Joseph C. Palczynski was a serial killer not too far from where I live in Baltimore, except in the county, not the city. In the city, we often joke about the county — it’s a more wealthy place, a more white place, a place that’s much easier to teach, and a place that isn’t subject to the daily challenges of Baltimore City’s notorious murder rate.
But about 21 years ago, Palczynski killed four people then held a family of three hostage in Baltimore County. I also live not too far from where Palczynski held the family hostage in Dundalk, on the eastern side of Baltimore County. During his standoff with police in March of 2000, Palczynski was shot 27 times while law enforcement tried to evacuate hostages. An autopsy found traces of Xanax in his urine, which was allegedly placed by one of the hostages to incapacitate him.
According to Danielle Rousseau at Boston University, Palczynski became more than just a serial killer, but a symbol for the nation’s failing mental health system. He suffered from bipolar disorder and wasn’t appropriately treated. But Palczynski had warning signs in the multiple teenage girls and women he battered, abused, and treated violently long before he became a killer, and people are still recovering from his actions today.
This is the story of Joseph Palczynski’s crimes, the damage he inflicted on many people in his life, as well as a discussion of whether his crimes could have been prevented.
Joseph C. Palczynski Jr. was born on November 11, 1968. According to Rousseau, Palczynski lived in a stable and loving household, but by his teenage years, he. would show warning signs. He suffered a severe head injury and turned, in Rousseau’s words, “violent and unpredictable.” He would be diagnosed with bipolar disorder and constantly given lackluster treatment and changing medication from different providers.
Well before he became a serial killer, Palczynski was known to be a violent man. Raja Mishra and Fredrick Kunkle say Palczynski had a “Jekyll and Hyde personality,” and his behavior changed drastically at 14 years old after he hurt his head on a school bus accident. His mother and stepfather had never seen such anger and rage from him before. He threatened everyone within reach, and while in the hospital, he was diagnosed with a “post-traumatic psychotic episode.”
It was much more than just an episode. According to his neurologist, his physical injuries healed, but his psychological symptoms did not. His mother sued the Baltimore County school system, but the lawsuit was dismissed. Palczynski became violent to many women in his life as he got older, and sometimes blamed the death of his sister when he was 17 as the source of his violence.
He graduated from Perry Hall High School in 1987, but after he graduated, Palczynski spent most of his adult life in prisons, on probation, or in psychiatric hospitals. At one point, according to Mishra and Kunkle, “the mental health system even proclaimed him cured, saying he was no longer a threat.”
As we can see, that wasn’t the case. Palczynski was a very likable man who could play the system when he wanted.
Violence against girlfriends
Amie Gearhart was interviewed in a 2001 story in the Baltimore Sun, and when she remembers dating Palczynski when she was 15 and he was 18. The two met in high school, and Palczynski, whose nickname was Joby, brought her to the senior prom. At the time, Joby drove a Mustang and he was known to be very polite. He had even won over Palczynski’s parents.
But Gearhart recalled Palczynski having two personalities, one where he was calm and charming, and another that was very angry. In his car and bed were guns, and one time, during an argument, Palczynski held a knife to Gearhart’s neck.
According to authors Linell Smith and Marego Athans, another time, Gearhart and Joby were on vacation in Ocean City, on July 24, 1987. Gearhart was hanging out with some friends, and Joby arrived to meet her without notice. He knocked her to the ground, kicked and beat her. He coerced her into not saying anything to the police when they arrived, and after the police left, Palczynski continued to threaten Gearhart:
He beat her viciously, to the point where she suffered contusions of the eardrum, lacerations and swelling of the cheek and nose, a hurt rib cage and a contusion of her right eye which made it hemorrhage. Her mother convinced her to press charges on Joby. Palczynski’s mother called Gearhart’s mother, trying to convince her to drop the charges. However, Gearhart’s mother refused, saying he would do it again, saying he would kill someone one day.
Once Gearhart and Palczynski broke up, a new girlfriend named Kimberly sought Gearhart for advice since Joby gave her a black eye. Gearhart convinced her to do the same as she did — getting a restraining order and pressing charges. In this case, Palczynski similarly beat up and abused a minor.
According to charging documents pressed by Kimberly’s mother, Joby beat Kimberly after he found out she was taking birth control pills. In another charging document, he beat and threatened Kimberly after she refused to have sex with him.
According to Smith and Athans, Palczynski was convicted of beating Kimberly and then sentenced to two years of supervised probation for it. He faced charges regarding Gearhart as well, and plead guilty by reason of insanity. He was sentenced to two years in jail and had some time added for attempted escapes. In 1991, he was released from jail at age 22.
After he got out of jail, he was still dating high school girls, something his mother and his stepfather did not approve of. He started dating a 17-year-old named Sharon and was soon arrested for attacking Sharon on school grounds. In the charging document on November 8, 1991, Sharon said he pushed her against the wall on school grounds, threatened her and her family.
