Standing in support

Former sexually abused students of John Joseph Merzbacher and some of their family members stand in support to keep Merzbacher in prison after the sexual abuse that took place 40 years ago at the Catholic Community Middle School in Locust Point. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun / April 21, 2012)

Standing under a stormy sky, Bill Stankiewicz got chills as he looked toward the old brick building that once housed the Catholic Community middle school in South Baltimore.

"It's kind of creepy," he said, rubbing goose bumps along his forearms. He hadn't been back since graduation in the 1970s, purposely avoiding the school — and the memories of what happened in it.

"Thirty-six years is a long time to bury something. It's time to exorcise the demons."

Roughly two dozen of his surviving classmates gathered at the site last weekend, all bound by a shared childhood tragedy detailed in multiple court filings: repeated sexual and mental abuse by English teacher John J. Merzbacher, now 71. They've come together in middle age to fight for his continued imprisonment, as a federal judge's court ruling threatens to release the convicted child rapist from four life terms.

The former students are posting recollections on a private Facebook page and using their renewed connections to marshal resources. They've reached out to the Archdiocese of Baltimore, along with local politicians and prosecutors, and vowed to bring fresh criminal cases — or push for the reopening of old ones — if Merzbacher is set free.

"We're all either 48, 49, 50 and older now, and what you're seeing is a lot of anger," said Joe Wehberg, 52. "A lot of people didn't talk about this forever. It was a very dark period that everyone wanted to forget about. But there's an outlet now, and people are coming out."

Wehberg and Stankiewicz say Merzbacher did not physically molest them, but they saw things happen to other students — confirmed in legal filings — and were subject to the teacher's harassment and threats. He raped girls, sodomized boys and forced kids to have sex with one another, court records say, then coerced their silence through intimidation.

Prosecutors brought criminal cases involving 14 children against him in the mid-1990s, years after the abuse is said to have occurred, though only one case went to trial: Elizabeth Murphy's. When Merzbacher was sentenced to four life terms for assaulting her, the others allowed their cases to be set aside indefinitely, certain he would never be free again.

Some others, in letters to church and state officials and in interviews with The Baltimore Sun, say they were too afraid to pursue cases, but are ready now, if it means keeping Merzbacher in prison.

For the moment, Merzbacher's fate rests with a federal appeals court in Richmond, Va.

It is weighing another court's 2010 ruling that Merzbacher's constitutional rights were violated when his lawyers failed to tell him of a proposed plea deal before his 1995 trial. The deal would have exchanged a 10-year prison term — combined with a promise to drop all previously known cases against him — for guilty pleas to charges in the Murphy case.

The 2010 ruling, which is being appealed by the Maryland attorney general's office, says he must be offered the deal now. Two recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings, issued last month in similar plea deal cases, appear to support the ruling.

Both the Maryland attorney general's office and Merzbacher's lawyer in the appeal, H. Mark Stichel, declined to comment for this article. Merzbacher's head defense attorney at trial, M. Cristina Gutierrez, died of a heart attack years ago.

A first round of legal filings is due in the appeal Friday, though it could take a year or more to resolve the case. The outcome could set the terms for any extension of the plea deal or strike it down altogether.

If the state wins, Merzbacher must serve his life terms. If he wins, the one-time teacher could be freed.

That's when the real battle would begin, some former students said.

"If he does get out, you know that victims are going to come forward," said Steve Melnick, 50. His criminal case against Merzbacher was one of those dropped when the teacher was sentenced in 1995. "They'll do the right thing to keep a very, very serious criminal" locked up.

'A flat out miracle'

It took decades to come forward the first time.