Confined spaces set her off. The center back seat of a car. Elevators are a big one; she once bumped down two flights of stairs after foot surgery rather than get on an elevator at the doctor’s office. Any room with a closed door also makes her uncomfortable — even the bathroom of her own home.
Nearly half a century has passed since Kelly Fout Wagner was a student of the notorious child sex abuser John Merzbacher at the Catholic Community School of Baltimore, but her life is still colored by what she said she experienced while locked in his classroom.
“I often wonder what it would feel like to just be able to feel safe and not constantly have your head on a swivel. What I could have accomplished if it hadn’t happen,” said Wagner, 61. “It takes all that from you. There is no safe place.”
Like many students who graduated from the South Baltimore middle school in the 1970s, Wagner spent Sunday ruminating over news of the death of Merzbacher, 81, who had been serving four life sentences for the repeated rapes of one former student, Liz Murphy. Merzbacher died of natural causes, according to the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. Dozens of other students have accused Merzbacher of sexual and physical abuse, but he faced trial only for the crimes against Murphy, who graduated a year ahead of Wagner.
Wagner went to the Orioles game with her children and grandchildren for Mother’s Day, but peeled away when she saw a friend from her middle school days. “I pulled down my sunglasses, looked him in the eye and said, ‘Satan’s dead,’” she recalled.
“It was strange to feel happy about a death on Mother’s Day, but it was one of the first times I felt OK at Camden Yards,” Wagner said. “I didn’t panic in the crowds yesterday. I didn’t hide in a corner. I didn’t sit with one foot ready to run.”
Merzbacher’s name had already been in the media in recent weeks following the release of the Maryland Attorney General’s hefty investigation into sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Baltimore. The report dedicates 10 pages to the torture that Merzbacher inflicted upon students both at the Catholic school that Wagner attended and a public school, John Ruhurah Elementary/Middle School, where he taught previously.
Merzbacher raped middle school students in his classroom and a nearby storage room at the Catholic Community School, forced boys to rape female classmates, grabbed the genitals of male and female students, and violently and publicly beat students, according to the report, which includes graphic details of the abuse.
He carried a gun in the school, which he held to students’ heads when he raped them. He forced students to play Russian Roulette with the gun and, on at least one occasion, used it to fire a bullet over students’ heads in his classroom, according to the report. Merzbacher silenced his students by threatening to kill them or their families if they told anyone about the abuse, according the report.
The report calls attention to the inaction of the Catholic Community School’s then-principal, Sister Eileen Weisman. One former teacher told the attorney general’s investigators that he had reported to Weisman that he had witnessed Merzbacher sexually molest students and believed he was also raping students. Weisman ordered him to stop making these allegations and he resigned, according to the report.
Merzbacher repeatedly denied any wrongdoing. Investigators with the attorney general’s office visited him in the Eastern Correctional Institute while compiling the report. Merzbacher said “he would refuse parole rather than admit guilt” and that it was “‘terrible’ to suggest that Weisman knew anything about the allegations,” according to the report.
Murphy said that Weisman dismissed her complaints when she first approached her about the abuse several years after graduating from middle school. Murphy was often accused of lying as she began the arduous process of finding other survivors of Merzbacher’s abuse and building the legal case against him. It was Murphy’s testimony that led to Merzbacher’s prison sentence; he was convicted of repeatedly raping her when she was in middle school.
For Linda Malat Tiburzi, a close friend of Murphy and another survivor of Merzbacher, the hours since she learned of Merzbacher’s death have been filled with intense emotion. She has exchanged phone calls and text messages with many of her former classmates, all trying to puzzle out their feelings over the death of a man who to them represented pure evil.
“For the longest time, my focus was on how could I make sure I could keep him in prison, where he belonged,” said Tiburzi. “Even after his appeals were shot down, because he was such an evil person, in the back of my mind, it was kind of like, well, maybe he could get out.”
Like Wagner, Tiburzi said that despite years of therapy, she has been unable to shake the trauma she experienced in Merzbacher’s classroom. A knock on the door or even the ring of her phone can send her into a panic.
“The trauma comes upon me in unexpected moments,” she said. “The flashbacks can be caused by something very simple, something on TV, a certain sound, a certain smell.”
Wagner said the abuse she endured has affected not only herself, but her adult children. She prevented them from taking part in childhood traditions, such as sleepover parties, concerned they would be sexually abused at a friends’ house. Her children would often observe how fearful she became in certain environments. Once she had a panic attack after using an unfamiliar exit while at the aquarium with family because it led to an enclosed concrete space she found triggering.
Merzbacher’s abusive words still echo in her mind, Wagner said. “You’re a piece of trash. You’re ugly. You’re worthless. If you say anything, I know where your dad works and I’ll kill him,” she recalled him saying. “Every single day, he would tell you stuff like that. That’s hard to let go of.”
But Wagner credits the support of her former classmates for helping her go on. Although several died young, often as a result of substance use disorder, those who are still alive share a close bond.
“He stripped everything from us,” she said. “But the only thing he couldn’t strip from us is our ability to survive.”
Tiburzi, a central figure in the Facebook community of Baltimore abuse survivors and their advocates, said she believes that Merzbacher has been cast into hell.
In a recent post about Merzbacher, she quoted the Gospel of Luke: “It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble.”
Baltimore Banner journalist Kaitlin Newman contributed to this report.