released, there was always another girlfriend, another victim. And with each soured relationship and each trip to court, Joby grew more afraid of returning to jail. He would do whatever it took to force his victims to drop their charges. At one point, he masterminded a campaign of intimidation from inside the Baltimore County Detention Center.

For Joby, the stakes reached their highest in March, when Tracy Whitehead had him arrested for beating her. Another assault conviction would violate his probation and send him to jail for 10 years.

In the past, Palczynski's lawyers had claimed that mental illness was to blame for his actions. He was treated at mental health facilities almost a dozen times between the ages of 15 and 28. He had gone in and out of therapy, on and off medication. His diagnoses changed -- and were often contradictory. He was identified as hysterical, as depressed, as paranoid schizophrenic, as bipolar and as having personality disorders.

To some his behavior read like the textbook description of a chronic domestic abuser: manipulative, controlling, possessive, intimidating, physically violent. Ordered by the courts to attend a program for perpetrators of domestic violence, he was expelled because of his constantly disruptive behavior.

When it came to rehabilitation, he tried just about everything the criminal justice system had to offer.

But nothing, ultimately, could save George and Gloria Shenk, Jennifer McDonnel and David Meyers from Joby's most desperate hours. The four died in March during Joby's frenzied attempt to keep Tracy Whitehead from leaving him.

At that point, Joby felt he had nothing to lose.

"I can't live no more," he told his mother the day before he kidnapped his girlfriend. "I'm going to have to die."

Two faces of terror

Amie Gearhart was 15 when Joby surprised her with balloons on Valentine's Day. He wrote in her 1987 yearbook that he was wrapped around her little finger and loving it.

They met at Perry Hall High School: Palcyznski, the handsome senior, had rescued her from sophomore obscurity and a claustrophobic home life. Joby's old-fashioned politeness had even convinced Amie's parents that she was old enough for a "car date" in his shiny Mustang. That June, Joby took her to his senior prom. She wore a lacy pink dress; he sported a white tuxedo.

But the picture was far from perfect. During their five-month courtship, Amie had discovered another side to her boyfriend. Joby kept guns stashed under his bed and in his car. And once, he had held a knife to her throat.

He told her had two personalities: Joby No. 1 was calm and rational and Joby No. 2 was angry and strange.

But nothing could have prepared Amie for the Joby she would encounter on July 24, 1987. Almost 13 years later, she and other witnesses can still recall the events of that night.

She was hanging out with a group of kids on a parking lot near the beach in Ocean City, eating ice cream from a pint container. Spending the week in a condo with a friend and her family, Amie didn't expect to see Joby. But about the time she fed a bite of ice cream to another guy, she spotted her boyfriend coming toward her.

Without explanation, Joby knocked Amie to the ground. As friends tried to intervene, he began to kick and beat her.

When police arrived, he squeezed Amie's hand hard and whispered: Don't tell them nothing!

Stunned, she obeyed.

Meanwhile, Joby calmly told the officers he was looking for his watch and ring, which he had lost in the parking lot. After the police left, he walked Amie toward the ocean and ordered her friend's 14-year-old brother, Jason Whitekettle, to join them. I need a witness, he said.

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