Advertisement
News

SINS OF THE FATHER

Joseph Stein Jr.'s apprenticeship began on a dark street corner in 1968 when he slammed an ax into an alarm box.

The box hung like a wasp's nest from an exterior wall of a drugstore in southwest Baltimore. When Joe hit it, the box started wailing loudly and fell to the pavement, where Joe's father calmly collected it and dropped it into a bucket of water brought just for this purpose. The clangor stopped. Joe was now ready to commence his first burglary. He was 13.

Advertisement

All these years later, Joe Stein still lacks the vocabulary to adequately characterize his upbringing. So does the English language.

Dysfunction doesn't accommodate the notion of a father who introduces a child into the vocation of breaking and entering. Deviancy doesn't do justice to a man who pushes drugs on his teen-age son to assure his pliability. Aberrance is too wan a description for a parent who sends his boy out on a mission of murder.

Advertisement

So what do you call it when a son reaches middle age and realizes the bonds of blood are the stranglehold that will destroy him? What do you call it when a child not only serves his father up to the FBI, but helps to build the case against the old man brick by brick?

In Joe's case, maybe you call it redemption. That is especially true if redemption implies that his reward will come only in heaven. Certainly, the earthly repercussions for turning on his father have been nothing but punishing. He is near financial ruin, in exile and fears for his life and those he loves.

One other word clearly doesn't apply in the saga of Joseph Edward Stein Jr.

Storybook.

Consider the psychological profile of a man standing amid the ruins of his home in the moments after a tornado blows through. Disoriented, depleted, defeated. At age 47, that is the general bearing of Joe Stein. Only, instead of a tornado, he has weathered a father.

He moves slowly, as though vigor would endanger his health, and he speaks in a voice devoid of energy. His wife, Donna, is livelier but also more visibly pained by the circumstances of their lives. With their three children and one grandchild, they live somewhere in Maryland to the west of Baltimore. To reveal more, Joe believes, could put them at risk, even though Joseph Sr. -- known as Jack or Reds -- is doing a 10-year stretch at a federal prison in Pennsylvania. Arson was the crime federal authorities pinned on Jack in 1998, although Joe had hoped to see his father go down for his central criminal enterprise, the operation of a theft ring that each year moved hundreds of thousands of dollars in stolen merchandise.

The Steins say the FBI gave them $60,000 to help set them up in a kind of poor man's Witness Protection Program. The money didn't go far after they fled Baltimore three years ago. It helped Donna open a gift shop that specializes in religious knickknacks, but the store hasn't turned a profit, and its prospects aren't promising. As for Joe, he hasn't been able to get a regular job. Bad knees caused by gout limit his options, and the only reference from an employer in the last decade would be from a man -- his father -- whom Joe believes would prefer him dead.

Despite repeated requests, Joseph Stein Sr. did not agree to an interview for this story. But in response to one of The Sun's letters asking for a meeting, Stein had this to say about his son's decision to speak to the newspaper: "I am still digesting the avarice that would drive any man's son into searching for yet again, another chance to pick up the additional 30 pieces of silver."

Advertisement

(If by that he was implying that The Sun had paid Joseph Jr. for his story, he is wrong. The newspaper does not compensate those it interviews.)

As for why Joe decided to tell his story, that is a complicated question. On the one hand, he says he wanted to show how a man can turn his life around. But he also thinks it should be known that cooperating with authorities has imperiled him, both physically and financially. The only money he brings in now is from an irregular job transporting cars for $100 a day. It wasn't enough to forestall personal bankruptcy. Not long ago, it wasn't enough to cover the electric bill or to prevent the repossession of his car.

Joe and Donna didn't expect to benefit from helping the FBI. But they didn't think their lives would be made precarious because of it.

"Sometimes," Donna says, "the wrong people pay for doing the right thing."

Accepting that Joe Stein Jr. did "the right thing" is an idea worth pausing to behold. It's hard to imagine anyone less prepared by his earlier life to do the right thing than Joe.

He had parents in a biological sense only. His father, Joseph Edward Stein Sr., you know a little bit about. Jack's malevolence was matched only by the piteousness of Joe's mother, Jolena, a ferocious alcoholic seemingly on a mission to destroy her liver. Joe was 15 when she finally succeeded. Jolena was all of 33.

Advertisement

Joe remembers nothing that resembles family life. When he was 3, his father was sent off on a 20-year sentence for breaking into a pharmacy and stealing drugs. Because his mother couldn't care for him, Joe lived with relatives, who made it clear that they considered him nothing but a burden. Growing up mainly in and around Pigtown, he was the unwanted stepchild who received socks on Christmas morning while his cousins pulled wrapping from toys. No one seemed to care whether he went to school, so mostly he didn't.

