Among the 201 capital cases in Allegheny County history are seventeen cases that included the killings of law enforcement officers. A total of eighteen police officers were killed in fifteen separate incidents, while three prison guards were killed in two separate incidents. These cases represent only a portion of the eighty-two Allegheny County officers I have identified as having been feloniously killed while on duty.
In chronological order, these are the cases:
- Edward Coffey killed Pittsburgh Police Officer John Evans when Evans responded to a fight involving Coffey on August 4, 1885. Coffey committed suicide after all hope for a commutation was lost.
- John and Ed Biddle and Walter Dorman killed Pittsburgh Police Officer Patrick Fitzgerald when Fitzgerald sought to arrest them for the killing of grocer Thomas Kahney earlier in the day of April 11, 1901. The Biddle brothers were killed after escaping from jail, while Dorman’s sentence was commuted in return for testimony he had provided against the Biddles.
- Robert Henry Brown killed Pittsburgh Police Officer Charles Edinger when the officer responded to a liquor store robbery in progress on June 6, 1917. William Elford, the son of the store owner, was also killed. Brown was hanged on January 5, 1920.
- Jack Thompson killed Munhall Borough Police Officer Michael Lebedda after being stopped for questioning in relationship to a robbery earlier in the day of November 16, 1917. Thompson died of tuberculosis on death row on April 7, 1920.
- James Gibson killed Natrona Police Officers William Lucas and Harry Meyers after the officers responded to a call from Gibson’s father to have his belligerent son arrested on December 21, 1917. Questions about Gibson’s mental health ultimately led to the commutation of his death sentence. He died in prison.
- John Rush shot and killed Dormont Police Officer Joseph Coghill when the officer responded to a call of a burglary in progress on Christmas morning, 1921. Questions about Rush’s mental health led to the commutation of his sentence. Soon after being paroled in 1946, Rush was arrested again and returned to prison.
- Joseph Valotta killed Pittsburgh Police Officer Edward Couch on October 30, 1922. Valotta, who was acting with police cooperation as a strikebreaker during a strike against the Pennsylvania Railroad, killed striker Thomas Hopkins after being called a scab, then killed Couch when he responded to the scene. After a series of extraordinary legal maneuvers that included a United States Supreme Court case, Valotta’s death sentence was commuted to life. He died in prison.
- Henry Jackson killed Pittsburgh Police Officer Daniel Conley on the night of December 30, 1922, after Conley stopped a group of young men that included Jackson for questioning. Jackson eluded a police dragnet until. After a lengthy investigation, Jackson was arrested in June 1923. He was executed on March 30, 1925.
- In an incident strikingly similar to the Jackson case, Henry Edwards killed Pittsburgh Police Officer Joseph Jovanovic after he and a friend were stopped for questioning on the night of July 7, 1924. Mass arrests followed, including Edwards. After a brief trial, Edwards was sentenced to death. He was executed on June 30, 1925.
- Paul Orlakowski was serving a ten year sentence for robbery committed while on parole when he and three other men killed two prison guards – John Pieper and John Coax – during a failed escape from Western Penitentiary on February 11, 1924. After a lengthy legal process and another violent and failed escape attempt, Orlakowski was executed on December 27, 1926.
- Benjamin Ginyard killed Pittsburgh Police Officer Edward Conway during a store robbery on June 27, 1939. A police dragnet led to the arrest of William Walker, an accomplice who implicated Ginyard. Arrested soon after, Ginyard was executed on January 29, 1940, only seven months after Conway’s murder.
- Edward DiPofi killed Bethel Township Police Officer Joseph Chmelynski during a home burglary on March 5, 1948. DiPofi was handcuffed when he drew a concealed pistol he had just stolen and shot Chmelynski. After a lengthy post-conviction legal process that centered on DiPofi’s mental health history, he was executed on January 9, 1950. His was the 100th execution in Allegheny County history. Only two more would follow.
- James Butler was being transported from Northumberland County to Pittsburgh to testify in court on May 27, 1959, when he was able to obtain the gun of Northumberland County Sheriff, James Lauer, and shoot him. Butler’s conviction and death sentence were overturned on appeal. Rather than face retrial, Butler pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in return for a life sentence.
- Stanley Howard was serving a lengthy prison sentence for a Philadelphia robbery when he killed Corrections Officer Clifford Grogan during an altercation on November 12, 1965. After being sentenced to death, Howard contested his conviction, unsuccessfully, all the way to the Supreme Court. His death sentence was ultimately invalidated when the state’s capital statute was ruled unconstitutional in 1972. Stanley Howard died in prison in 1994.
- Stanley Hoss had been on the run from the Allegheny County Workhouse for a week when he was pulled over by Verona Police Officer Joseph Zanella on September 19, 1969. As Zanella approach his car, Hoss shot him twice and killed him. After a multi-state crime spree that included two more murders, Hoss was arrested in Iowa on October 4, 1969. Hoss confessed to police and was convicted and sentenced to death in March 1970. In an era of increasing legal scrutiny of capital convictions, Hoss’s conviction did not withstand appeal. Resentenced to life imnprisonment, he and three other inmates killed Western Penitentiary Officer Walter Peterson in a racist attack on December 10, 1973. Hoss was convicted of second-degree murder. He committed suicide in prison on December 6, 1978.
- Much like Stanley Hoss, Stanton Story had also recently escaped from confinement when Pittsburgh Police Officer Patrick Wallace pulled over a car driven by his friend, Lafayette Jones, on July 3, 1974. As Wallace ran after Jones, Story shot and killed him. Story was arrested after an armed stand off two months later. Amidst heightened scrutiny of the role of race in capital cases, Story was convicted and sentenced to death, reversed on appeal, retried and sentenced to death, reversed again, and resentenced to life imprisonment. He remains in prison.
- Richard Poplawski, an avowed white supremacist, killed three Pittsburgh Police Officers – Eric Guy Kelly, Paul J. Sciullo II, and Stephen James Mayhle – when they responded to a call from Poplawski’s mother to remove him from her home on April 4, 2009. He was arrested after a lengthy standoff in which three other officers were injured. Convicted and sentenced to death in 2011, the last capital conviction in Allegheny County, Poiplawski remains on death row.
With the exception of Officer Eric Kelly, all of the officers who were killed were white men. In seven cases, their killer was a Black man. Four of these men – Robert Henry Brown, Henry Jackson, Henry Edwards, and Benjamin Ginyard – were executed. One other – Jack Thompson – died on death row. Two others – Stanley Howard and Stanton Story – were sentenced to death after 1959, the date of Allegheny County’s last execution.
Twelve of these men were white. Two of them – Paul Orlakowski and Edward DiPofi – were executed. Two others – the notorious Biddle brothers – were killed while escaping death row. Edward Coffey committed suicide while awaiting execution. Six – Walter Dorman, James Gibson, John Rush, Joseph Valotta, James Butler, and Stanley Hoss – had their death sentences commuted.