Bethesda Interview: John McCarthy
The Montgomery County state's attorney talks about gang violence, what happened at Rockville High School and the cases that really get to him
Photo by Skip Brown
Name: John McCarthy
What he does: State’s attorney for Montgomery County
Lives in: Gaithersburg
After prosecuting crimes in Montgomery County for 35 years, State’s Attorney John McCarthy sees the county differently than other people.
“I can tell you a story about just about every neighborhood,” says McCarthy, 65. “I can look at a corner. I can look at a gas station. I can look at an apartment complex. The first murder case I ever had was State of Maryland v. James Drury. He murdered his best friend in Gaithersburg…in an apartment. The complex was just a hole-in-the-wall. Real low-rent. They leveled that apartment complex. Now it’s these beautiful, gorgeous luxury townhouses, but when I drive there, I always glance to my left and think it didn’t look like that during James Drury’s murder [trial].”
McCarthy, who has been elected three times as the county’s top prosecutor and has served for a total of 11 years, has seen some of Montgomery County’s darkest moments, from the murders of young children to a string of rapes of elderly women. He was an adviser in the investigation of the 2002 Beltway sniper attacks that paralyzed the region, and is now seeing an unprecedented rise in gang violence. In early September, officers dug up a body in Wheaton Regional Park; it was believed to be the 19th gang-related homicide over the past two years.
“If you go back to 2000, how many gang-related homicides were there each year? One or zero,” McCarthy says. “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that is an enormous jump in violent crime, particularly violent homicide.”
McCarthy, who has four grown children—two of whom are also attorneys—and four grandchildren, grew up in New Jersey in the suburbs of Philadelphia. After graduating in 1970 from Camden Catholic High School in Cherry Hill, he attended Catholic University on a baseball scholarship, then worked as a baseball coach and teacher at Good Counsel High School in Wheaton, studying law at night at the University of Baltimore.
“Graduation was on a Sunday, and I started my first job as a prosecutor the next day as assistant state’s attorney in Prince George’s County,” McCarthy says.
He came to Montgomery County in 1981, working as a public defender before returning to prosecution.
Bethesda Magazine interviewed McCarthy in August at his Rockville office, where a poster board used in the prosecutions of the Beltway snipers leaned against one wall.
Why did you decide to become an attorney?
I had the benefit of being exposed to two people who I greatly respected as a young person, and they both were lawyers. I was very close to my grandfather on my mother’s side, and he was an attorney. My mother’s oldest brother was an attorney. I got the bug. Plus, there were a lot of lawyer shows on TV, The Defenders and Perry Mason. Lawyers were always held up to be esteemed members of the community. I thought it was an important job to do.
How was it going from prosecuting to defense?
Easier than I suspected. These were not ax murderers or rapists or things like that. I was doing misdemeanor work, and the majority of the people I represented were knuckleheads. A lot were young people who couldn’t get out of their own way starting out their lives.
I think it helped me to have that perspective as a prosecutor. I represented about 400 people as a public defender. My memories are less about the specifics of the case and more about the individual people. Even after I long switched back to being a prosecutor, I’d walk the streets of Montgomery County and see people I prosecuted and people I represented.
What was it like to be involved in the Beltway snipers investigation?
I think anybody who lived in Washington will never forget how it changed so fundamentally the way we lived. In many ways, anybody who lived in the county felt to some extent that they were victimized by those 23 days of terror. I lived only a few blocks away from the shooting of Sarah Ramos. A cab driver was killed only a few blocks from my house. I was going to have a cheesesteak at Barnaby’s Pub in Wheaton when I saw the tape from the homicide detectives at another crime scene. These people all lived within blocks of where I lived. These were murders that occurred in my neighborhood. They were places where I went. Where my family went.
What were some of the most memorable cases you’ve handled?
