In a continuation of Black Hand-related violence, brothers Charles and Joseph Russogulo, their step-brother, Jack Guastaferro, and step-father, Angelo Guastaferro, killed John Cappa outside their 1019 Reedsdale St., North Side home on May 2, 1917.
The killing occurred in reprisal for an attack by Cappa and another man, John Lapaglia, in which they attempted to extort the group.
All of those involved in the incident were Italian immigrants from Sicily. Charles Russogulo was 22 years old; his brother, Joseph, was 20. Jack Guastaferro was only 17; probably the youngest person ever sentenced to death in Allegheny County.
The four men were tried together. At trial, the state claimed the defendants formed the core of an active and violent criminal organization.
The defendants claimed they acted in self-defense against the violent extortion attempt of Cappa and Lapaglia. Their defense was weakened by evidence that they had retreated into their home after the initial encounter and had shot Cappa through the window.
The three younger men were convicted of first-degree murder on November 28, 1917, and sentenced to death on April 5, 1918. Angelo Guastaferro was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 12 years in prison.
The defendants’ combined appeal, which argued a series of minor points related to the jury instructions, was rejected (Commonwealth v. Russogulo, 263 Pa. 93) in January 1919. In unusually plain language, the Court wrote “the jury were entirely justified in finding all four defendants participated in the actual shooting of John Cappa, and that the killing of the latter was an inexcusable cold-blooded murder. Angelo Guastaferra is fortunate that he, too, was not convicted of murder of the first-degree; none of the defendants can properly complain of the trial.”
After a clemency request that characterized the defendants as hardworking and reputable immigrants being extorted by a violent gang, the Pardon Board recommended that their death sentences be commuted to life imprisonment in February 1919.
Governor Sproul signed the order on March 14, 1919. The three men were transferred to Western Penitentiary.
Their legal efforts to reverse their convictions continued, with some success. Charles Russogulo was pardoned by the state pardon board on September 13, 1935. He moved back to his family’s North Side home, not far from Western Penitentiary, and worked in construction.
While serving his life sentence, Joseph Russogulo was declared insane and transferred to Farview State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. He died there on January 17, 1945.
Jack Guastaferro was released from prison sometime before 1940. He went on to work in the steel industry and live on the North Side. He died on April 21, 1970.
John Lapaglia rose to greater prominence in Pittsburgh’s underworld during Prohibition, only to be murdered in more Black Hand violence on October 18, 1924.
On November 14, 1927, at Equitable Gas Company’s storage facility very near the site of Cappa’s murder, the largest natural gas storage tank in the world exploded. Twenty-eight people were killed.
The site is now the location of Rivers Casino.