He had little contact with his father and regarded him as virtually a stranger. Occasionally, Joe was taken to the prison for awkward visits during which neither father nor son could think of much to say. Once in a while, Jack would materialize in the southwest Baltimore house where Joe lived. Outside waited two uniformed guards whom Jack said he had bribed for the afternoon's furlough. Jack didn't expend much of these visits on Joe, but he did promise the boy they'd be a family again when he got out of prison.

When that day came, Joe was around 13. His father moved into the house where Joe lived with an aunt and uncle. Soon after, so did his aunt's attractive young sister, Patricia Ashbrook, whom Jack ultimately married -- and with whom he would have three more children. (There were to be at least four other marriages between Steins and Ashbrooks, including Joe Jr.'s own.) His father told Joe that he had a game plan for how the three of them would soon move into their own home. The plan combined two elements: burglaries and Joe Jr.

So, the lessons began. Jack needed Joe because the boy's slim build would enable him to slip through small window openings. He taught Joe how to climb drainpipes, how to disengage an alarm, how to crack safes. The targets were to be pharmacies because Jack was mainly interested in getting his hands on drugs to sell -- amphetamines, barbiturates, morphine, even cocaine. But he also instructed Joe to be on the lookout for anything of value: guns, money-order forms, postage stamps, cigarettes, jewelry, anything he could sell on the street.

Under his father's expert tutelage, Joe's criminal career began. Jack chose the targets, the points of entry and, based on his study of police patrol schedules, the timing. Together they would disable the outside alarm and break an out-of-the-way window. Then Joe, all of 115 pounds, would shimmy inside, clutching in his gloved hands a flashlight and a bag to carry off the haul. Jack later insisted he also carry a pistol. ("We're going to hold court right here," Joe remembers his father telling him in case they encountered resistance.) When possible, Jack stood at the broken window so he could whisper instructions.

The first few jobs, Joe was terrified, not only of capture but also of disappointing his father. At first, the 10 to 15 minutes inside the deserted stores lasted an eternity. It helped that his father fed him a steady diet of barbiturates, which he ate like jellybeans. Jack said the pills would help his nerves. What they did was put him in a constant haze.

Advertisement

As the number of break-ins mounted -- father and son performed one or two a week -- he began to feel comfortable, soon developing a sort of professional pride. He had an additional incentive for performing well. Expertly disengaging an alarm or carrying off the right goods was the only way he knew that would elicit what he most wanted from Jack -- his approval.

There is no rancor in Joe's voice when he speaks about his father, but there are no allowances either. Asked if there was any happy memory or positive impression, his answer is immediate and absolute. "It was all negative. You would want to build things up in him, to see things in him that you saw in other fathers. But with him, there wasn't anything. He never really cared for me as a son. I was just another tool in his criminal activities."

Joe's aunt (and eventual mother-in-law), Jeannie Ashbrook, says she was present on many occasions when Jack gave Joe instructions about the next burglary or relayed stories about the last one. She also saw him pushing pills on his son. Discretion wasn't a concern for Jack. "He didn't care about who was there," Ashbrook says. Sometimes he even brought the stolen goods to her house.

If Joe felt qualms about his life as a criminal, he tried to tamp them down. He accepted that burglaries were the only way to achieve something he craved. "I was angry, but you want to be accepted, and this is the way he's saying I can be accepted, the way we could be a real family."

The normalcy he recognized in other families and wanted for himself never arrived. In 1970, Jack was busted again, this time for an armed robbery that he performed without Joe. He was sentenced to six more years, and Patricia, driver of the getaway car, received a suspended sentence.

Without his father, Joe did not revert to a life of rectitude. He was floating through his life on a rogue wave and lacked the motivation and fortitude to swim to untroubled waters. He accepted that crime was in his nature; it came with the name. "I figured I was doomed anyway and was destined to be this way."

Advertisement

When Patricia's brother, Leemond Ashbrook, told him they were going to rob a liquor store in Hagerstown to raise money for Jack's defense, Joe couldn't think of a single reason to object. Armed with sawed-off shotguns, they hit Rocky's Liquor Store and then, a few weeks later, hit it again.

But at least Joe wasn't a murderer. In a jailhouse visit with his father, Joe says Jack ordered him to kill a woman witness who could testify against him at his robbery trial. (Jeannie Ashbrook said when she and her late husband, William Ashbrook, visited Jack in jail during that period, he spoke about the necessity to get rid of a witness.) On Halloween night, armed with a shotgun, Joe dutifully tracked the woman to her home. When she came to the door, though, he couldn't go through with it. In his next meeting at the jail, he told his father he hadn't been able to find her.

