The same summer that Dunmore, Rowland, Brown, and Russell committed felony murders for which they would be sentenced to death, Steve Ferko killed Rachel (Warshawski) Bress as she was working in her family’s grocery store in Willock, a small coal mining town south of Pittsburgh.
It was after 10 pm on August 26, 1918. The robbery yielded only a few dollars but cost Bress her life.
While Ferko’s race and religiosity were likely central to him being spared execution for a felony murder in which his guilt was not in doubt, the other four men, all Black, were executed as racial animus escalated amidst increased Black migration.
Bress, her husband, Max, and their four children had immigrated from Russia in 1906, as the civil unrest that would culminate in the Russian Revolution was escalating.
Ferko, a Hungarian-immigrant former coalminer who was familiar with the area, and George Elias, who roomed together in Pittsburgh, were apprehended soon after the shooting. Money from the store cash register was found in their possession. They confessed to police, with Ferko admitting to being the shooter.
At trial, Elias was acquitted after the jury credited his claims that Ferko had forced him to participate in the robbery and had fired the fatal shot. Ferko was convicted of first-degree murder on May 21, 1919, and sentenced to death on October 20, 1919.
On December 31, 1920, Ferko’s conviction was reversed on appeal (Commonwealth v. Ferko, 269 PA. 39, 1920) after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the jury had been misinstructed that felony murder was necessarily first-degree murder. The statute empowers the jury to fix the degree of murder and requires that the jury be read this instruction.
On retrial, Ferko was again convicted of first-degree murder on June 10, 1921, and sentenced to death on January 12, 1922.
With a letter of support from his trial jury and a statement from his original attorney that the District Attorney was willing to accept a plea to second-degree murder in the second trial, the Pardon Board commuted his death sentence to life imprisonment in Western Penitentiary on April 20, 1922.
Ferko sought a pardon more than ten times before being paroled on November 21, 1938. He was released from parole in 1950. Throughout his efforts to obtain release, Ferko emphasized his strong Christian faith and his intention to go into ministry. Upon release, he did so, and gained recognition for his ministry over the remainder of his life.
Steve Ferko died in San Bernardino, California, on November 27, 1976. He was 82 years old. Max Bress died in Pittsburgh in 1959.