BERLIN — With the governor’s proposed repeal of the death penalty taking center stage in the General Assembly this week, a brutal murder spree that began in Worcester County over two decades ago dimmed from memory over the years has come back into focus.
On Tuesday, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley announced a renewed effort to repeal the death penalty in Maryland. The Maryland legislature reinstated the death penalty in 1990 and convicted murderer John Frederick Thanos, whose Labor Day weekend killing spree in 1990 began with his first murder along Route 50 in Whaleyville in Worcester, was the first in the state to be put to death by lethal injection under Maryland’s new policy and the first by any means since 1962.
While the debate about the death penalty rages on over two decades later, almost everyone close to the 1990 murder spree that began in Worcester agrees Thanos was the poster child for capital punishment in Maryland if ever there was one. Delegate Mike McDermott, who was a young law enforcement officer on the lower shore at the time, said this week Thanos wanted to die.
“I was working on the shore when Thanos was caught,” he said. “The only reason he was put to death was because he demanded it. You would have thought he was Hannibal Lector the way he was handled. He would have killed again and I don’t have any problem with that application of the death penalty.”
In an interview with The Dispatch a few years back on the anniversary of the murder spree, Snow Hill attorney Randy Coates, who was State’s Attorney for Worcester County at the time, said Thanos deserved his ultimate fate.
“Personally, I don’t feel that strongly one way or the other about the death penalty, but if anybody on earth deserved to be put to death, it was John Thanos,” Coates said. “He had no redeeming value as a human being. He was unique in his evil.”
Murder Spree Begins
Sometime on Friday afternoon, Aug. 31, 1990, Thanos kidnapped a cab driver in Salisbury, stuffed the driver in the trunk and drove around that city for several hours before abandoning the vehicle. Later that night, Thanos hitchhiked out of Salisbury along Route 50 when he was picked up by 18-year-old Gregory Taylor, a Mardela High School student heading toward Ocean City. Thanos pulled a gun on Taylor and ordered him to drive to Fooks Rd. in Whaleyville.
According to Thanos’ own testimony, the two men walked to a wooded area where Thanos shot Taylor in the upper body several times before taking his car and money. According to Thanos’ videotaped confession, Taylor begged for his life before Thanos brutally shot him.
The next day, Thanos, still driving Taylor’s car, walked into a Salisbury convenience store with the purpose of robbing it when he shot the clerk in the head at close range. The bullet grazed the side of the clerk’s head and he was not seriously injured, which made him a lot luckier than Thanos’ next hold-up victims.
From Salisbury, Thanos headed west on Route 50 across the Chesapeake Bay to Essex in Baltimore County where he brutally murdered Melody Pistorio, 16, and her boyfriend Billy Winebrenner, also 16, during a hold-up of a gas station where Pistorio worked.
Police Capture Thanos
The brutal murder of the two Essex teenagers briefly put an end to Thanos’ spree and the ruthless killer returned to the Salisbury area when things started to unravel for him. Salisbury Police saw a car matching the description of a vehicle seen leaving the Salisbury convenience store robbery and shooting two days earlier traveling north on Route 13 and began pursuit. Multiple law enforcement agencies from both states chased Thanos into Delaware where he briefly lost police, abandoned the vehicle, ran on foot through the woods back to Route 13 and carjacked another vehicle.
Thanos flagged down the driver and forced him at gunpoint to drive into Kent County, Del. where they eventually pulled into a fast-food restaurant parking lot in Smyrna. Police swarmed the vehicle and a protracted gun battle broke out before Thanos exhausted his ammunition supply and was taken into custody without further bloodshed.
According to Thanos’ mother Patti Thanos, who was interviewed by The Dispatch following his arrest, her son wanted to die and wanted to be killed in a gunfight with police.
“He said to me, ‘I want to kill in order to be killed,’” she said during the interview. “He said he was getting too old and didn’t have the guts to kill himself, so he was going to have a shootout with police.”
Police Led To Body
Smyrna Police interrogated Thanos who boldly revealed the details of his three-day binge, including the murder of Gregory Taylor in Worcester County and the murders of the two teenagers in Baltimore County. He was extradited to Worcester County, where he described in great detail the events in a videotaped confession.
According to Coates, Worcester had just acquired the capability of videotaping suspect confessions about two months earlier and the sordid details revealed by the brash Thanos in the confession played an important role in his conviction in the three murders and his ultimate execution. Following the videotaped confession, Thanos led local police to Taylor’s body, which he had buried in a shallow grave in a wooded area along Route 113 near Berlin.
After being convicted and sentenced for the convenience store robbery and shooting in Salisbury as well as the kidnapping of the cab driver, Thanos sat in the Maryland Penitentiary SuperMax where he awaited trial for first-degree murder in both Worcester and Baltimore counties.
During the months leading up to his first-degree murder trials, Thanos was routinely transported back and forth from SuperMax to Worcester County and Baltimore County. His Worcester County trial was eventually moved to St. Mary’s County in Southern Maryland, while his Baltimore County trial was moved to Garrett County in Western Maryland.
The Garrett County case was eventually retried and a guilty verdict in the first degree murder charge was finally handed down. The St. Mary’s County trial for the murder of Taylor in Worcester County resulted in the same verdict.
Executed In Maryland
Maryland had not executed a convicted killer since June 10, 1962, but that did not dissuade prosecutors, from deciding to pursue the death penalty against Thanos from early on. When the Supreme Court declared death statutes across the country invalid in 1972, Maryland’s statute also fell. It wasn’t until Maryland’s General Assembly session of 1994, well after Thanos had committed his Labor Day murder spree in 1990, that state lawmakers reinstated the death penalty on a limited basis.
Thanos was already convicted before the new law was enacted and was apparently ready for the state to reenact the death penalty. The heinous murderer remained stoic throughout the last weeks of his life and never showed the least bit of remorse. In fact, during a hearing not long before he was executed — a hearing attended by the victim’s families — he literally mocked the still grieving relatives. “Their cries bring laughter from the darkest caverns of my soul,” he said.
Finally, after more than 30 years with no execution in Maryland, Thanos was executed on May 17, 1994 by lethal injection.