Perhaps the most disturbing and improbable capital case in Pittsburgh’s history involved sixty-seven year old serial rapist and Duquesne police officer, Martin J. Sullivan, who killed five people while ostensibly in police custody on December 17, 1936.
The road to that tragic evening began several years earlier when, not long after the death of Sullivan’s wife, Phoebe (McShane), his fourteen or fifteen-year old neighbor, Helen Benda, moved into Sullivan’s home. Their relationship, which may have begun with young Helen working as a housekeeper, became sexually predatory. Though some reports characterized the two as married, Sullivan’s efforts to marry Helen had been rejected by her parents; not long after, Helen moved out.
Pittsburgh Press, December 18, 1936 (note the ways in which Sullivan’s predatory behaviors are minimized and normalized)
Sullivan quickly identified another neighbor, eleven-year old Antoinette Vukelja, as his next victim. Over the next six months, he raped her repeatedly.
On December 11, 1936, Antoinette’s mother, Mary, filed a formal complaint against Sullivan, including the allegation he had raped Antoinette that day.
Sullivan was arrested on those charges on December 17. At his initial appearance that evening, Mary Vukelja and Laura Bacon, head of the Duquesne Community Center, who had investigated the alleged rape, testified against him. He was ordered held without bail.
The job of jailing Sullivan was given to Constable Thomas L. Gallagher, a lifelong Duquesne resident and colleague and “good friend” of Sullivan. As the two men walked to the Duquesne jail, Sullivan requested the opportunity to stop at his son’s home to discuss his arrest. Agreeing, Gallagher waited outside on the sidewalk talking with neighbors and shuffling his feet to keep warm for forty minutes during which Sullivan entered his son’s home alone, exited by the back door, went to his home to get his gun and then to the home of Joseph and Helen Benda, parents of Helen Benda, and killed them. He then walked to the home of Mary Vukelja and killed her and her son, Milan, when he ran to her aid.
Having killed four people, Sullivan then rejoined the police officer waiting for him, went with him to a saloon for a drink, and requested and was granted permission to talk with Laura Bacon. He was escorted to her home by Officer Gallagher. Still armed, Sullivan briefly questioned Bacon and then shot and killed her while Gallagher looked on.
Having killed everyone involved in the case against him, Sullivan made a complete confession and asked to be executed.
He had spared Antoinette Vukelja and a number of other witnesses against whom he bore no grudge.
Sullivan, who was born in Ireland and had ten children, was tried only for the murder of Laura Bacon. With a confession, multiple witnesses, and clear motive, the state’s case was overwhelming. Sullivan’s insanity defense failed.
In its subsequent rejection of his motion for a new trial, the court ruled that Sullivan had “utterly failed” to meet the burden of demonstrating insanity. Rather, “the evidence, both lay and medical, was overwhelmingly to the contrary.”
Sullivan was convicted on May 21, 1937, after which he again requested a death sentence. That sentence was formally imposed on July 29, 1937.
After his clemency plea was rejected in February 1938, Martin Sullivan was executed on March 21, 1938. He is the oldest person ever executed in the state. He had attempted suicide the week before his execution.
Officer Gallagher stood trial in January 1939 for criminal negligence in allowing Sullivan’s escape. Though he was found guilty, a petition signed by Duquesne residents persuaded the court to sentence Gallagher to probation. He also lost his job.
Sullivan, who was both feared and mocked in Duquesne, is reported to have serially raped girls while working as a police officer (Ray Sprigle, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, July 24, 1949).
Antoinette Vukelja died in Pensacola, Florida, on January 9, 2000.