Soon after, though, the authorities found him. They arrested Leemond for the Hagerstown robberies, and he, in turn, led them to Joe. He was tried as an adult. In December 1971, still shy of his 17th birthday, Joe was sentenced to 12 years at Hagerstown, twice the old man's sentence. Presumably, the poignancy was lost on both of them when they crossed paths in prison.

Joe didn't do all 12 years. He was released after five, the result of crafty work by his lawyer. Jack had preceded him out of prison by a matter of months. He and Patricia were in a home in Randallstown. With nowhere else to go, Joe joined them. They celebrated their reunion by resuming the family occupation, burglary.

Joe treated his own life like a discarded heirloom. He drank, he did drugs, he stole. If he was arrested, and he frequently was, he didn't care. If he was sent to prison, and he was again in 1976 for yet another burglary, he accepted it as the natural order of his existence. That was his destiny, he believed. A life of no consequence, no meaning, no worth.

His redemption was long in coming, but its beginning point is evident. Toward the end of 1982, Patricia's 17-year-old niece, Donna Ashbrook, moved into the Randallstown house. Donna, who'd known her own troubles, came with a year-old daughter and resentment against her alcoholic father. It wasn't long before she and Joe, who was 27 then, were a couple. Within half a year, they married; before the year was out, they had a baby girl. A son would follow three years later in 1986. Joe would also adopt Donna's older daughter. And now there is a granddaughter, too.

Advertisement

"When I moved in, Joe was very distant, but as soon as I met him, I saw a lot of hurt there," recalls Donna. "I had the personality like 'I'm going to rescue him.' We fell in love."

Rescue didn't come immediately. His crimes and arrests continued into the mid-1980s, although somehow Joe managed to avoid serious time. (Senior did not. In 1985, he was sentenced to 10 years, seven suspended, for stealing goods from a building contractor in Carroll County.) It dawned on Joe that his life was nothing more than a duplication of his father's. The thought sickened him.

But he probably would not have rebelled had it not been for Donna. Her love and nurturing were an unprecedented phenomenon in Joe's experience, and effected a remarkable change in him. Jeannie Ashbrook, Donna's mother, initially did not welcome the relationship. She had known Joe most of his life and regarded him as a dangerous thug who would "as soon knock you in the head as talk to you. He would take whatever you had."

To her surprise, she watched him transform into an entirely different person -- humble, kind, sensitive.

Joe underwent addiction treatment. He enrolled in a vocational program and learned welding. He joined Donna in a Pentecostal church in Curtis Bay and was "saved." He stopped drinking and using drugs. He stopped swearing.

The most important stopping he did was seeing Jack.

Advertisement

Over the old man's angry objection, Joe and Donna moved out on their own and soon ended all contact with him. For a number of years, the break was complete, while Joe clawed his way to an upright existence. He wasn't making much money as a welder, but he was at least making it legitimately. Donna worked as a nurse's assistant in a weight-control clinic. Eventually, they were able to buy a small home in Brooklyn Park.

In the early '90s, though, Joe ran into a shortage of welding work. As it happened, around the same time, he and Donna saw Jack and Patricia at a family funeral. The encounter led to a get- together, the purpose of which was to introduce Jack to the grandson he hadn't met.

To Joe and Donna's shock, Jack seemed to have experienced as profound a transformation as Joe's. Jack, too, claimed to have ridden religion to a personal reformation. He was now not only an upstanding citizen, but a business owner as well. He ran Joe Stein & Son (referring, presumably, to Jack's son with wife Patricia, Joseph Stein III), a company on Hollins Ferry Road that acquired wooden pallets and repaired them for resale. What's more, he told Joe that if he were having trouble making ends meet, he'd be only too happy to have him join the family business.

The meeting was heartening. Joe thought of it as a fairytale, Donna a blessing. The family life Joe had always yearned for finally beckoned.

And at first, it seemed truly possible, even if Joe had to admit that he and Jack still didn't have much to say to each other. The work at Stein & Son appeared aboveboard, as did Jack's newfound prosperity.

Joe didn't mind starting at the bottom; he worked initially as a painter and maintenance man. But later Jack had him working in a variety of capacities, including office work, as a foreman in the warehouse and driving tractor-trailers.

Advertisement

Very quickly, though, Joe discovered that all was not pure at Stein & Son. Neither Joe nor Donna, who often visited the business, could avoid the implications of what they saw out of the corners of their eyes and conversations they overheard. Envelopes of cash changed hands. Merchandise having nothing to do with pallets -- television sets, refrigerators, paper products, food -- arrived at the loading dock and then disappeared.

