Sex Charges For A ‘Cool’ Ex-teacher A Section Of Baltimore Is Stunned As ’70s Students Tell Of Abuse
By Jeffrey Fleishman, (THE PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER, 5/2/1994)
Everyone knows everyone else’s business in Locust Point, where flat-top rowhouses sit wedged between the Domino Sugar factory and the grain elevator near the banks of the Patapsco River.
Irish and Polish families share novenas and votive candles at Our Lady of Good Counsel. They stew over unlucky lottery tickets at the Locust Point Tavern. Locust Point is a smiling, hard-knuckled place. But this spring it is troubled, caught up in allegations that reach back 20 years into the Catholic Community Middle School classroom presided over by a “cool” round-bellied teacher who smoked pipes and drove a yellow Volkswagen Bug.
Long after their yearbooks were slipped away into boxes, 10 former students of Room 103 have come forward to say that in the 1970s, John J. Merzbacher got them drunk, threatened them with a pistol, and raped and sodomized some of them.
Criminal charges and civil suits allege that Merzbacher forced boys to have sex with girls, exposed and fondled the breasts of girls in front of other students, molested boys during and after class, and made one boy fellate him “by slapping (the boy) into submission.”
His teaching days are long over. He left the classroom and became a powerful union leader.
The accusations led to an 86-count criminal indictment that shook Merzbacher’s union buddies and stunned Locust Point.
Merzbacher, 52, denies the charges. “I didn’t do any of these things,” he told the Baltimore Sun. “And alls I want is a fair trial to clear my name.”
His attorney says the allegations are fabrications by former students who want to get rich through civil suits.
“It’s called group recollection (from) 22 years ago,” said M. Cristina Gutierrez, one of Merzbacher’s attorneys, who added that the accusations fall beyond the statute of limitations. “He’s absolutely innocent. Mr. Merzbacher was a very popular teacher . . . and we have material from many students praising him, thanking him for the impact he has had on their lives.”
Merzbacher, said Gutierrez, is “being villified, a victim of the child- abuse industry.”
The charges against Merzbacher come at a time when allegations of long- repressed abuse have become more common and, in some cases, been successfully refuted. One of the most public cases involved accusations that were lodged and later dropped against the Roman Catholic cardinal of Chicago.
Merzbacher, who last year was named acting president of the Federation of Public Employees in the Baltimore area, has posted $30,000 bail and is scheduled for a May 23 trial. He has not filed documents responding to the eight civil suits filed against him in Baltimore Circuit Court.
The Archdiocese of Baltimore also has been named in the civil suits. The suits allege that teachers and administrators at the Catholic Community Middle School should have been aware of Merzbacher’s behavior and protected students
from it. One former student told police Merzbacher had been biting her breasts when the school’s principal walked into the classroom. The Archdiocese has not yet responded to the civil suits.
“How could this happen?” asked Bill Blaul, a diocesan spokesman, who added that the diocese was conducting an investigation. “Everyone wants to know the answer to that question. Certainly this is not a common case. There’s some interesting psychological dynamics here.”
* * *
He was, they said, the coolest of teachers, the bow-tied guy whose curly hair flew in the breeze as he drove his Volkwagen Bug down East Fort Avenue, waving to parents and children who lived in a gritty pocket beside Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.
He ate hot dogs with the kids at John’s Restaurant. They said he told dirty jokes, let them drink alcohol and filled his classroom more with rock music – Godspell and the Who – than English and arithmetic. He treated his students as adults as they navigated the tricky path through adolescence.
To some students he was part rebel, part intellectual – very different from their staid teachers and hard-drinking, blue-collar fathers. His mother owned Sherrie’s Showbar, a strip joint on the grungy Pulaski Highway. The students said in interviews that sometimes he’d sneak them in and let them drink and watch strippers.
Steve Kazmierski, who still lives a few blocks from the Catholic Community School, said his most vivid recollection involved a gun and a ride in Merzbacher’s Bug.
“We went over winding roads in the dark, shooting at stop signs and street
lights,” said Kazmierski, a tall man with wide shoulders who sat in his apartment across from the CSX rail yards. “Back in those days I thought it was pretty cool. He wasn’t doing any sexual things to me. . . . He was like one of the boys, one of the guys hanging out. He was your teacher, your role model.”
The civil and criminal allegations describe an erratic and domineering Merzbacher. They say that he sometimes veered into fits of rage, threatening students with his gun if they ever divulged what went on in Classroom 103 and its adjacent storage room. The allegations and former students say that he divided students into two categories: “favorites” whom he took out joyriding and drinking. And the timid ones whom he frightened and sexually abused, sometimes while sitting them on his lap in class.
“I seen a lot of goofy (things) in that classroom,” Kazmierski said.
* * *
Ed Blair said he was sodomized by Merzbacher on the night of the 1973 school production of Jesus Christ Superstar.
