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Two dramatic U-turns for John Kalisz, accused in deadly Hernando County shooting rampage

Two days before authorities say John Kalisz went on a shooting rampage that left three people dead, he lost nearly all of his few possessions when his trailer caught fire.

TONY MARRERO | Times

Two days before authorities say John Kalisz went on a shooting rampage that left three people dead, he lost nearly all of his few possessions when his trailer caught fire.

BROOKSVILLE — By the time John Kalisz hit his mid 30s, his life seemed destined for an ugly ending.

A teen runaway and an alcoholic, he had racked up a dozen arrests for getting drunk and raising hell. He spent time on the streets. Then Kalisz's life took a surprising turn for the better.

About 1990, he achieved what every family member of an alcoholic prays for, said his sister, Linda Pleva.

"He stopped drinking," Pleva, who lives in Plainville, Conn., wrote in an e-mail to the St. Petersburg Times. "He became a stable, loving, deeply compassionate man who spoke continuously of helping" other alcoholics.

Kalisz worked his way from hapless drunk to stalwart Alcoholics Anonymous veteran. He started a roofing business.

Coming after such a remarkable recovery and years of sobriety, what happened next is almost impossible to fathom.

By December 2008, Kalisz had started to lose his tenuous grip on his new life. He was picked up on a weapons charge in Connecticut, and police there say Kalisz made bizarre claims about government conspiracies. He admitted telling a family member that he would shoot people before submitting to a "new world order."

And on Jan. 14, authorities say, he went on a shooting rampage, killing three people — including his own sister and a law enforcement officer — and seriously injuring two others.

• • •

John William Kalisz was born Oct. 11, 1954, and raised outside Hartford, Conn., one of seven siblings. His father, John J. Kalisz, a World War II Army veteran and carpenter, and Margaret Rutz married in 1946.

Records show Kalisz attended Farmington High in Connecticut from 1967 to 1970, but do not indicate that he graduated.

Though 5 feet 10, he went by the nickname "Shorty." One school friend called him scrappy and quick-tempered but said he was close to his family, especially his sisters. Another former classmate called him withdrawn, with a wild streak.

Friends and acquaintances said he served in the Army during the Vietnam War.

Alcohol apparently fueled his wild streak, arrest records show.

Kalisz lived in at least a half dozen states, but he spent the most time in Colorado, Connecticut and Florida. He was arrested for the first time in Florida in 1975 for petty larceny. He was 21.

By 1989, he had been arrested as many as 19 times for crimes such as disorderly conduct, public intoxication, loitering and trespassing. But there is no indication he ever spent significant time in jail.

• • •

It's unclear what prompted Kalisz to join AA. Family and friends said he was involved by the early 1990s, traveling to conventions, offering work at his small roofing business to people in the program, even lending what little money he had to those in recovery.

Daryl Burks had been living in Estes Park, Colo., about 65 miles northwest of Denver, for a few years when Kalisz started showing up in AA circles there in 1993.

Burks, 53, said Kalisz was known as Roofer John and drove around town in a pickup with a ladder on the back.

"He sort of carried that biker persona," Burks said. "He never owned a Harley, but you could hear his truck coming from a quarter mile down the road."

Kalisz was relatively new to sobriety, but eager to participate in the program, Burks said. He described Kalisz as a spirited and articulate conversationalist who said he'd found God through AA.

But he also liked to have the upper hand with people, Burks said. He might stare someone down, take a step closer during a debate and even put a finger to a person's chest.

"If you had to be the alpha dog in the group, John would have a problem with it," Burks said.

To Greg Richardson, however, Kalisz was a sincere, kind and helpful friend.

Richardson, a 37-year-old software salesman, met Kalisz in Colorado about a decade ago. When he heard about the recent shootings, Richardson at first refused to believe the news.

"My first response was, there has to be an identity mixup, because there's no way the John I knew could have done this," he said.

Kalisz could be gruff, Richardson said, but he didn't try to hide his past.

"I trusted his judgments and referred people to him, as well," he said.

• • •

Richardson's description, offered by several others who called Kalisz a friend, stands in stark contrast to the man police encountered in Connecticut and Florida in late 2008.

On Christmas Eve that year, police in Plainville — a small suburb southeast of Hartford — issued an alert saying Kalisz might be carrying weapons and that he told a sister he was planning a "shooting rampage."

