Victim Sees Attacker Rise To Power

Posted: May 07, 1989

WASHINGTON — One evening in 1973, when she was a 20-year-old college student still living with her parents, Pamela Small entered a discount import store in suburban Annandale, Va., to buy some furnishings for her first apartment. It was just before closing time. The manager, a freckle-faced 19-year-old she had never seen before, was the only person in the store.

Small took $31 worth of purchases to the cash register, but discovered a flaw in the window blinds she had selected. The manager said he had more in the storeroom and suggested she come along and pick out the ones she wanted.

Once inside, however, he blocked the door and ordered her to lie face down on the floor. When she refused - when, with growing panic, she tried to talk her way to freedom - he grabbed a hammer and slammed it into her skull. She immediately lost consciousness but he continued pounding, exposing the skull in five places. Then he grabbed a steak knife, stabbed her five times in the left breast and shoulder near her heart, and slashed her repeatedly across the throat.

Bundling her limp body into the car she had left parked out front, he drove around for a while, then left the vehicle in an alley behind the store, the keys in the ignition. Then he went to the movies.

"He told the police he thought I was dead," remembers Small, who, to the astonishment of the doctors who later treated her, was not. Regaining consciousness about eight hours later, she managed to start the car and drive a mile to an all-night Exxon station, where an attendant, wide-eyed at the sight of the gory figure in the blood-soaked seat, summoned help.


It took a general surgeon, a plastic surgeon, a neurosurgeon and a thoracic surgeon seven hours in the operating room to repair the damage. Her left lung had collapsed and her head was a mass of lacerations and exposed bone. She spent 24 hours in intensive care with a tube in her lung, five more days in the hospital, weeks convalescing at home with her own nurse and more than a year undergoing plastic surgery and hair transplants.

Her assailant was arrested the day after the attack, pleaded guilty to malicious wounding ("that he did . . . stab, cut and wound one Pamela Small with the intent to maim, disfigure, disable and kill") and was sentenced to 15 years (seven suspended) in the Virginia State Penitentiary.

But in what Fairfax County, Va., Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan remembers as "highly unusual" treatment, he never did time in the penitentiary. Instead, he spent less than 27 months in the more civilized confines of the Fairfax County Jail. He was then paroled to a job as staff assistant in the congressional office of Rep. Jim Wright (D., Texas).

Wright, in fact, had offered him a job even before he was sentenced, a fact pointed out repeatedly to the sentencing judge. At the time, Wright's daughter was married to the assailant's brother.

Today, at age 35, that man, John Paul Mack, is executive director of the congressional Democratic Steering and Policy Committee. He is Wright's right- hand man and, since Wright became speaker of the House, has been arguably the most powerful staff member on Capitol Hill.

As a convicted felon, Mack is barred by law from voting or obtaining a security clearance. But as the speaker's closest aide he helps enact the nation's laws. Salaried at roughly $89,500, he earns about as much as a federal district judge or the director of the CIA.

The crime in Mack's past - if not the details of it - is known to many on Capitol Hill. Two years ago, a number of anonymous letters calling attention to Mack's conviction circulated on the Hill, purportedly written by an indignant former law enforcement officer. The ultraconservative Liberty Lobby magazine published a sketchy article headlined "Mack the Knife."

Most legislators, however, appear to accept his and Wright's word that Mack's was a single mistake committed under stress a long time ago, for which he paid his debt to society.

"I have never tried to hide it," Mack said in a brief phone conversation in which he declined to be interviewed further for this article. "This has been public record for 16 years."

Small has watched with mounting alarm and anger the growing power of the man who tried to kill her. Now an executive with the Washington office of a major corporation, she finds herself increasingly pushed by her job toward the receptions and committee rooms of Capitol Hill. She finds excuses not to go, having no wish to find herself suddenly face to face with the man she last saw in court.

Although Mack told the Post in a statement, "I will always regret deeply my actions that day," Pam Small says she has never heard that from him, either directly or indirectly. She has received no restitution.

