The Secret Crimes of Joseph Wojtcziak
|Downtown Hazleton as it appeared in the 1920s.|
It was shortly before 3 o'clock on the afternoon of Monday, April 29, 1935, when Joseph Petrilla, an employee of the Hazle Drug Company, decided to take a shortcut on his walk home by cutting through a wooded area of Hazleton Heights. Had Petrilla taken his usual route he would not have discovered the dead woman's body. And if Petrilla had not discovered the woman's body, the story of one of Hazleton's most shocking crimes would have died with the man who committed them.
Petrilla was walking along a path when he made the shocking discovery, about one hundred feet east of the intersection of Samuels Avenue and Mill Street, near the present site of Heights Terrace Elementary School. The woman, who appeared to be between forty and fifty years of age, was clad entirely in black-- from her coat and hat to her shoes and dress. Petrilla found a purse by her side, containing one penny, a few Rosary beads, and an old envelope addressed to St John's Greek Catholic Church in Hazleton. Considering that the body was found not far from St. Gabriel's Cemetery, it appeared the unfortunate woman had attended a funeral before her demise. From what Petrilla could tell, the woman had died of natural causes.
Deputy Coroner Michael Ferrari arrived at the same conclusion after examining the body, which had been taken to the morgue of Undertaker Frank Bonin on North Wyoming Street. No marks of violence could be detected and no evidence of foul play could be seen, leading the deputy coroner to conclude that the middle-aged woman had died from a heart attack. The only injuries were a few scratches on the neck, which Ferrari believed had been caused by twigs and branches as she fell to the ground.
John Dando, the Assistant District Attorney, had his doubts, however. There was just something about those marks on the dead woman's neck that made him suspicious. After the body was identified as being that of Mrs. Joseph Wojtcziak, Dando ordered a police investigation. Officers found a three foot long rope which had been carelessly discarded near the Wojtcziak home on Peace Street, doubled up, knotted and twisted. Officers also interviewed neighbors, who had overheard Joseph Wojtcziak yelling at his wife two weeks earlier. One of them said Joseph had shouted, "I'm tired of having you around and I'm going to find a way to get rid of you."
|The Wojtcziak home at 999 Peace Street (right) as it appears today.|
Mrs. Wojtcziak was last seen by her children on the morning of her death, leaving the house to go to church. Her eleven-year-old daughter had wanted to go with her, but her father protested vehemently. Did this suggest that Wojtcziak had already made up his mind to murder his wife? This was of utmost importance to Dando, since it meant the difference between cold-blooded premeditated murder and a hot-headed crime of passion or an act of revenge, and from the prosecutor's point of view, it meant the difference between involuntary manslaughter and first degree murder. Dando realized that, in order to get a conviction, these wrinkles in the investigation needed to be ironed out.
It was obvious to authorities that the husband was the most likely culprit, but before an arrest could be made Dando wanted to discover a motive. The case was turned over to Captain Clark of the State Police, who learned that Mrs. Wojtcziak owned a small property across the street from their home on Peace Street. Joseph Wojtcziak had been named as the beneficiary of her life insurance policy, and county detectives Michael Picciano and Milo Butts did a little math and discovered Joseph would have stood to gain approximately $5,000 from his wife's death.
Meanwhile, Sergeant Enoch and Private Bohr of the State Police decided to look into Joseph Wojtcziak's past. And what they uncovered chilled the assistant district attorney to the bone.
Six years earlier Joseph Wojtcziak had been living on a farm in the Butler Valley village of Kis-Lyn with his first wife, Helen, and their four sons. On July 12, 1930, Helen died tragically after falling from a cherry tree. The Hazleton Standard-Speaker stated that "she was out on a large limb thirty feet above the ground when she fell. She landed on a stone wall, suffering a crushed face and broken neck." Her life had been insured for $3,000.
Just one year earlier their nine-year-old-son, Walter, had also died tragically--- after falling from the same cherry tree. Walter's life had been insured for $1,000.
From the start of the investigation authorities had suspected that Wojtcziak might be a killer, but now, armed with this new information, they were certain that Wojtcziak was a monster. He was arrested on the morning of May 1, 1935, and placed in a cell at the city jail.
What happened over the next few hours is anyone's guess, but the prisoner most certainly must have felt his world collapsing around him. Surely the ghosts of his past-- the first wife whose skull he had bashed to a pulp, the young son he had killed for financial gain-- tormented him inside the dark, dusty holding cell from which there was no escape.
Just a few hours later, shortly after four o'clock in the afternoon, County Detective Michael Picciano arrived at the city jail to question Wojtcziak. The detective was taken to the holding cell by the desk sergeant, Louis Broadt. Inside the cell they found the monster dead. He had taken his own life by removing his shirt, twisting it into a rope, and hanging himself from the bars of the cell door.
According to newspaper reports, the killer's two surviving sons, Clement and Chester, arrived from Philadelphia to claim the body, and were startled when they were informed by investigators that their father had also taken out life insurance policies on both of them-- naming himself the sole beneficiary.
Hazleton Standard-Speaker, July 14, 1930.
Hazleton Standard-Speaker, April 30, 1935.
Hazleton Standard-Speaker, May 2, 1935.