PITTSBURGH (AP) — Jim Clawson hopes that one day he will watch the last breaths of the man who killed his friend and fellow police officer 40 years ago.
Clawson has been waiting for decades to be summoned as a witness to John Lesko’s final day. He wants to be seated behind a glass window when the curtain opens, showing Lesko strapped to a gurney with a lethal injection waiting in the wings.
Lesko was sentenced to death — first in 1981 and again in 1995 after the original sentence was thrown out — for the Jan. 3, 1980, murder of Leonard C. Miller, a 21-year-old Apollo police officer. Lesko and Michael Travaglia were arrested later that day in the so-called Kill for Thrill spree in which they took four lives across the region over eight days.
Rather than being executed, it is more likely that Lesko — Pennsylvania’s longest-serving death row inmate — will die in prison by some other means.
“I just don’t think justice is being served,” said Clawson, retired Apollo police chief.
The first body was found Dec. 29, 1979.
A short news item on the front page of the next day’s Tribune-Review said a man was found dead in a wooded area near the Loyalhanna Creek reservoir. Investigators believed the man was shot twice in the back of the head and once in the chest two days earlier.
He was later identified as Peter A. Levato, 49, a night watchman from Pittsburgh’s North Side.
The next body was found Jan. 2, 1980, in a car at a parking garage in Downtown Pittsburgh.
Marlene Newcomer, 26, a single mother from Connellsville, Fayette County, was fatally shot a day earlier after picking up hitchhikers after leaving a New Year’s Eve party in Westmoreland County.
The body of church organist William Nicholls, 32, of Mt. Lebanon, previously of Irwin, was pulled from an Indiana County lake Jan. 4, the day after Miller was fatally shot during a traffic stop when he pursued a vehicle from Apollo into Oklahoma, Westmoreland County.
Police on Jan. 3 charged 21-year-olds Lesko, of Homestead, and Travaglia, of Washington Township, in the four homicides. Fifteen-year-old runaway Ricky Rutherford was arrested in connection with the deaths of Nicholls and Miller, but prosecutors dropped the charges against him after he testified against Lesko and Travaglia.
“It was obviously, for our county, the most significant criminal episode that had occurred since what they called the Turnpike Killer,” said District Attorney John Peck, referring to John Wesley Wable, who was executed in 1955 for killing a truck driver on the Pennsylvania Turnpike near Irwin and fleeing to New Mexico.
Lesko and Travaglia were convicted or entered guilty pleas in all four murders. But it was Miller’s death that landed them on death row in 1981 after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Pennsylvania’s capital punishment law. Their death warrants were among the first signed in 1985 by then-Gov. Dick Thornburgh.
Decades of waiting
Travaglia’s execution was scheduled, then stayed, four times by three different governors. He died in September 2017, at age 59, of natural causes in a Greene County state prison.
Five execution warrants have been signed, then stayed because of pending appeals, by three governors for Lesko. The now 61-year-old remains in SCI Phoenix near Philadelphia.
Former Gov. Tom Corbett signed 48 death warrants between 2011 and 2015, including one for Lesko and two for Travaglia. The state general counsel reviewed each case file and then brought him a summary and recommendation, Corbett said. It’s frustrating to him that the sentences have yet to be carried out.
“That was a well-known case,” Corbett said. “When the file came to me, it didn’t take me very long.”
If the governor opts not to sign a death warrant, the task falls to the department of corrections secretary.
That has been the case during Gov. Tom Wolf’s tenure since 2015, according to department records. Wolf placed a moratorium on executions that year while waiting for state lawmakers to investigate the effectiveness of capital punishment and make recommendations for changes.
Pennsylvania has not carried out an execution since 1999.
In the years since Lesko and Travaglia were sentenced, 190 death row inmates had sentences reduced to life in prison, 21 were resentenced to lesser terms, 10 had their sentences vacated, 33 died of natural causes and three committed suicide, according to the state Department of Corrections. Fifteen inmates are awaiting resentencing.
Across the country, seven states executed 22 prisoners in 2019. That was the second-lowest number since 1973, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Nearly 100 inmates were executed in the late 1990s, the highest total nationwide. About 1,500 executions have taken place across the country since 1981.
Pennsylvania has the nation’s fifth-largest death row population with 134 men, according to the center.
It cost $2.5 million to house Lesko and Travaglia on death row between 1981 to 2017, according to information from the state Department of Corrections. Their cases cost Westmoreland County nearly $230,000 in fees for attorneys, experts and transcripts between 1981 to 1996 and 2003 to 2007. An appeal Travaglia filed in 2013 resulted in an additional $20,000 in attorneys fees billed to the county.
Peck has been prosecuting the cases since 1985. Newcomer’s son, who was 6 at the time of the killings, has attended some of the more recent court hearings for the men, Peck said.
“Obviously, this has been extremely difficult for the families of the victims just because of the extreme length of this,” he said.
Tim Geary initially expected both men would be executed in about 10 years.
He and Donetta Ambrose, now a senior federal judge in Pittsburgh, prosecuted three of the four deaths as young assistant district attorneys in Westmoreland County. The pair secured the original death sentences in 1981.
Geary, now retired, felt the decision then by the district attorney to seek the death penalty was appropriate. He joined a county detective at the scene of Miller’s death.
“I was not until then in favor of the death penalty,” said Geary of Fox Chapel. “When I saw Leonard on the ground, I thought the police are the last line of defense. … There has to be some additional protection to them when they’re killed in the line of duty.”