Three days later, police pulled over Kalisz in Farmington. Officers found knives and fireworks, enough to take him into custody.

In a holding cell, according to a report, Kalisz told police he believed that the Federal Emergency Management Agency was building concentration camps and making millions of coffins. A "new world order" was coming, he said, and he was stockpiling money and food. He admitted telling a sister that he would rather "take other people out" than go into a FEMA concentration camp and that he had stashed guns at another sister's home near Brooksville.

By then, Hernando County authorities were looking for Kalisz, who had a trailer in a Spring Hill RV park.

Kathryn "Kitty" Donovan, a Kalisz sister who lived west of Brooksville; her daughter, Manessa; and Manessa's boyfriend, Daniel Panzini, told deputies on Dec. 19, 2008, that Kalisz had threatened Panzini with a knife on one occasion and with a metal baton on another. They said Kalisz had masturbated in front of his niece, grabbed her and left nude photos of himself in her bedroom.

Kalisz returned to Hernando in February 2009 and turned himself in to face aggravated assault and lewd and lascivious conduct charges. He was arraigned the following month and released.

His tools had recently been stolen, and he was suffering financially because of the recession, his sister said. He returned to Colorado to work. Between April and July of 2009, he was granted seven permits from the town of Estes Park for roofing work totaling $64,500. He had some minor arrests while he was there.

In October, Kalisz pleaded no contest in Hernando to charges of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and to a reduced charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Because he didn't automatically qualify for prison time and the Donovans were eager to move on, Assistant State Attorney Lisa Herndon agreed to six years of probation. But he was forbidden to contact his sister and niece.

"It seemed appropriate at the time," Herndon said. "I don't know that we could have done anything any different."

Other family members could not be reached or declined to comment for this story. Pleva, who said she was acting as a family spokeswoman, would not comment specifically on her brother's recent criminal past. To the allegations of sexual misconduct, she said, "We know there is another side to the story.

"I believe that John is a good man whose mental stability was horribly affected by a disease," she said, referring to his alcoholism.

• • •

On the evening of Jan. 12, Kalisz was in his trailer at the Holiday Springs RV Resort in Spring Hill when propane gas ignited and caused an explosion. Kalisz and a woman in the back of the older-model trailer escaped without serious injury, but he lost nearly all he had.

"John was despondent," neighbor Dick Smith said.

"He reached out for help to his AA sponsor and for whatever reason, he did not receive it," Pleva said. "He picked up a bottle of scotch."

There is no indication that Kalisz had contact with Kitty or Manessa Donovan before the shootings, Hernando Sheriff Richard Nugent said. Nor is there a clear motive, but it's likely that the legal troubles caused by their reports to authorities were a factor, Nugent said.

Two days after the RV fire, authorities say, Kalisz was in the woods near Brooksville practicing his aim. An hour later, the rampage began.

He fired about 15 rounds, officials said, killing Kitty Donovan, 61, and her 59-year-old employee, Deborah Tillotson. Manessa Donovan, now 18, and another employee in the home-based fabrics business, 33-year-old Amy Wilson, each suffered multiple gunshot wounds and are recovering. Manessa Donovan was two months pregnant and lost the fetus during surgery.

Two hours after fleeing his sister's home, Kalisz fatally shot Dixie County sheriff's Capt. Chad Reed during a gunfight in Cross City, authorities said.

As of Friday, Kalisz, 55, was in the infirmary of the Hillsborough County Jail, recovering from multiple gunshot wounds. He was indicted in Hernando County on two counts of first-degree murder, among other charges, and is expected to face first-degree murder charges in Reed's death.

Prosecutors say they will push for the death penalty.

For his family, the tragedy is compounded by the knowledge that the events of Jan. 14 will forever define him.

"It's true that his last free day was that of an unbelievably sick, monstrous and cruel man," Pleva said. "There is no excuse or justification that makes what John has done okay or understandable."

But for much of his life, she said, her brother was the man his family hoped he would become.

"He had done it and we never really understood how fragile and difficult to maintain that way of living was for him."

Times researchers Caryn Baird, Carolyn Edds, Will Gorham and Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Tony Marrero can be reached at tmarrero@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.

Two dramatic U-turns for John Kalisz, accused in deadly Hernando County shooting rampage 02/07/10 [Last modified: Monday, February 8, 2010 7:12am]
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