I was involved in the James Perry homicide. James Perry was a hit man from Detroit who was hired by Lawrence Horn, a disgruntled, estranged former husband. Perry went into a home in Silver Spring and murdered a small child who was a paraplegic as a result of a medical accident. Millions of dollars had been put in a trust fund for that little boy, and the only way Horn could get the money was to murder his wife and child.
I prosecuted Gregory Tu, a famous restaurateur in Washington and Maryland. He murdered his wife, Lisa Tu, and disposed of her body and it had never been recovered. It was the first time in Maryland history that a person was convicted of first- or second-degree murder without a body. It was also one of the first cases, if not the first case in the United States, where DNA evidence was admitted to prove a homicide. The case dates back to 1988. There were only two DNA labs in the entire country, and one was in Gaithersburg. By historical accident our office became familiar with their work and we enlisted them before any of the DNA admissibility statutes.
I just finished the case of Mr. [Eulalio] Tordil, a federal law enforcement officer who murdered his estranged wife in Prince George’s County and subsequently killed two additional people here in Montgomery County [one in the Westfield Montgomery mall parking lot and the other in a Giant supermarket parking lot in Aspen Hill].
The Lululemon case. Two young women [who worked at the Lululemon store in Bethesda] who at first blush looked like they were both sexually assaulted, tied up, one murdered in the most horrible way. One young lady survived. Within a week we found out that the one person we thought was a victim was not a victim but a perpetrator.
Samuel Sheinbein committed the murder of a Hispanic young man in a particularly ghoulish way. With the assistance of his father, he fled the United States and sought citizenship in Israel under the Law of Return and was granted sanctuary. He was ultimately prosecuted in Israel and convicted of first-degree murder. [Years later], he snuck a gun into prison, got into a shootout with an Israeli commando squad and was killed in an Israeli prison.
Of all these cases, is there one that you’re proudest of?
I was very proud of the Gregory Tu prosecution because of the novelty of the science that was used and the fact that it was a no-body murder case. Back in the day, that was a huge case. I was also very proud of what we did in the Lululemon case.
And I think the people of Montgomery County should be very proud of the level of police investigation in many of these incidents. Look, we had some good lawyering, but there’s been some magnificent investigative efforts made by the men and women of the Montgomery County Police Department. When I go and talk to the new police recruit classes—and I go and talk to every one of them—I always talk to them about the tradition of coming to Montgomery County and following in the footsteps of some of the finest people in law enforcement you can ever have. What police department in Maryland brought the first DNA cases? Your department. What department got the first murder conviction without a body? Your department. What department brought the D.C. snipers to justice? Your department.
What is it like to become a part of the lives of the victims’ families?
You sometimes make friends with them, which is funny, because then you see them again and you’ve been an ally of their family, but you also remind them of the worst thing that ever happened in their life.
Samuel Sheinbein murdered a Hispanic kid named Alfredo Tello, who went to high school in Silver Spring. [Tello] happened to be Catholic, and he happened to attend church at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church, where his mom worshiped. And it happened to be where my son went to school. It was at midnight Mass at Christmas following the murder. I went to Mass with my kids. The whole family was there. There’s a thing that happens in a Catholic Mass called the kiss of peace. You turn to each other and say, ‘God bless you’ and ‘merry Christmas,’ and shake hands with the people around you. There’s a woman in front of me, and all I can see is the back of her head. The woman turns around. It’s Alfredo Tello’s mom. She turns around to say merry Christmas to whomever the man is behind her, and it’s me. It’s her first Christmas without her son. She turns around and sees me and becomes hysterical, crying, and starts hugging me in the church.
What case has been hardest for you?
I think one of the hardest things I ever experienced as a prosecutor was being present while Michele Dorr, a 6-year-old child, was unearthed on Route 29 at about 10:30 at night. The killer in that case went to prison for another murder, and while in prison confessed to another inmate, who he believed to be Jesus Christ. He said, ‘I buried this child years ago out on Route 29.’ We go out on Route 29 and he’s walking in the woods trying to find the spot where he buried Michele Dorr in 1986. It’s [early in 2000] when this happens. He says, ‘I buried her at the foot of a small sapling tree. I buried her in a shallow grave. I took a box spring mattress and I threw it over the top and I walked away.’
