John H. Vasbinder, Jr. (alias Jack Bussinger) was a 22-year old with a long record of petty offenses when he shot and killed Stephen Yelich as part of a robbery on Jerome St. in McKeesport on March 7, 1926.
Yelich, a Croatian-born Duquesne steelworker, was reported to have told Vasbinder to get a job if he wanted money, perhaps provoking Vasbinder to shoot him. Yelich’s two companions grabbed Vasbinder, who was able to escape. Subsequent newspaper accounts characterized Vasbinder as a drug fiend trying to get money for a fix.
Vasbinder was arrested at the Clarion County Jail two months later, on May 6, 1926, where he was being held in connection with the robbery of a candy store in Parkers Landing, Pa.
He had tried to escape from the jail. The Pittsburgh Press account of the escape attempt alerted law enforcement to Vasbinder’s whereabouts.
At trial, Vasbinder claimed the gun discharged accidentally during an altercation with Yelich. He was found guilty of first-degree murder on November 24, 1926, and sentenced to death on April 20, 1927.
In jail, Vasbinder became acquainted with noted gangster Paul Jaworski, who had recently been convicted of first-degree murder. With the outside assistance of Jaworski’s brother, Sam, the pair broke out of Allegheny County Jail on August 18, 1927, shooting and wounding guards John Hanlon and Harry Riger in the process.
A massive nationwide manhunt followed. The search for Vasbinder was complicated by the fact that there was no known photograph of him.
While he was on the lam, Vasbinder’s appeal was argued and rejected (Commonwealth v. Vasbinder, 292 Pa. 506, 1928).
An effort to apprehend Jaworski and Vasbinder in a Cleveland restaurant on September 13, 1928, led to the murder of a police officer. Jaworski was also shot and apprehended; Vasbinder escaped. Jaworski, extradited to Pittsburgh, was executed on January 21, 1929.
In October 1928, a man initially reported to be Vasbinder was killed during a robbery in Detroit. That report was soon rejected. Other reports, none of them confirmed, placed Vasbinder in Texas, Alabama, Cleveland, Buffalo, and his hometown in Clarion County.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, December 19, 1929
Prior to his execution in 1929, Jaworski reported that he killed Vasbinder and threw his body in the Detroit River. Police deemed the story a fabrication. None of the many claims about Vasbinder’s whereabouts were ever corroborated. A 1962 investigation by the state attorney general’s office found no trace of him.
John Vasbinder was never apprehended or heard from again.