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Corderman bombing still unsolved

December 18, 1999|By MARLO BARNHART

Ten years ago this week, a pipe bomb explosion in Hagerstown fixed the nation's attention on this community and one man, then-Washington County Circuit Court Judge John P. Corderman.

Since then, the criminal investigation into the attempted murder of a sitting Maryland judge seems to have faltered.

"I'm disappointed that nobody in law enforcement seems interested in pursuing what I'm seeing as an attempted murder investigation," Corderman said recently from his private law offices in the Hagerstown Public Square.

Now 57 and still bearing the scars of that day - Dec. 22, 1989 - Corderman said his greatest regret is that the case was never solved.

On that afternoon just three days before Christmas, Corderman opened a package containing four pipe bombs that had been mailed to him at his then-Summit Avenue apartment.

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Not all the bombs detonated, but the ones that did caused a lot of damage in a very confined space of that small apartment.

"I was there ... I saw that destruction," Corderman said. "There was shrapnel all over the walls."

From the first day, Corderman was serene in his belief he had lived through the blast by the grace of God.

"Luck had nothing to do with this," he said, convinced that God had more plans for him.

Abdominal and hand wounds healed quickly, but the explosion permanently damaged his hearing.

"I have a ringing in my ears all the time," Corderman said. "It affects my ability to concentrate and I get easily frustrated and distracted."

That condition forced him to step down from the bench in 1993 under a medical disability that awarded him just under $60,000 a year - two-thirds of his judicial salary.

Corderman said he is philosophical about his fate. "Most days, the ringing in my ears is a gentle reminder that I'm glad to be alive," he said.

Corderman describes the last 10 years of his life as very interesting and he's looking forward to more.

"Something that was meant for evil that day turned out very differently," he said.

In the years since the blast, Corderman became a member of the American Bar Association board of governors, a highly prestigious honor.

And in 1996, he was chosen to be the attorney general of Palau, a small island nation in the western Pacific Ocean. Looking for a change of pace, Corderman answered an ad that said "Be a lawyer in paradise."

He and his wife, Ann, pulled up stakes in Hagerstown and headed for that paradise. But the adventure was short-lived.

Fired from that post a year later, Corderman said he was the victim of political turmoil stemming from his investigation into government corruption on the islands.

Back home, Corderman resumed his law practice and took a brief stab at politics again, running unsuccessfully as a Republican for a seat on the Washington County Commissioners a year ago.

Since then, Corderman has been practicing law and enjoying his family. But the open end of the bombing investigation is no less troubling as time passes.

Initially investigated by the U.S. Postal Service, the FBI, Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and local police, the probe into identifying and prosecuting the bomber stalled after about two years.

Then in 1991, chief Postal Inspector Doug Ostwalt and his task force came across a piece of information.

In an interview five years ago from his current office in Louisville, Ky., Ostwalt said the U.S. attorney at that time said the information couldn't be used. Ostwalt wouldn't elaborate then.

At that point, the task force was disbanded and people were reassigned.

Ostwalt said in that 1994 telephone interview there was no doubt in his mind who sent Corderman the bomb.

"If we had stayed with it a few more months, I think we would have had enough to charge someone," Ostwalt said five years ago.

Ostwalt is still assigned to the Louisville office, His answering machine said he is on an extended investigation in St. Louis, Mo.

"There just doesn't seem to be a person in Hagerstown who seems to care," Corderman said. "I don't understand that ... we investigate a lot of other things."

Lt. Gary Spielman of the Hagerstown City Police said the Corderman bombing is still considered an open case.

"If we get information on the case, we forward it to the U.S. Postal Service. And as recently as this year, we have done that," Spielman said.

Spielman, then a patrol officer, was not a part of the local police team that investigated the case 10 years ago. But he knows the case was turned over to federal authorities and that status hasn't changed.

"When we turn an investigation over to another agency, it's their investigation," Spielman said.

As another Christmas approaches, Corderman plans to enjoy the holidays with his family.

Ann Corderman, a veteran teacher, is a reading specialist at Pangborn Elementary School.

The Cordermans' daughter, Elizabeth, works for NASA's Goddard Space Center near Washington. Their elder son, Robert, is in the computer field in New York City while the youngest, Paul, is a student at the University of Maryland.

"I'm enjoying my private practice," Corderman said. "Basically I'm trying to make bad situations better for people. But if I can't help them, I try not to hurt them."

Personally and professionally, Corderman describes himself as immensely grateful for the past 10 years. And he's looking forward to what the future holds.

"I certainly don't recommend this as a learning experience," Corderman said. "But it does make it much easier to live one day at a time."

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