Blair was Judas Iscariot.
Merzbacher was the director.
Blair, who 20 years later filed criminal charges and a civil suit against Merzbacher, said the incident occurred after Merzbacher took him to the strip joint and then brought him back to the empty school. Blair, who was 13, said Merzbacher led him into the principal’s office and pulled his pants down.
“Another day in the principal’s office,” said Blair, a heavy-set man with a round face. “The sun was setting in that certain orange, that red color, and he was sodomizing me. I’ll never forget that color.
“Our parents never thought he’d be doing anything to a child,” Blair added. “He took advantage of that trust. . . . He ruined part of my life. He pointed a gun at me, you talk about fear. This monster manipulated me, he sodomized me.”
The allegations against Merzbacher surfaced last year after two former students met at a funeral and began talking about Classroom 103. Their accusations spread by word of mouth through the community and eventually Blair and several others hired a lawyer and went to police.
Gerri Jackson, now 37 and a bartender at a neighborhood tavern called the French Quarter, said she wonders why she never told her mother what Merzbacher did when she was an eighth grader.
“He’d walk by my desk and say how big my breasts were. And he made jokes to the boys,” she said, later adding, “He told me to stay after school, and he dropped his pants to his ankles. I ran out of the classroom and just stayed away from him.”
Jackson, who had a grade-school reputation of being the toughest girl in class, said: “I was scared and embarrassed and I didn’t want to tell the nuns and make a whole big thing out of it. . . . Who’s going to believe you over a teacher?”
Patti Petroff, now 32 and a bartender at Henry’s Bar, said she never told her parents. She said in an interview that when she walked into Merzbacher’s classroom one day after school, Merzbacher told a boy in the room to lock the doors. She said both the student and Merzbacher came at her as she stood in her gray and blue plaid skirt and white blouse.
“It was him and another student who tried to hold me down,” Petroff, who played center on the girls basketball team, said in an interview. “He (Merzbacher) threw me onto the floor. But I started kicking and screaming. That’s what saved me from being raped. I think he was scared because I yelled so loud and he let me up. . . . I don’t know why no one said anything. We were young. Maybe we were scared and wanted to keep it a secret.”
Neither Jackson nor Petroff has filed charges against Merzbacher. He would not comment on any of the specific allegations against him.
In a criminal complaint and a civil suit, Mary C. Lewandowski says that Merzbacher forced her to have intercourse with him, threatened to kill her with a gun, fondled her in front of other students, shoved a pipe into her vagina and forced her to have sex with boys.
The criminal charges that resulted from her statement to police say that Merzbacher took her to the Rockaway Volunteer Fire Department. Merzbacher, the
criminal charges say, “took her into another room of the firehouse and laid her down. He stood on her hair and instructed several other males (boys) to have sex with her.”
* * *
John Merzbacher, the adopted son of a bartender and a brewery worker, was a union man riding high in a union town when the allegations surfaced.
He was behind a 1993 power play that brought in the Federation of Public Employees to replace a weaker union to represent 1,600 white-collar workers in Baltimore County. Merzbacher was named interim president of the new local. He had changed much since he left teaching in 1979. He slimmed his waistline, traded corduroy jackets for suits and trimmed his wild brown hair in keeping with the styles.
After leaving teaching behind, Merzbacher had become a dispatcher at Baltimore’s emergency dispatch center, later rising to a supervisor and eventually becoming a union boss.
“He was one of the leaders,” said Norm Holsinger, a representative of the Federation of Public Employees, adding that Merzbacher was forced to step down as acting president. “When this came up, (the county) put him on suspension. His close friends are reserving judgment. Innocent until proven guilty. (The charges) don’t fit Merzbacher the way people knew him. He worked 16 years in the county, and there’s nothing to indicate this type of behavior.”
* * *
Whether true or false, the allegations are the talk of tight-knit Locust Point.
In Patti Petroff’s rowhouse on Haubert Street, Steve Melnick, a former Merzbacher student, was on the phone from his current home in San Diego. Melnick said he had told police Merzbacher beat him and forced him to have oral sex.
“It’s really a shame,” said Melnick, who filed a criminal complaint against Merzbacher this year. “All those people down there ain’t rich. The people busted their ass to send their kids to Catholic school. A lot of people who are victims are pretty screwed up. They have dependency problems. Problems getting relationships. A lot are alcoholics.”
Melnick hung up. Petroff turned the lights off in the house and headed toward Henry’s Bar. She passed John’s Restaurant, which has been turned into a market and isn’t owned by John anymore. She ran into Mike Pomroy, the best guitar player she has ever heard. He said that he’s still shaken by the Merzbacher story and that he knows a lot of the students who have filed charges.
“I played with these guys. I delivered newspapers to their homes and (now) their lives are messed up,” he said. “I’m angry about it. There’s a sense of betrayal. There is a strength in this neighborhood. And this has touched on that strength.”