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The Broad Mountain Mystery (Part 2 of 3)

Capt. Samuel Gearhart, who helmed the Broad Mountain investigation


On April 28, one local newspapers made a bold claim-- that the Broad Mountain victim was indeed Lillian Tyler. The Mount Carmel Daily News reported that Lieutenant Carlson, who claimed to have found the missing girl working as a waitress in Detroit, did not actually see Lillian or speak to her. Neither did Mrs. Davis, who accompanied the trooper to Detroit. It was widely reported that the searchers had returned to Pennsylvania empty-handed, and had based their findings on third-party information. This conflicted with the reporting of the borough's other newspaper, which held fast to the story that Carlson and Davis had actually met and talked to Lillian Tyler in Detroit.

Things were also getting out of hand in Indiana, as authorities tried to solve a strikingly similar murder in Chesterton. After Margaret Bishop (initially identified as the victim) was found alive and well, the charred body was positively identified by relatives as that of Lucille Sweeney. And, in yet another bizarre coincidence, the alleged victim's mother received a mysterious letter in the mail shortly after the incident, purporting to be from the missing daughter. The letter had been sent from Farina, Illinois.

On May 1, things took yet another strange turn-- in both murder investigations.

Early in the day, authorities from Gary, Indiana, announced that the charred victim in Chesterton was 24-year-old Josephine Desidera, a mother of three and wife of Luis Desidera. The Gary police issued a warrant for his arrest. Later that same day Josephine Desidera was found alive. Like their colleages in Pennsylvania, the Indiana authorities were back to square one. 

On the very same day, a Detroit newspaper printed a story reporting that Lillian Tyler, 16, walked into police headquarters on Saturday and turned herself in to federal authorities.



The Feds Get Involved

On May 2, 1925, Mary Elizabeth O'Connor received a telegram from a probation officer of the federal court in Detroit. The telegram stated that Lillian Tyler was being held for questioning and would be returned to Pennsylvania. According to Claire M. Sanders, the chief probation officer, Lillian turned herself in after her husband, Stanley Bielicki, deserted her. She was being held in Detroit as a witness on a white slavery charge against Bielicki, who had disappeared and was being sought by Michigan authorities.

When asked about this development by the Mount Carmel Daily News, the Pennsylvania State Police reiterated their belief that the Broad Mountain murder victim was indeed Lillian Tyler. It appeared that even the state's top lawmen were ready to throw in the towel. Whether Lillian was alive in Detroit or dead in Schuylkill County made no difference; they were ready to put the matter to bed once and for all-- whether the evidence supported their claim or not. There was just one hitch in this plan; on June 29, Detroit authorities allowed Lillian to travel to Shamokin in order to attend her brother's funeral. The Lillian Tyler who came to Shamokin from Detroit was indeed the very same Lillian Tyler who had left Shamokin to go to Detroit. And, as if to finally put to rest the still-lingering rumors that the murder victim really was Lillian, the Mount Carmel Item published the following report on July 3:

"Miss Lillian Tyler visited the State Hospital at Fountain Springs and called on Dr. Robert Spencer. She made the call to show them that it was not her head from the Broad Mountain murder mystery that is being kept in a jar there."


The reasoning behind the state police's reluctance to continue with the Broad Mountain investigation had nothing to do with incompetence or negligence, however. The reality of the situation was that there were other serious crimes that required their attention and manpower: There was the matter of a 4-month-old baby stabbed to death with an ice pick near Shamokin, and the deaths of several local residents who, after purchasing moonshine, suffered internal burns so severe that they died before they could get to the hospital. And then there was the matter of Louis Muff, owner of the notorious Sunset Inn where sixteen-year-old Lillian Tyler first became schooled in the craft of prostitution. It seemed that all of the witnesses who were slated to testify against Muff in a separate criminal case had mysteriously "vanished".


The Man With the Red Moustache

On November 10, Capt. Gearhart of the Reading barracks of the Pennsylvania State Police announced that a major breakthrough had occurred and that the Broad Mountain murder investigation would be re-opened. Rumors circulated that the key to solving the mystery was "a man with a red moustache", although authorities denied having any knowledge of this person. They also denied rumors that the charred victim was a missing girl from Camden. Locals were kept in suspense; it appeared the state police didn't want to tip their hand. Two days later, Captain Gearhart finally issued a statement:

"This new information, which has been received by the State Police, appears by far the most promising information which we have had. It is too early to talk about it, but we feel encouraged and unless all signs fail, we hope that we are on the right track and will be able to solve the Broad Mountain murder mystery."
 
State Police never disclosed what this new information consisted of, but it evidently turned out to be yet one more false lead.

The vast depth of the criminal network responsible for the unsolved murder was revealed a few weeks later after things took a violent turn for the worse.

On November 30, Michael Joseph of Mount Carmel went to Centralia to inform the deputy sheriff of Columbia County, Bernard McGinley, that he had in his possession a letter that would finally clear up the Broad Mountain mystery. After reading the contents of the letter, McGinley asked Joseph to go with him to see Justice of the Peace Gerrity. Like Michael Joseph, the deputy sheriff was convinced that the letter was of vital importance to the investigation.

Just as the two men were leaving the office, a man named Adam Clover raced up to them, warning the men that four suspicious men had just arrived in Centralia. They were armed. Acting on Clover's information, McGinley located and arrested one of the armed strangers, and the party headed for Justice Gerrity's office. Unbeknownst to Deputy Sheriff McGinley, Michael Joseph and Adam Clover, the party was being trailed by the three remaining outlaws.

