John August Pieper and John Taylor Coax

Assistant Deputy Warden John Pieper and Corrections Officer John Coax were killed during the spectacular escape attempt directed by Paul Orlakowski on February 11, 1924.

Orlakowski was serving seven to ten years in Western Penitentiary for a November 15, 1921, bank robbery in Imperial. Taking advantage of weak and corrupt prison security, Orlakowski and fellow inmates Salvatore Battaglia, Michael Norton, and James Yandis, stockpiled dynamite and dozens of weapons.

When the dynamite failed to open the prison wall, the four men were left to fight it out with prison guards. The first two guards to respond, Pieper and Coax, were shot and killed. The riot that followed lasted two hours before guards, reinforced by city police, were able to restore order.

Orlakowski was convicted of first-degree murder on May 16, 1924, and sentenced to death on July 30, 1926. Battaglia and Norton were both convicted of second-degree murder in separate trials. Yandis was acquitted. James Kearns, who was alleged to have aided in the planning but did not participate in the attempted escape and riot, was also acquitted.

On March 8, 1926, Orlakowski, later dubbed “Pittsburgh’s toughest prisoner” (Pittsburgh Press, July 31, 1930), charged after Warden John McNeil with a homemade knife. When stopped, he stabbed two guards, Clarence Welsh and John Bell; both survived.

His appeal and commutation request were rejected. After having spared no effort, legal or otherwise, to prevent his execution, Paul Orlakowski went to the electric chair on December 27, 1926.

An investigation into how so much dynamite and so many weapons were smuggled in to the jail concluded that the contraband, as well as drugs and alcohol, were hidden just outside the prison and smuggled in by trustees allowed to work on the grounds surrounding the prison.

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.

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