Dominic Combrea and Dominic Fiorentino were walking in Swissvale on the evening of February 19, 1921, when Antonio Caliendo approached them from behind and shot them both. Combrea, the target of the attack, died at the scene. That was the state’s original version of this complicated case.
The killing was reportedly a Black Hand operation, an extortion racket that proliferated among Italian immigrants in the first quarter of the twentieth century. Such rackets, in which Italian immigrant gangsters extorted primarily Italian immigrant businessmen, were active in Pittsburgh and throughout Western Pennsylvania as well as in immigrant enclaves around the country.
Caliendo, 24, who owned a Swissvale pool hall, was reportedly leading an effort to extort money for the legal defense of Italians. Apparently Combrea, an Italian immigrant steelworker, and Caliendo had argued about the issue in the past. When Caliendo saw Combrea on the street he argued with him further, then pulled out a gun and shot him multiple times. Caliendo fled the scene.
Apprehended in Chicago on June 28, Caliendo fought extradition before being returned to Pittsburgh on July 14, 1921.
At trial, Caliendo, a World War I veteran, argued self-defense, though Combrea was said to be unarmed when he was killed. He was convicted of first-degree murder on October 26, 1921, and sentenced to death.
On appeal, he again argued self-defense, an argument the court dismissed by noting that a jury had already considered it and was “not impressed” (Commonwealth v. Caliendo, 279 Pa. 293, 1924). Finding no errors, the court noted, “our function in dealing with the case is at an end.”
With significant resources behind him, Caliendo mounted a clemency campaign that, after multiple reprieves, succeeded in having his sentence commuted to life on June 25, 1924. In its recommendation, the Pardon Board reversed the state’s theory of the case in convicting Caliendo, and characterized Combrea as a Black Hand member who was extorting Caliendo.
Caliendo was transferred to Western Penitentiary.
Suggestions of corruption by organized crime interests led to an investigation in which the District Attorney disclosed that he had received information just before Caliendo’s scheduled execution that led him to believe that Caliendo was not guilty of first-degree murder and that he notified the governor of this information.
Continuing his clemency campaign, Caliendo was pardoned and released from prison on January 27, 1928. In announcing its decision, the Pardon Board stated that Combrea, a Black Hand hitman sent to kill Caliendo, was threatening him with a gun when Caliendo killed him in self-defense.
Caliendo died of heart failure in Pittsburgh on September 18, 1956. At the time of his death, he worked at Pittsburgh International Airport as a senior construction and materials inspector.