Martin J. Sullivan

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.

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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 intimate. 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.

image001image001Pittsburgh 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 partner. 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.

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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.

Prior to being jailed, Sullivan requested the opportunity to discuss the matter with his son, Martin, Jr., in his home. Though accompanied to young Martin’s home by his friend and fellow Duquesne police officer, Thomas L. Gallagher, Sullivan entered his son’s home alone, exited by the back door, went 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.

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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, entered alone, and shot and killed her.

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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, December 18, 1936

Hearing the shooting, Officer Gallagher ran into the home and arrested Sullivan, who offered no resistance. Having killed everyone involved in the case against him, Sullivan made a complete confession and asked to be executed.

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Pittsburgh Press, December 18, 1936

He had spared Antoinette Vukelja and a number of other witnesses against whom he bore no grudge.image002

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.

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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.

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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).

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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, December 19, 1936

Antoinette Vukelja died in Pensacola, Florida, on January 9, 2000.

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Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, December 18, 1936

 

Author: Bill Lofquist

I am a sociologist and death penalty scholar at the State University of New York at Geneseo. I am also a Pittsburgh native. My present research focuses on the history of the death penalty in Allegheny County (Pittsburgh), Pa. This website is dedicated to collecting, analyzing, and sharing information about all Allegheny County cases in which a death sentence was imposed. Please share any questions or comments, errors or omissions, or other matters of interest related to these cases or to the broader history of the death penalty in Allegheny County.

4 thoughts on “Martin J. Sullivan”

  1. My grandmother was Laura Bacon, the social worker involved in this case. I am personally against the death penalty and I don’t know that imposing this punishment on Walter Sullivan helped the family heal in any way. My father did tell me he felt a sense of relief or closure with the execution but the family didn’t talk about this incident and the pain it caused could be felt in the family decades later.

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    1. I’m sorry. It’s such a tragic case with so many affected families. By the way, the research literature supports your sense that executions do little to help the families of victims.

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  2. I’m the granddaughter of Mary Vukelja and didn’t know of their murders until I was 20. My father, Walter, never talked about it and, a year before he died in 1997, I asked him about his mother since I knew nothing about her; 60 years later, he started sobbing as if it had just happened. He lost a brother and mother in front of his eyes, his father was shot too, but survived and my Aunt Tony suffered greatly. Mixed emotions on the death penalty, but it gives me satisfaction reading his death certificate.

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    1. Sue, I am so sorry for the loss of your grandmother. Like you, I never got to know my grandmother, Laura Bacon, who was also shot in that mass killing. I know that my father, like yours, wouldn’t talk about his mother unless pressed and there was that pall of sadness over the family. It’s been 73 years since their deaths and the effects are still felt by members of the involved families that weren’t even born at the time of the event.

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