In jail, Joby Palczynski would have a psychiatric evaluation, where he was diagnosed with bipolar mood disorder and possible depression. However, he escaped from the facility on December 16, 1991, taking the ID of a friend.
Joby would soon resurface in Idaho. A Gooding, Idaho woman filed a formal complaint about a man assaulting her 15-year-old daughter and threatening to kill her son as well. Both could not be found, and the Maryland State Police believed Palczynski was in Gooding, Idaho as well. They told their colleagues in Idaho he was armed with three guns, a 9mm handgun, a shotgun.
On January 17, 1991, Palczynski was barricaded in an apartment in Idaho. He threatened to shoot people in the parking lot if police approached, and a 16-hour standoff finally ended after tear gas was used on Palczynski. He was then returned to Maryland and thrown back in jail.
Smith and Athans note Palczynski had obviously gotten into a lot of trouble, but his lawyers insisted his actions were because he was legally insane. He received an assessment at a Federal Correctional Institution where he was accused of manipulating the federal mental health system. The assessment declared him legally insane, and he returned home.
Joby, however, was not done with his reign of terror. He started dating a 17-year-old girl who had a baby, and the girl’s father noticed bruises all over her. Joby also claimed to be 23 — he was actually 27 at the time. When the father confronted Palczynski, the two got into an altercation that left the father in the hospital with four broken ribs.
And Palczysnki wasn’t done beating his daughter — on Christmas of that year, he choked and slammed her against the shower after she said she wanted to spend the night with her father, not his family. He threatened to kill her and said he wouldn’t be held accountable — he would claim self-defense.
Once the girl went home, her father, Gary Osborne, pressed charges. He was sick and done with Joby battering his daughter since his ex-wife was killed by a violent boyfriend. It would be a red flag for Palczynski in the eyes of the legal system since he was on probation for escaping the hospital. Joby would be taken to the Baltimore County Detention Center, but before then, he made a plan — he started a new relationship with a 17-year-old who he manipulated into pressing charges against Osborne for making bomb threats and obscene comments over the phone.
At some point, someone admitted they made false charges against Osborne, and he was released. But Osborne and Joby were absolute enemies, and Joby eventually pleaded guilty to charges of battery and witness intimidation. Again, he was on probation and ordered to stay away from the Osborne family.
In the summer of 1996, Palczynski had a new target — a 16-year-old girl named Stacy Culotta. He showered her with gifts and told her everything she wanted to hear. He told her he was 20 years old and he had done “some bad stuff in the background,” but she wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. Plus, she really liked him — he was very polite and drove a fancy car.
Soon, however, Culotta and her family found Joby’s rap sheet. Her father revealed very bad things about his past. When Culotta confronted Joby about it, he made her tell him everything her father knew and said about her. He started to get very angry and violent, and show the dark sides of his personality. And the mood swings were very unpredictable — he made dinner five minutes after getting violent with her.
The Culottas started to intervene and threatened to press charges. And they got lucky because Joby received convictions in the Osborne case that violated his probation. The judge said:
Culotta and Joby were still together, but they broke it off soon after Culotta saw a note where he called their relationship “a big joke” and called her “another one under my belt.” Palczynski continued to threaten her and left prison in June 1998. He started dating a girl he met at a grocery store — a 20-year-old named Tracy Whitehead.
Through all his battering and abuse, Palczynski’s mother, Pat Long, tried to mediate and make peace. She also bought him the sports cars and jet skis that helped him attract people in the first place. Whenever Joby’s behavior would escalate to slapping or punching, she blamed it on his mental illness and bipolar disorder. She would also say things had set Joby off, like when someone threw a pillow at him.
It was Joby Palczynski’s relationship with Whitehead that would trigger his rampage that killed two people. Whitehead and Palczynski would be in a relationship for 18 months in a relationship reminiscent of his past ones — Palczynski was violent, jealous, and abusive. But she stood by him because, according to Smith and Athans, her life was better than before she started dating Palczynski, and she felt he was very generous. She stopped missing work and went six months drug-free.
Palczynski hurt and abused Whitehead, and Whitehead broke up with him in March 2000. Pat Long tried to get Whitehead to change her story:
Unfortunately, she was right. Although Whitehead and Long were close, she refused to change her story. Finally, Palczynski was going to be held accountable. Palczynski was arrested on March 4 for assault but then released the next day on a $7,500 bond. He convinced a neighbor to buy him a shotgun and rifle the next day.
On March 7, 2000, Palczynski did the unspeakable. According to Nancy Youssef and Tanoah Morgan at the Baltimore Sun, Palczynski was the primary suspect in a triple homicide.
At the time, Whitehead was staying with neighbors George and Gloria Shenk in Middle River, Baltimore County. According to Libby Copeland at the Washington Post, the Shenks were friends of Whitehead and wanted to shelter her from her violent, unpredictable boyfriend.