He finally says, ‘I think she’s here.’ I didn’t know if he was telling the truth or not. They start digging into the dirt, and when I thought he was telling the truth was when they started to find springs. The box spring had disintegrated, but the pattern of the springs was there. When they got to the top of the head, everybody gasped. A detective grabbed my hand and said, ‘We should say a prayer for this child.’ That was a horrible night. I had children about the same age at the time. I went home and locked myself in my room that night.
How does being a father and grandfather affect your work?
I think it helps tremendously. When you see someone, and someone they love is hurt or injured, you can imagine what they’re going through. I’ve had fathers who sat across from me and said, ‘I’m looking at you. I’m her father. I’m relying on you to bring us some justice in this case.’ Sometimes you don’t even have to speak. I just get a look.
You’ve got a man, Malcom Winffel, in the Tordil case, who was going to have lunch with a buddy and he sees somebody hassling a woman, and the woman screams for help. He doesn’t think twice. He goes over and winds up being killed, and the other man ends up being shot. It’s a miracle he survived. You sit there with his widow who thinks of her husband as a hero, and rightfully so. He was a hero. You sit with these people and make them understand that you get what they’re talking about.
You see the anguish and the agony. In the Michele Dorr case, if you go back far enough, the father was once a suspect because he was watching his child when she disappeared. Imagine the agony of living under that specter for 15 years.
What about the cases that don’t go to trial?
Those are hard cases. In a lot of these cases, there is a healthy tension over when is the right time to arrest. Anybody who is an experienced detective or prosecutor will tell you there are some very candid conversations that sometimes take place between the prosecutors and the cops about whether or not a case is ready to go. That’s good. It protects us from rushes to judgment that sometimes can happen. Sometimes the greatest courage comes from being able to say we don’t have the right person.
Tell me about the decision not to bring charges in the alleged rape case at Rockville High School, which even got the attention of the White House.
Let me begin by saying absolutely no political pressure had anything to do with what we did in that case. I am offended by anything to the contrary. What happened in that case was an allegation by a 14-year-old child of a very serious sexual assault.
What we really looked at was: Do the facts support the allegation? They did not. The person who reported it, the 14-year-old girl, is a child. And I think the way we have tried to handle the case is to try to protect the child. The allegations were not accurate. But we have always been careful about how we spoke about it publicly because we have great concern for the welfare of the 14-year-old child. There was so much information that was disseminated by a multitude of sources that was not accurate. Suffice to say that what was reported was not what the facts bore themselves out to be. When I made this announcement [not to file charges], I was proud that the police chief stood with me, the county executive stood with me, the superintendent of schools stood with me, the president of the school board stood with me. They knew exactly why the decisions were made and some of the things that we have not openly publicly spoken [about] because of our concern for a 14-year-old child. They knew we were making the right decision.
Do you think initial charges were filed too quickly without enough information to support them?
This office never filed the charges. The charges were filed by the police without consultation with my office. In all fairness, because of the information that the police had at the time they filed the charges, I understood why they did it. However, that information turned out to be in large measure untrue. For any major crime involving a rape or a murder in this county, I think the final say as to whether someone should be charged should come from the state’s attorney’s office.
I think that the system worked wonderfully here in the following sense. There was a charge. There was all kinds of political nonsense and public comments being thrown about, a lot of which turned out to not be based on any fact whatsoever. And yet at the end of the day, I think the right decision was made and the charges were dropped.
So you feel confident that justice was served?
Absolutely. Those charges should have been dropped based on the facts. I love my job and I want to do my job and I don’t want to do anything else. I want to stay right here. To people who would say we were in any way political pawns for anybody, I say—words that you can’t publish. It’s nonsense.