It didn't take long to comprehend what was happening, especially once Jack started talking openly about what he was doing and trying to involve Joe.

Jack was stealing again, now on a scale far grander than anything he had done before. Stein & Son was nothing more than a way station for stolen merchandise.

A federal lawsuit brought by the Solo Cup Co., an Illinois-based manufacturer of paper goods with a plant in Baltimore, provides a detailed snapshot of Jack's various criminal enterprises.

According to allegations and depositions filed in federal court, throughout the 1990s Jack paid bribes to the manager of Solo's Baltimore warehouse and to its shipping and receiving clerk. In return for those frequent payments -- $128 to one and $500 to the other -- they routinely signed false receipts for the delivery of a certain number of pallets, knowing that in each load, Jack had shortchanged them by hundreds.

Additionally, two Solo employees regularly arranged for truckloads of Solo's paper products to be illegally delivered to Stein & Son, where they were transferred to another truck and sent on their way for sale. The Solo employees doctored the books to hide the losses.

Advertisement

Donna's brother, William "Clinton" Ashbrook, worked at Stein at the time and said he was intimately involved in the thefts. "Everyone was robbing Solo blind, just raping them," he says.

But Solo was only one of the victims. Jack was ripping off other companies, too, Joe says, including GE Industries, Sweetheart Cup Co., the Noxell Corp. and Beverage Capital Corp. Using payoffs to insiders, he either stole merchandise from the companies or shortchanged them in pallets.

There was much more, according to both Joe and Ashbrook, including drug-dealing and trafficking in guns. Both say Jack also hired men to assault those who crossed him.

Joe found himself at the hub of a massive criminal operation. Obviously, it had been a mistake to reattach himself to his father, a mistake that now imperiled him. What was he going to do?

But the decision was not whether to stay or to go. He was determined that he would not be sucked back into a criminal life. That was a closed issue. The question was whether to walk away and forget everything he knew. Or, should he do something truly extraordinary, virtually unthinkable in his experience? Should he become an instrument in his father's downfall? Should he snitch on his father?

Once he raised the question, he knew the answer. He was not the man he had been. He was no longer a criminal, he knew that, but he could no longer just leave it at that. He now had three children, and he was determined to be the kind of father to them that he had never known himself. He wanted their respect, and he wanted to earn it. To him, that meant it was not enough simply to do no wrong. He had to do right.

Advertisement

"You're not supposed to turn your back on something, even if it is family," he says. "Sometimes in your life you have to take a stand. You have to stand up for what's right."

In 1995, Joe and Donna met secretly with Jim Fitzsimmons, a special agent with the FBI. Joe spilled everything he knew -- all of it, Fitzsimmons acknowledged, completely unknown to any law enforcement agency. It was a remarkable discovery, a huge criminal conspiracy that had gone not only undetected by the law but also unnoticed by its victims.

Joe agreed to put himself at the agency's disposal in order to bring his father down. He eventually wore a wire to secretly tape conversations. He alerted authorities ahead of time to illegal capers, so they could be ready with surveillance. He bought stolen merchandise under their direction.

Fitzsimmons, an FBI agent for 25 years, says he became convinced of Joe's honesty and never found him to either mislead or embellish. He also was convinced of the genuineness of Joe's motivations. He had checked Joe's background and spotted the abrupt end of his criminal activity. The transformation seemed real and, Fitzsim-mons adds, "remarkable."

"His demeanor was that of a very respectful, actually humble, type of person, and that demeanor, in our experience, cannot be faked for any period of time."

Joe's efforts on behalf of the FBI continued for more than a year, until the end of 1996. That's when Clinton Ashbrook, Donna's brother, revealed something more appalling than anything else Joe had seen at Stein & Son.

Advertisement

The night before, Clinton had been drinking beer and doing lines of cocaine with Joe "Tiny" Metheny, a night watchman and forklift operator at Stein who lived in a trailer on the property. According to both Joe and Clinton Ashbrook, Metheny was also Jack's enforcer, a huge, soulless man with tattoos of teardrops and a cross on his face and an appetite for violence.

In July 1996, Metheny had been acquitted of the ax murders of two homeless men, homicides that he made no secret about committing to others at Stein & Son.

Now, only five months later, while getting drunk and high in the offices of the pallet company, Metheny confided to Ashbrook that he had stabbed a young woman to death in his trailer. Her body was still outside on Stein company property, and he wanted help getting rid of it. He then led Ashbrook to her body, amid the trash behind the main building. While they stood there, Metheny nudged his foot against the body a few times and cursed his victim. Aghast, Ashbrook mumbled an excuse and took off on his motorcycle.