The ambush took place just outside of McGinley's Centralia office at 11:45 pm. As McGinley drew his revolver to return fire, his prisoner escaped. In the fusillade of gunshots that followed, McGinley was shot twice in the right hand. Adam Clover was shot through the back. William Kapleneas, one of the gunmen, was shot through the right shoulder. Two of the gunmen, Joseph Yetsko and Steve Lucas, were later captured and arrested. The prevailing theory was that the four gunmen had been dispatched to Centralia in order to prevent Michael Joseph from delivering his letter to authorities.


A Political Cover-Up?

State troopers arrived in Centralia to question Yetsko and Lucas. The grilling failed to yield any useful information. Like many coal region outlaws, Yetsko and Lucas were well-trained in the art of keeping their mouths shut. It was common knowledge that the two young men were frequent visitors to the Sunset Inn in Numidia, but that was about the only thing anyone knew for sure. Word out of Bloomsburg was that one of the two men had confessed to the Broad Mountain murder. A signed confession was said to be in the possession of District Attorney Stees of Columbia County. Stees, of course, denied this rumor and refused to divulge any information pertaining to Yetsko and Lucas.

The Pennsylvania State Police also kept their lips sealed. The admitted to having in their possession the mysterious letter Michael Joseph and Deputy Sheriff McGinley had attempted to deliver to Justice Gerrity, but hinted that the letter contained little information of relevance. Furthermore, they dismissed Michael Joseph as "mentally deranged". This, of course, fails to explain why four armed men had followed him to Centralia. Or why those four gunmen ambushed Joseph and a deputy sheriff. Perhaps the State Police thought it was all just a minor coincidence.

On December 4, Michael Joseph was conveniently committed to Danville State Hospital by Overseer of the Poor Howard Staller.


The Legacy of the Broad Mountain Murder Mystery

While the identity of the Broad Mountain murder victim has never been ascertained and the killer never caught, the mammoth investigation did result in a small measure of justice. The federal probe into the matter uncovered a far-reaching network of white slavery in Schuylkill and Northumberland counties, as well as neighboring Columbia County, the home of the Sunset Inn.

It was determined that this criminal network was responsible for the disappearance of dozens of young women in the area, and that its operations extended to Chicago, Detroit, New York, Philadelphia, Paterson and Elizabeth, New Jersey.

In the first year of the investigation alone, 175 different leads were pursued, and reports of more than 60 missing girls were looked into. As late as 1932-- seven years after the discovery of the charred remains-- there was at least one full-time detective in charge of running down leads connected to the crime. As late as 1937, Dr. Spencer kept the preserved head of the victim available for inspection at the Fountain Springs Hospital in the hopes that the victim would be identified.


The Mystery Remains Unsolved

Thanks to the efforts of federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, the probe into the illicit affairs of the Sunset Inn and other houses of prostitution uncovered the whereabouts of numerous women and girls who had been reported as missing. However, there were many young women linked to the white slavery ring who were never found or heard from again, many of whom fit the description of the Broad Mountain victim.

Marie Sheldon, 16, originally from Wilkes-Barre, was reported as missing shortly before the discovery of the murder took place. Sheldon was employed by a Pottsville restaurant and was romantically linked to the owner of several Schuylkill County roadhouses. Like the murder victim, Sheldon had also undergone a surgical operation of the stomach. She was of the same height, age and build of the murder victim. Agnes Trefsgar (Sahm), a former friend who viewed the remains of the murder victim, insisted that it was Sheldon. Her description of Sheldon, however, did not coincide with measurements taken by Dr. Spencer during the autopsy and the matter was dropped. But could it have been possible that Agnes Trefsgar was wrong in her description? How many people can provide accurate physical dimensions of a friend from memory?

In July of 1925, a missing persons report out of New York City caught the attention of Dr. Spencer. Although the missing woman was unnamed, a detailed description of physical characteristics was published in several New York papers. Spencer noted that there were many similarities in the shape of the skull between the missing New Yorker and the Broad Mountain victim. Another interesting coincidence was that the missing girl from New York had recently purchased a train ticket to the coal region.

Another "positive identification" was made on August 19, 1925, when Mrs. James Schwartz of Pottsville viewed the remains at Fountain Springs and concluded that the victim was her own daughter, Marie Cataline. Both women had a gold filling in the same tooth. The missing woman also had a red hat, similar to the one found by police near the charred body. Mrs. Schwartz told police that her daughter had disappeared on March 6. The mother reversed her opinion a week later, after her twelve-year-old son was attacked in the woods and threatened by an unidentified male armed with a stiletto. The attacker warned Edward Schwartz that he was "talking too much" about Marie's disappearance. The attacker fled when the boy's cries aroused the attention of nearby railroad workers. The missing woman's husband, Alfred Catalina, also viewed the remains but said that they were not those of Marie. According to Mr. Catalina, Marie had run off with another man. Marie Catalina was located in New York in September, thus corroborating Alfred's story. But if Marie was alive, why was Mrs. Schwartz's son threatened with a knife? And who threatened him?

In all likelihood, the true identity of the killer as well as the victim will never be known. But one thing remains clear: the white slavery ring based out of Numidia's Sunset Inn was far-reaching, and likely included organized crime networks extending from New York to Chicago and probably also included scores of local politicians and police officers who would prefer that the mystery remained forever unsolved. Considering the legacy of corruption and conspiracy which has marred the surface of Northumberland, Schuylkill and Columbia counties during the Coal Region's tumultuous history, one can only wonder how much of the story never became disclosed to the public: The contents of Michael Joseph's letter, believed by Deputy Sheriff McGinley to be of utmost importance, is just one example.

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