"Rightly or wrongly," said House Majority Whip Tony Coelho (D., Calif.) who describes himself as "very close" to Mack, "under our system of law John Mack owed his debt to society, not to this young woman."

The original charge against Mack was attempted murder, but the commonwealth obtained an indictment instead on malicious wounding "because the charge includes attempted murder in its legal definition and the penalties are more severe," with a maximum of 20 years in prison, Horan said.

Mack apparently was not sent to the penitentiary because he never posted bond and his trial was repeatedly postponed. By the time he was sentenced in

December 1974, he had already been incarcerated in the county jail for more than a year - which counted toward his sentence - and had been trained and employed as the jail cook. His attorney, William Dolan, moved successfully to have him returned promptly to the county jail, as both an essential source of inmate labor and likely subject for "community-based" psychiatric counseling.

Small had never before talked about the attack for the record. She feels the system has rewarded her assailant and says that he was offered the post in Wright's office only because he needed a job for his parole.

"John Mack had no political experience" before he went to work for Jim Wright, she said. "He had no direction toward Congress. He never even went to

college. But he's got a very powerful, very important job now, and he wouldn't have it if he hadn't tried to kill me. I find that more than a little bizarre. And I can't believe the people of this country, if they knew about it, wouldn't think that's outrageous."

Although it has surfaced during Wright's current rash of problems on Capitol Hill, the story of the assault on Pamela Small encompasses a larger societal issue. And it comes at the end of a decade of multiplying state and federal legislation designed to guarantee rights and restitution to the victims of crime.

Small remains unconvinced by Mack's clean record and steady rise within the corridors of government. She cannot shake her conviction - reinforced by the detective who investigated her case - that "people who do something like that once will do it again."

To Wright and Mack, however, the story is about rehabilitation.

"When I was 19 I made a terrible, tragic mistake," Mack said. "I regret it every day. I accepted the judgment of society then and I accept it now. I have to put that behind me. All I ask is that I be judged by what I've done since in terms of trustworthiness, loyalty to my country, my family and those who depend on me."

Small remains troubled by the many questions still unanswered nearly 16 years after the crime. There has never been, for example, any satisfactory explanation for why Mack attacked her. There was no evidence of drug use and none of sexual assault.

During his sentencing hearing, Mack testified that he "just blew my cool for a second" under what his attorney portrayed as intense psychological

pressure from 72-hour workweeks and a failing three-week-old marriage. Court- appointed psychiatrists judged him sane at the time of the crime, saying he clearly knew right from wrong and understood the gravity of his act. A psychiatrist who examined him almost a year after the attack said Mack still felt he had "reacted in a way in which any man would perhaps react under similar circumstances" of pressure.

Mack was married in 1979 to his second wife, Kim, who is an executive assistant and appointments secretary to Rep. Nicholas Mavroules (D., Mass.). They live with their two young sons in suburban Virginia.

He golfs on those rare days when he's not spending 12 or 13 hours on Capitol Hill, and he is Wright's major traffic cop in the House. Mack decides which legislation to put on the agenda and which to keep off, handling major responsibilities under considerable pressure. By almost all accounts he is good at his job, dedicated and hard-working, liked and respected by both Democrats and many Republicans normally at odds with the speaker.

"There are very few staffers that are treated as colleagues by the members," Coelho said. "John Mack is one we've grown to know and trust. He knows the legislative process, and he's mastered it with long years and lots of effort. If you had to pick the top five staffers on the Hill in terms of competence, John would be on everybody's list."

In the unlikely event Wright were to let him go, Coelho said, "members would be lined up to hire him."

"This society believes in forgiveness," Coelho said.

Wright declined through his press spokesman to be interviewed for this article or to answer specific questions about any role in Mack's sentencing, imprisonment or parole. The letters he wrote on Mack's behalf, in accordance with Virginia law, remain sealed from public view as part of the presentencing report considered by the judge who presided in his case. But two years ago he told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, "I have never regretted giving John an opportunity all these years. I don't suppose anybody is immune from mistakes."

comments powered by Disqus