After Ashbrook relayed this story to him, Joe arranged for him to repeat it to his FBI contacts. Ashbrook agreed to wear a wire, enabling authorities to get Metheny's admission to the murder on tape.

The killing presented the grimmest of inconveniences to investigators. It apparently had nothing to do with the central elements of the Stein investigation, but the discovery, as well as information indicating Metheny may have had additional victims, forced them to act. Joe had also given them information that Jack was using arson against perceived enemies. With clear evidence of violence, authorities had to move, even if they hadn't collected all they needed to prosecute the grand theft case.

"Obviously, we had to shift our priorities at that point to address public-safety issues, which became much more important than thefts," says Fitzsimmons. "And that is what we did."

Advertisement

As Metheny and Jack emerged from a company Christmas party at Martin's East, authorities arrested them. They charged Metheny with the murder of 26-year-old Kimberly Spicer. Jack was charged with being an accessory after the fact for allegedly helping Metheny clean the trailer and get rid of clothing and other evidence of Spicer's murder.

After Metheny's arrest, he led police to a shallow grave on the Stein property containing the decapitated remains of another woman he had killed. Before long, he confessed to killing at least 10 more people and is now serving a sentence of life without parole. (Baltimore prosecutor Vickie Wash said the state charges against Jack were dropped after he received a lengthy federal sentence for arson.)

Joe's help led to other arrests and convictions as well. Two men were sentenced for stealing merchandise from GE Industries. Another pleaded guilty to breaking and entering the home of Jack's sister-in-law to steal guns. Two others, including Clinton Ashbrook, were convicted of arsons.

Jack was convicted of conspiring to burn two trucks belonging to a man he believed was double-crossing him. That's the conviction for which he is now serving 10 years.

Joe had hoped that the prosecutions would be more far-reaching, and Fitzsimmons believes they might have been if not for the discovery of Metheny's gruesome work. But he says no one should underestimate the impact of Joe's help.

Metheny was not likely to stop killing until someone stopped him, and Joe was that person. In addition, Fitzsimmons says, Joe's information about Jack's theft ring likely saved numerous companies from losing hundreds of thousands of dollars in stolen goods. As it was, Daniel Madock, a lawyer for Solo, said the discovery of the thefts caused the company to close its Baltimore operation.

Advertisement

So it is not surprising that usually circumspect law enforcement authorities are warm in their assessment of Joe. "Look, he was part of the milieu, but he turned his life around," says Vickie Wash, Metheny's prosecutor. "He wanted to right all the wrongs. I think he's pretty gutsy, and very credible."

Fitzsimmons is even more effusive. Joe's saga, he says, is profoundly affirming. "He's one of those reminders that people can and do change, that miracles happen. You can be in this business and become very cynical, or you can be in this business and see certain things that restore a positive outlook and give you hope, really. And he's an example of that."

That is precisely the example Joe had hoped to be. But his long road to redemption has not ended the way he had envisioned.

Metheny's arrest helped expose Joe's involvement with law enforcement, putting him at risk. Joe says his father often voiced suspicions about an informant in his midst, and promised to have that person killed if he was ever identified. Joe believed him. So did the FBI.

Joe and Donna were offered a chance to go into the federal Witness Protection Program, but they didn't want to break contact with Donna's family, which they would have been required to do. Instead, they accepted the FBI's more limited help in relocating.

But the money they received didn't last long, and Joe has been unable to find steady work with benefits. Fitzsimmons said he had hoped that one of the companies that had been victimized by Jack's theft ring would offer Joe a meaningful job, but that never happened.

Advertisement

"We're living from day-to-day," says Joe, "a paycheck away from being homeless."

He has a lot of time to wonder about whether the sacrifices have been worth it.

Certainly, he has no ambivalence about helping put his father away. "He's never going to change," Joe says. "He's going to continue to hurt people and rob people. He's better off in jail."

Still, Joe hates that his family is carrying the burden of his decision. It pains him that he can't afford medical attention for Donna's slipped disc or braces for the kids. Naturally, his own case of gout must go untreated. As Donna says, "We couldn't even bury one another if one of us died."

But whenever Joe despairs, his eyes fall upon one of his children, the two girls or his son. And then he remembers the main thing he accomplished.

"In my family, they would take the younger generation and teach them how to do wrong," he says. "Somebody had to stop that cycle."

Advertisement

He lifted that curse from his family. That is a reward, an earthly one, the only one.


Advertisement