One of the programs you created here was the gang prevention unit. What does it do and what prompted you to create it?
There are a couple things we’re doing. We’re going to do public outreach and intervention with kids. We believe that there are some groups that are seen by the gangs as the most likely possible recruits. They’re not bad kids. They’re just seen to be people that might be more vulnerable to the lure of the gangs.
Are we talking about children traveling alone from Central America?
Yes. And if we believe these kids are being targeted, we’re going to get out into the schools and talk to them about community resources, alternatives to gang membership, why they should not be susceptible to these kinds of recruitment efforts. Tell them there’s something we can do to help get these people away from recruiting them into gangs. I think that some of it is educating young kids to the alternatives to joining a gang. If the mythology is that this is a good decision to make, destroy that mythology and educate them [on] why this is not a good idea.
The second part of it is beginning major racketeering investigations that start out of this office. I want to look at a board that tells me: Who is the leadership of MS-13? Who is the leadership of the Bloods, the Crips? Who is the leadership of the Hit Squad? Who is the leadership of the 108 Crew? I want us to begin to build intelligence files on these individuals. I want to know who they are. I want to know what their criminal histories are. I want to know who their associates are. I want to know if there are other crimes being committed by other individuals under their direction. When they come to the criminal justice system, I want to know about them.
While crime has dropped in the county in general—and that’s a point that should not be lost in this conversation—violent crime that has been perpetrated by gangs in the county has spiked, especially in homicides and robberies.
Some of this we knew was coming, or we should have known. We were briefed a couple years ago by our federal partners about MS-13 and their renewed efforts to recruit gang members. This active effort to recruit new members has led to a spike of violence, and some of that violence is in the hazing or recruitment stage. I can’t help but think the uptick in violence has carryover to other gangs who are trying to recruit. It’s not just exclusively one gang, and not everyone is of the same ethnic or racial composition. It’s across the board, and it should be alarming.
It should also be alarming that if you go to the local jail in Montgomery County on any given day and I say, ‘How many gang members are here today?’ it’s going to be about 26 percent of the jail population. If one out of four people in your local jail is raising their hand and saying, ‘I’m a member of a gang,’ I’ll tell you, we better be paying attention.
We have multiple ongoing federal investigations with the U.S. attorney’s office where indictments will be returned against multiple gangs, including MS-13, and multiple gang members. What kind of things are gangs doing in Montgomery County? Some are asking for protection money; immigrant communities preying on immigrant communities, charging protection money for somebody to run their after-hours bodega out of their apartment. Drugs. Prostitution. Human trafficking.
How is the national opioid crisis affecting Montgomery County?
Heroin is pretty much all over Montgomery County now. We have wealthy communities and poor communities that are touched by heroin deaths. This is a drug that is killing kids in every possible socioeconomic level.
The state of Maryland has [had] a 400 percent increase in the last decade in heroin overdose deaths. In Montgomery County each year, year over year, the number of people who have survived overdoses, the number of people who have died, the number of hospitalizations, is continuing to rise.
You’ve called for tougher sentences for dealers. How do you think they should be prosecuted?
People who are distributing are purveyors of death. I’m talking about people who are out there making money while people die. If you distribute heroin and it results in death, you should face a homicide-related charge. The federal government does this. If you’re there as a mercenary selling drugs for profit and we can prove that you sold the drug that killed someone, you should bear some responsibility for the death that you caused.
How do you feel about the decriminalization of marijuana?
We have kind of decriminalized marijuana to some extent in Montgomery County. I think it’s a smart way of doing business. You take some of those precious dollars and use them to prosecute and research and investigate people who are purveying death, who are selling heroin. You have limited resources in government. Part of our job is to prioritize how best to spend every one of those dollars. If we’re talking about doing something about drugs in our community, I’d rather take every dollar and put it to people who are distributing heroin, which is a killer drug, rather than locking up people for using marijuana.
Is there an opioid case in particular that comes to mind?
