Philip Flynn was tending bar at the Hotel O’Connor on Frankstown Avenue in East Pittsburgh when it was robbed by three masked members of the infamous “Blue Bandana” gang on September 14, 1923.
After refusing the demand for money, Flynn was shot in the stomach. The assailants fled. The robbery was part of a crime spree.
Flynn died on September 18, 1923.
Albert Carelli, an 18-year old member of the gang whose already impressive criminal record began at age 12, was caught in a police dragnet and arrested for shooting Flynn. So began one of the longest and strangest capital cases in the annals of Allegheny County.
Also arrested were Raymond Dugan and George Thompson. Police claimed the three young men confessed to the murder and reenacted the scene for police. The men claimed they were beaten and coerced.
At trial, Carelli denied any involvement in the Flynn case, claiming instead he was beaten into confessing and that he was in Burton, Ohio, at the time of Flynn’s death. That claim was supported by a relative whose home Carelli said he was visiting and a number of others from that area.
Carelli, who was tried first, was convicted of first-degree murder on March 17, 1924. Thompson was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and Dugan was convicted of second-degree murder. After his motion for a new trial was rejected, Carelli was sentenced to death on June 24, 1924. He maintained his innocence throughout the case.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld Carelli’s conviction and death sentence on January 5, 1925, leaning on Carelli’s confession to support its conclusion (Commonwealth v. Carelli, 281 Pa. 602).
The Pardon Board viewed the matter differently. Relying on Carelli’s youth, his clean record (stating he was “never before charged with or convicted of crime”), and affidavits of Ohio residents stating that Carelli was there when Flynn was killed, the board commuted Carelli’s death sentence to life imprisonment on March 18, 1925. His custody was transferred to Western Penitentiary.
A few weeks later, on April 14, 1925, Carelli, along with his confederates Dugan and Thompson, pleaded guilty to five charges of robbery and three charges of larceny related to their involvement in the Blue Bandana Gang. Sentences for those offenses were suspended due to Carelli’s life imprisonment.
Six months later, Carelli was pardoned by Governor Pinchot after the secretary of the Pardon Board traveled to Burton to verify Carelli’s alibi. He was released from prison on October 2, 1925.
The day after his pardon, news reports indicated Carelli was attempting to flee to Italy to escape sentencing for his suspended robbery and larceny convictions. A massive police search was launched, but was unsuccessful.
After Carelli was arrested in connection with a robbery and shooting in Cleveland in January 1926, he fought extradition all the way to the United States Supreme Court. Returned to Pittsburgh, he was sentenced to 28 to 56 years in prison for robbery on October 21, 1926. His appeal of that sentence, which argued that the court lacked the authority to reimpose sentences that previously had been suspended, was rejected (Commonwealth v. Carelli, 90 Pa. Super. 416, 1927).
With the support of prominent Pittsburgh attorney, Michael A. Musmanno, and newspaperman, Ray Sprigle, a second pardon effort was mounted in 1934. That effort achieved some success in 1935 when Carelli’s sentence was commuted from 28 to 56 years to a minimum of 11 years. Pennsylvania Attorney General Charles J. Margiotti expressed strong opposition to any additional leniency for Carelli, declaring “his  pardon was a great miscarriage of justice, the greatest ever perpetrated in this state” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 22, 1935). Carelli was paroled in 1938.
After avoiding conviction on federal counterfeiting charges in 1942, Carelli was convicted of burglary in 1945 and sentenced to 3 to 6 years in prison after being arrested for stealing tires from a service station.
That sentence was supplemented by the violation of his 1938 parole, extending Carelli’s prison term until he was paroled again on December 1, 1952. A 1955 commutation prevented Carelli from returning to prison for a parole violation if he were to be arrested again.
So ended Carelli’s long criminal career, but not the debate over whether he was a small-time offender caught up in a series of mistakes and frame-ups or a serial and violent robber and killer able to persuade powerful people of his innocence.