Palczynski showed up to the apartment on March 7, begged Whitehead to talk, and she refused. Two hours later, he showed up to their apartment, demanded Whitehead come with him, and then shot and killed Gloria and George Shenk. A neighbor named David Meyers tried to stop Palczynski after hearing the commotion, and Joby shot him too. Palczynski took Whitehead and kidnapped her, threatening to kill her the whole time while she was in the car.
He took her to the woods, put a ring on her finger, admitted it was bad timing and asked her to marry him. They later stopped by a motel, where they realized Palczysnki’s face was all over the news for the triple homicide. They promptly left, and Whitehead escaped into a police cruiser.
But Palczynski was not done with his reign of terror. At the time, he killed a pregnant mother and mother of a 1-year-old, Jennifer Lynn McDonel, in a carjacking. He had four murders at this point and while law enforcement was on a manhunt for Joby, his behavior was only somehow growing more reckless. According to the Associated Press, Palczynski threatened a man named William Terrell at gunpoint and had Terrell drive him to Baltimore. He eventually let Terrell go after Terrell bought camping equipment for Joby.
Next, Palczynski went after Whitehead’s family in Baltimore County. He broke into their Dundalk home, took Whitehead’s mother, her boyfriend, and her boyfriend’s son hostage. Their names were Lynn Whitehead, Andy McCord, and Bradley McCord respectively. Palczynski tied all the hostages up, and the standoff would attract widespread Baltimore County police and media attention.
According to Francis Clines in the New York Times, the hostage crisis lasted almost four days, and the whole neighborhood felt terrorized. During the four days, he made multiple telephone calls where he pleaded with police to talk to Tracy Whitehead.
On March 19, Palczynski shot from the home at armored police vehicles and at neighboring apartments, which led police to evacuate neighbors. On March 21, Baltimore County police broke into the home and killed Palczynski after he consumed a drink spiked with Xanax. The police came into the home after seeing Lynn Whitehead and Andy McCord run out of the house, but 12-year-old Bradley McCord was still in the house. They would rush into the house in an attempt to save the younger McCord, and Palczynski was shot 27 times.
Neighborhood cheers could be heard once a spokesman said Palczynski had died. Andy McCord said his son was looking forward to playing baseball.
What failed the victims at the end of the day? Was it the legal system? The mental health system? Or can we just pin it down to the individual maliciousness of Palczynski himself?
Some people, including Pat Long, believed the shooting of an unarmed man, in Joseph Palczynski was complete overkill and unjustified. Long believed her son shouldn’t have been shot to death because he was sleeping and not a danger to anyone while he was asleep. One neighbor questioned why the police had to take out Palczynski the way they did, recalling the multiple gunshots sounded like explosions. The Maryland State’s Attorney’s Office, however, said the officers acted legally.
No one will deny Palczynski should have been stopped years ago, so people wouldn’t have died, so more people wouldn’t have been abused. Those were questions victims include Culotta, Gearhart, and the Osborne family asked:
One lawyer and assistant state’s attorney said the system worked well — and that’s the scary part. He went to prison and went to mental health facilities. He got counseling. He got treatment. The lawyer hopes Palczynski’s horror story is an exception, not the rule.
Other lawyers who represented victims said they took plea deals and didn’t want to go to trial because they feared losing — there often weren’t 911 calls or witnesses, like in many domestic abuse cases. The only thing worse than Palczynski receiving a light sentence was him being acquitted.
Of course, Palczynski had a lot of defenders and enablers. Someone bought guns for him, which he used to kill four people. I don’t know how much we can or should villainize a mother for standing by her son, loving him, and wanting to give him the benefit of the doubt. But Palczynski’s mother constantly stood by him and tried to convince teenage girls and women he was violent with to drop charges.
Palczynski’s lawyer argued that mental illness was the cause of his behavior. He had seen many professionals and providers, and many providers disagreed over whether he needed medication and what diagnosis he had. Rousseau argues Palczynski was failed by the mental health system for his untreated bipolar disorder, and society certainly would have been better of if Palczynski received more consistent treatment.
After Palczynski’s death, Pat Long and Tracy Whitehead were still close. Whitehead vowed no man would ever treat her the way Palczynski did again, while Long grieved not only the loss of her son, but the guilt of the lives her son killed, as well as the lives her son irreparably harmed. But Palczynski knew how to play the system, and was obviously very intelligent in that he knew what he was doing. In the words of Smith:
To the writers at the Baltimore Sun who featured the Palczynski story, they won the 2001 Dart Award for their coverage. Linell Smith said the story revealed that we as a society still don’t take domestic violence seriously — when the women pressed charges, many questions arose like “where are the bruises? and “why did she go back to him?” and “what did all those women see in that guy?” Smith emphasized in the stories of the battered women that it could have happened to anyone.
Even today, people are still grappling with the pain of Palczynski’s crimes and abuse. Palczynski might be gone, but the damage and pain he caused are not.
This post was previously published on CrimeBeat.
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