It’s frustrating to him that the sentence has not been carried out.
“For all the time and all the effort that’s been put in the case, I didn’t think for one minute they didn’t deserve the death penalty,” he said.
After a jury from Berks County sentenced the two men to death, Geary said Travaglia threatened him. Lesko said he had a better chance of being hit by a car, Geary recalled.
“As it turns out, he was right,” Geary said.
Miller’s death still stirs up emotions in those who knew him.
Bill Kerr was finishing up a term as Apollo mayor and transitioning to his new elected post as Armstrong County commissioner when the officer was killed. He can recount every detail of that night, down to what Miller said over the radio as his killers fled in Nicholls’ Lancia sports car: “They shot me twice.”
Kerr has an instant flashback when he travels the bridge that connects Apollo with Westmoreland County and past the spot where Miller was shot near the now-demolished Belvedere Hotel.
“I think in those initial years, many of us favored the death penalty,” he said. “I think that I have since then rethought that maybe time heals.”
“Let them just have a life sentence and let them sit there and reflect upon what they did,” Kerr said. “I think justice was served. I don’t think we’re going to see John Lesko executed in any way.”
Mark Fetterman, then an Apollo councilman who had been elected mayor, sometimes wonders what Levato, Newcomer, Nicholls and Miller could have done with their lives, had they not been cut short.
“They ended four peoples’ lives for no apparent reason other than driven by sheer evil,” said Fetterman of Parks Township, Armstrong County.
He said the killers were prime candidates for the death penalty, but the delay in execution makes him wonder about the criminal justice system.
“Forty years later, and we’re still talking about whether they should be put to death,” he said.
Kerr and Clawson organize a memorial service every five years for Miller, who remains a presence in the small community. On Jan. 19, he was tol be remembered at a 2 p.m. service in Apollo First Lutheran Church.
The municipal building moved into a former youth home that bears Miller’s name. A portrait of him hangs inside. A monument stands on the Apollo side of the bridge honoring his sacrifice. A scholarship in his name at Apollo-Ridge High School is awarded to a senior planning to major in criminal justice.
His friends described him as a jovial man who was well-respected in the community and connected easily with young people. Clawson became police chief a few months after Miller’s death.
The years have not washed away the memories for him, Kerr or Fetterman.
“It still hurts me, it still hurts,” Clawson said.
There are still people in Apollo who lived it, just like they did, but those numbers are dwindling. Clawson chatted about Miller with someone the week before Christmas.
“The police today are targeted and it’s something that has to set a precedent, that something has to be done to somehow deter these cop killings,” he said. “Hopefully, the justice system will, at some point, wake up.”
‘Kill for Thrill’ timeline
Dec. 27, 1979: Peter Levato, 49, of the North Side was carjacked by John Lesko and Michael Travaglia, both 21, in an alley behind the old Edison Hotel, a seedy Downtown Pittsburgh nightspot frequented by pimps and prostitutes. They forced Levato into the trunk of his car and drove to Loyalhanna Dam where they shot him.
Jan. 1, 1980: Marlene Sue Newcomer, 26, of Connellsville left a New Year's Eve party in Vandergrift, picked up the men while they were hitchhiking on Route 66 near Mamont about 1:30 a.m. and offered them a ride. They handcuffed her and took her car, driving to Indiana County where they held up a convenience store. They shot Newcomer and left her body in her car at a Pittsburgh parking garage.
Jan. 2, 1980: William Nicholls, 32, of Mt. Lebanon, who had just bought an Italian Lancia sports car, met Travaglia at the Edison Hotel. He lured the former Irwin man outside where they took his car, beat and tortured him. They dumped his body in Blue Spruce Lake in Indiana County. Nicholls was bound, gagged and tied to a large stone before being dropped into the icy lake.
Jan. 3, 1980: While returning from Indiana County, the pair passed Apollo Officer Leonard C. Miller, 21. They sped by several times, luring the policeman into a chase that ended with him being fatally shot just over the county border into Oklahoma, Westmoreland County. Miller had become a full-time officer with the department three days earlier.
Later that day, Travaglia and Lesko were arrested.
Feb. 1981: Lesko and Travaglia were sentenced to death by a Westmoreland County jury.
Aug. 1985: Execution warrants signed for Lesko and Travaglia.
Nov. 1985: Both executions stayed.
May 1986: Lesko's second death warrant is signed.
June 1986: Lesko's execution is stayed.
June 1990: Travaglia's second death warrant is signed.
Sept. 1990: Travaglia's execution is stayed.
1991: Lesko's death sentence is vacated by an appeals court.
1995: Lesko is resentenced to death by a jury.
1996: Travaglia's death sentence is vacated by an appeals court.
Sept. 1998: Lesko's third death warrant is signed.
Nov. 1998: Lesko's execution is stayed.
Jan. 1999: Lesko's fourth death warrant is signed.
Feb. 1999: Lesko's execution is stayed.
2005: Travaglia is resentenced to death by a jury.
Sept. 2011: Lesko's fifth death warrant is signed and execution is stayed.
July 2012: Travaglia's third death warrant is signed and stayed.
Feb. 2013: Travaglia's fourth death warrant is signed.
March 2013: Travaglia's execution is stayed.
Sept. 4, 2017: Travaglia dies on death row of natural causes at age 59.
Dec. 30, 2019: Lesko remains on death row with pending appeals.
© 2020 © 2020 Cox Media Group