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The Wrong of Wright's Close Aide

May 05, 1989|KEN RINGLE | The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — One evening in 1973, when she was a 20-year-old college student still living with her parents, Pamela Small entered a discount import store in suburban Annandale, Va., to buy some furnishings for her first apartment. It was just before closing time. The manager, a freckle-faced 19-year-old she had never seen before, was the only person in the store.

Small took $31 worth of purchases to the cash register, but discovered a flaw in the window blinds she had selected. The manager said he had more in the storeroom and suggested she come and pick out the ones she wanted.

But once inside, he blocked the door and ordered her to lie face down on the floor. When she refused--when, with growing panic, she tried to talk her way to freedom--he grabbed a hammer and slammed it into her skull. She immediately lost consciousness but he continued pounding, exposing the skull in five places. Then he grabbed a steak knife, stabbed her five times in the left breast and shoulder near her heart, and slashed her repeatedly across the throat.

Bundling her limp body into the car she had left parked out front, he drove around for a while, then left the vehicle in an alley behind the store, keys in the ignition. Then he went to the movies.

'He Thought I Was Dead'

"He told the police he thought I was dead," remembers Small, who, to the astonishment of the doctors who later treated her, was not. Regaining consciousness about eight hours later, she managed to start the car and drive a mile to an all-night Exxon station, where an attendant, wide-eyed at the sight of the gory figure in the blood-soaked seat, summoned help.

It took a general surgeon, a plastic surgeon, a neurosurgeon and a thoracic surgeon seven hours in the operating room to repair the damage. Her left lung had collapsed and her head was a mass of lacerations and exposed bone. She spent 24 hours in intensive care with a tube in her lung, five more days in the hospital, weeks convalescing at home with her own nurse and more than a year undergoing plastic surgery and hair transplants.

Her assailant was arrested the following day, pleaded guilty to malicious wounding ("that he did . . . stab, cut and wound one Pamela Small with the intent to maim, disfigure, disable and kill") and was sentenced to 15 years (seven suspended) in the Virginia State Penitentiary.

But in what Fairfax County, Va., Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan remembers as "highly unusual" treatment, the assailant never did time in the penitentiary. Instead, he spent less than 27 months in the more civilized confines of the Fairfax County Jail. He then was paroled to a job as staff assistant in the congressional office of Rep. Jim Wright (D-Tex.).

Offered Him a Job

Wright, in fact, had offered him a job even before he was sentenced, a fact pointed out repeatedly to the sentencing judge. Wright's daughter then was married to the assailant's brother.

Today, at age 35, that man, John Paul Mack, is executive director of the congressional Democratic Steering and Policy Committee. He is Wright's right-hand man and, since Wright became Speaker of the House, has been arguably the most powerful staff member on Capitol Hill.

As a convicted felon, Mack is barred by law from voting or obtaining a security clearance. But as the Speaker's closest aide he helps enact the nation's laws. Salaried at roughly $89,500, he earns approximately as much as a federal district judge or the director of the CIA.

Crime Known by Many

The crime in Mack's past--if not the details of it--is known to many on Capitol Hill. Two years ago, a number of anonymous letters calling attention to Mack's conviction circulated on the Hill, purportedly written by an indignant former law enforcement officer. The ultraconservative Liberty Lobby magazine published a sketchy article headlined "Mack the Knife."

Most legislators, however, appear to accept his and Wright's word that Mack's was a single mistake committed under stress a long time ago, for which he paid his debt to society. "I have never tried to hide it," Mack said in a brief phone conversation in which he declined to be interviewed further for this article. "This has been public record for 16 years."

While Mack has progressed without interruption to his position of influence, an apparent model of rehabilitation and an example of society's ability to forgive, what of his victim?

The Victim

Cosmetic surgery long ago erased most marks of the attack, but Small favors high-neck blouses to hide a faint horizontal scar on her neck and still has days "when I feel like nothing but a mass of scars." She has watched with mounting alarm and anger the growing power of the man who tried to kill her. Now an executive with the Washington office of a major corporation, she finds herself increasingly pushed by her job toward the receptions and committee rooms of Capitol Hill. She finds excuses not to go, having no wish to find herself suddenly face-to-face with the man she last saw in court.

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