Some of it is too close to home to talk about. There are a number of people who work in this building with me who have had children who have been addicted to, or continue to be addicted to painkillers. Friends of mine have lost their children. Within my extended family, a person just died from a heroin overdose. It’s hard to live in this county, to live in the real world, and not be touched by a heroin overdose. Maybe it’s not your child. Maybe it’s the kid next door. Maybe it’s someone you went to grammar school with. But it’s enough that everybody knows somebody not too far separated from them.
Do we need to do more to treat addiction?
The problem we have is that opiate addiction is a disorder. It’s a disease. The level of treatment that we offer for these young kids is insufficient to change their behavior. I’m not a medical doctor, but it is my understanding that the chemical changes that take place in the brain take 18 months to two years of treatment if you’re going to break the cycle of an opiate-addicted person. Nobody’s health insurance lasts that long. The percentages of kids who go into treatment and come out 60 to 90 days later and are no longer addicted is only 4 or 5 percent. We are not providing people enough medical protection to get them off opiates.
Look, I recently went through cancer. My doctor said to me, ‘Hey, you need 36 cancer treatments.’ Well, I got every one. They didn’t say to me, ‘We think you need 36 but we’re going to give you 15 and hope for the best.’ We know that these kids need longer treatment.
Your office has several programs that offer alternatives to incarceration. Tell me about some of those.
We have the lowest percentage of the population that is incarcerated of any jurisdiction in Maryland. We have adult drug courts. I think we’re in about our 18th year of adult drug courts, where we divert people who have profound alcohol or drug problems that are really the source of why they’re repetitively involved in crimes. I’m enormously supportive of it. I think we’ve saved hundreds of people and rebuilt lives for a lot of people.
I brought us the mental health court. They estimate that about one out of three people in prisons have mental health issues. We have not as a nation dealt with mental health issues very well. As a result, by default, the criminal justice system, which is not equipped to deal with this issue, gets it by default.
We use mediation, too. I think a lot of the problems, particularly low-level criminal matters, don’t belong in probation, don’t belong in jail. Fines are not going to solve the problem. Maybe mediation can. When I was a kid, I didn’t go to court if I threw a rock through my neighbor’s window. I got dragged into the neighbor’s living room and we settled it as neighbors.
We just celebrated 20 years of teen court. We have 300 or 400 kids a year who go through teen court, where they’re actually judged and sentenced by their peers.
I brought a truancy prevention program. We started in two schools, servicing hundreds of kids. [Now] we’re going to be in 22 schools. If we get kids in school, we reduce sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. I want to see kids at their school desk, not in a jail cell.
There has been some speculation that you’ll run for county executive in 2018. Are you considering that?
You know, I’m very, very happy doing what I’m doing. I will tell you, I’m approached all the time regarding that particular position and urged by people from many quarters to consider doing that. I think I have right now the perfect job for me. I love what I’m doing. I love the people I work with. As of right now, I’m perfectly satisfied staying where I am.
But you’re not ruling it out.
Well, you know, I want to make sure that whoever gets that position is someone who is going to be supportive of law enforcement efforts and the things I care about in the community. Right now, I’m running [for re-election] for state’s attorney. Like many people, I’m anxious to find out who the next county executive is going to be and what their commitment is going to be to things in the county that I think are really important. Some of them are law enforcement issues, but there are other things. Like the heroin crisis. What are we doing to protect our kids in and around schools? I’m looking for someone to step up and show some great leadership there.
You were diagnosed with neck cancer last year. How are you feeling now?
I had a terrible summer last year. I had three surgeries. I had over 30 cancer treatments. Radiation. I took the summer off, and the people here have been magnificent. Now I’m doing great. My doctor says I’m cancer-free. I have hundreds, maybe thousands of letters of support I’ve gotten from people in the community.
I’m a madman about exercise. I walk about 6 miles every day. I’m going to the gym after we leave.
David Frey lives in Gaithersburg and has written for Sunset magazine and other publications.