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Many in Limbo After 5th Day of Hostage Crisis

March 22, 2000|STEPHEN BRAUN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DUNDALK, Md. — No one is home on Elton Avenue, no one but the few die-hards who have become prisoners in their own neighborhood. Hiding behind locked doors, they are bottled in by police sharpshooters and an armed man who goes by the child's name of "Joby"--a mercurial suspected killer who has stalemated an entire urban police force in a hostage siege that has dragged on east of Baltimore for five days.

From their shuttered front windows, Robert and Michelle Haffler peer for hours at the red-brick row house where 31-year-old Joseph Palczynski waits with three hostages and enough amassed firepower to blow out the tires of the armored police personnel carriers that rumble past. All day and night, they hear bullhorns, sirens, the deafening drone of helicopter rotors. And they have heard gunshots, the most recent a fusillade that Baltimore County police believe wounded one of the unseen hostages.

"We've got it bad enough here," Robert Haffler said. "But it's got to be hell in that house."

Hostage dramas like the one that continued Tuesday in this tough, blue-collar town near Baltimore's industrial shipping terminal usually have their origins in the messy sort of domestic flare-ups that squall in a broken home. But the siege in Dundalk was preceded by a murderous, tangled affair--four killings and a manhunt that led through dense woods and storm drains, stretching from Baltimore to Virginia, then back--that police insist is ample justification for the agonizing duration of their wait.

"Let's not lose sight that this man killed four people," said Baltimore County Police spokesman Bill Toohey. "He's unpredictable and he's violent."

Dozens of neighbors in a 16-block area whose lives have been disrupted by the standoff are not in a forgiving mood. Many are furious at police for failing to protect the hostages--the mother of the suspect's girlfriend, a male friend and the man's 12-year-old son--from obvious threats. They are equally incredulous at public safety officials' failure to keep Palczynski, an electrician with a long history of mental illness and institutionalization, off the streets.

"It boggles the mind that a boy this sick is able to move around at will with hundreds of police looking for him," said Monica Roppel, 55, who lives not far from Bird River, in the tangled marshlands where Palczynski reportedly sought refuge for a week before the hostage drama began.

On Tuesday, as a frigid rain swept down, Roppel watched from the medical supply store where she works while police cruisers filed up the winding streets leading to the row house where Palczynski and his hostages waited. Since police cordoned off the streets she has had nothing to do but stare at deserted houses.

"All we get are cops, reporters and sightseers," she sighed. In recent days, when the sun was out, it "looked like a carnival," she said. Retirees with video cameras poked through back streets. Residents ran the gantlet of police lines, desperate for groceries and a few minutes of freedom. The rain kept the sightseers away Tuesday, but "I still don't have no business, hon," she lamented.

A few blocks away, the Hafflers kept watching from their windows and listening on two-way radios. Some residents bought the devices last year in anticipation of trouble associated with the new millennium. The radios have paid off. Haffler and a dozen neighbors who are staying put are using the devices to warn one another when they see police movements and hear gunshots. Haffler, a worker at a nearby spice factory, threads through the neighborhood at night, eluding police to buy "smokes and milk" at stores outside what police call the "kill zone."

More than 60 Baltimore County officers are on constant guard around the neighborhood. They are augmented by squads of detectives and sharpshooters and by tactical units on loan from Baltimore and the FBI. Despite their presence on nearly every corner, "if you know where you're going," Haffler said, laughing, "you can get by these guys."

But Haffler has another concern whenever he scurries out. He lives just 100 yards from the apartment that confines Palczynski--well within range of the suspect's guns. Three days ago, Palczynski grew irritated when police aimed high-intensity lamps at him. He shot out several of the lights. When an armored car drew too close, the fugitive shot out its heavy rubber tires.

On Monday afternoon, the Hafflers heard another shot--this time inside the house. Toohey said Tuesday that police believe the shot wounded one of the hostages. Palczynski told negotiators that the injury is not life-threatening.

"We believe no one is in imminent peril," Toohey said, ducking under dripping umbrellas. But he conceded that Palczynski's information has been "inconsistent and not always accurate."

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