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.
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, colleague of Sullivan, and son of a Duquesne police officer who had also served with 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.
8 thoughts on “Martin Joseph Sullivan”
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.
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.
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.
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.
I am the grandson on Thomas L. Gallagher. Tom never discussed anything about that night with my father until just before he died in 1968. My father was 6 when it happened and didn’t have any clear independent memories of the event. Many of the details that he told my father do not appear in the public record. One aspect of this case that should be noted – Martin Sullivan was not a friend of my grandfather. My grandfather new him prior to becoming a constable because his father (John Gallagher) was a city police for 17 years at the same time Sullivan was also on the force. My great-grandfather and Sullivan also were not friends. That narrative came from some leading questions from the lead Allegheny County detective and later from the DA.
Thank you for sharing this information. I will edit my account accordingly.
My late grandmother was born in 1924. She and her 9 older siblings grew up in Duquesne, as did I. I wanted to know if anyone knew if Sullivan violated girls in his car or knew of other stories. In the article above, it said he was feared by children but didn’t elaborate which I understand. I ask this because my grandmother repeatedly warned me about things that make me fear she could have been a victim. I only recently learned of this horrific crime. I am on Facebook/Messenger. Jill Rakar Price
I have a masters degree in Education and have done extensive research on the cycles of abuse.
I would like to my offer my condolences to the living victims families.
I am the granddaughter of Laura Bacon who was killed by Martin Sullivan. He was an evil man and I don’t usually use language like that. If you haven’t read it, the transcript of the state’s attorney with him was printed in the paper. It is chilling. I don’t know about any other episodes of abuse but I wouldn’t have put it past him. Thanks for your condolences. Even though this happened years before I was born the effects on my father and his siblings could be felt for decades after.