The file from a time long ago sits waiting for me. It knows I’ll be back. Like an old familiar friend, it holds a piece of my past that no-one else knows about – not even me. Its contents take me back to a time now forgotten: the 1960’s. Glamorized by TV series like “Mad Men,” the 1960s my research has shown those days to have been a dark time in Hancock County. On the surface things seemed good. Weirton Steel was at the height of production thus smaller businesses were thriving. Waterford Park had not yet gone into decline and the potteries were operating at capacity. All looked bright and shiny. I’ve discovered, however, that you only needed to peel back that surface a few layers to discover a frightening world where murders were ruled accidents; the cops were both the good and the bad guys; and although my Dad had a smoking jacket and Mom wore pearls, they were far away from Ward and June Cleaver.
They say memories made in your childhood home are the most lasting. I know mine are.
In 1965, I was a senior in high school living in the very house I live now. It was a peculiar time in Hancock County. Politically, no-one knew who was on first and who was on second and being on the wrong base had dangerous and expensive ramifications. Sheriff Joe Rodak had taken office after a law and order campaign in which he pledged to clean up the county by ousting illegal gambling. As he set about to do so with great tenacity, his deputies were dubbed “Rodak’s Raiders” as they swept through the County raiding clubs. Back then, Route 30 in Chester was a “mini Las Vegas” with the likes of JoJo Pecora, Benny Phillips and Chuck Teemer owning the clubs and controlling the gambling be it slots, roulette or Blackjack. Rodak went one step further though. Front page newspapers show machines being chopped to pieces and burned. What machine operator/owner could continue to stay in business when their product kept being destroyed?
If you’ve guessed that Rodak wasn’t just out to clean up the county….. you’re right.
There was a war on between organized crime and just like a small country sandwiched between two larger countries, Hancock County was the scene of a turf battle. The Pittsburgh mob under John Larocca and JoJo Pecora was out of the New York Genovese families. . News accounts of the time talk about them trying to infiltrate the Cleveland Buffalino family out of Cleveland and Youngstown. Hancock County sat right in the middle of this war and Route 30 was a veritable gold mine…a mini Las Vegas. The West Virginia Crime Commission which convened in the Sixties noted the Red Dog was owned by Jo Jo Pecora.. What fueled the profits from the establishments was the gambling…..the illegal gambling..
That’s where my story begins.
Dad became an important player in the game. He was a Justice of the Peace. When Rodak’s Raiders needed a warrant they went to only one Justice of the Peace – Dad. The other side was watching, however. Those slots were too expensive to keep getting destroyed. Dad’s office on the corner of Pearl and Chester in New Cumberland was put under surveillance and the minute the Sheriff’s cars were at the office, the machines were all pulled out and when the Raiders went into the clubs, they found nothing. Not to be outfoxed the Deputies began coming to our house on Veteran’s Boulevard for the warrants.. That’s where I got involved.
My Dad was a “hunt & peck” typist, but his seventeen-year-old daughter was a crack typist. It just seemed natural that I was soon roused from bed at 11 p.m. to type warrants on an old Smith Corona typewriter in Dad’s home office. Here’s where I get hazy though. Attorney Frank Pietranton would stand over my shoulder to make sure I didn’t make a mistake. One typo could throw the entire warrant out. Pietranton wasn’t the Prosecuting Attorney at the time so why was he there? Big raids followed and the pressure to tip off the clubs of a pending raid increased. The mob knew Dad was key and calls were made to threaten his well-being and that of his family.
I’ve told this story for many years, but a conversation with former Weirton City policemen and County Commissioner George Kource affirmed I wasn’t crazy. His brother, Mike Kource, was a deputy at the time it happened and remembered the body at the end of our drivewayl.
Yes, a dead body. One foggy morning in May shortly before I graduated high school in 1965, I went to catch the school bus only to find a dead body at the end of our driveway. I hadn’t seen the man lying at the bottom of driveway because of the heavy fog until I almost tripped on him. I don’t remember screaming. Just running to the house and telling my Dad. Mom was still in her housecoat, but she came with us to see what I had found. As we looked at the body, my Dad said “that’s just a bum they rolled at the Cactus.” (The Cactus was one of the gambling joints on Route 30.) My Mom, always the arbitor of good taste said “That’s no bum. He’s wearing a Rolex watch and those are Florsheim shoes.” And perhaps that observation alone caused her to get her Polaroid camera and take a photo. Somehow she must’ve known there would need to be evidence that a dead man really had been dead and lying at the end of our driveway. Her action seemed perfectly normal then to a 17-year-old. Later it would tip me off that something was amiss. Funny the details you remember and why you remember them. I don’t remember there being blood. I do remember though looking for blood because I was a wearing a brand-new pair of gold and white basketweave flats for the very first time and while not learned in the ways of mob hits, I knew I’d never get the blood out of my new shoes.
Was it a mob hit? I think so some years later. Here is where the story gets bizarre. When Dad came back to the body after making a phone call to the Sheriff’s office, he sent Mom and I back to the house where we stood looking out the picture window. I had missed the bus, waving it on when it slowed down. If I was gonna have to deal with dead bodies at my school bus stop, my Dad was going to have to drive me to school.
The most glaring fact that this was no normal death was when the Sheriff’s deputies arrived. No ambulance. Just a sheriff’s car and the body was loaded into the back seat. That night over the supper table I inquired about the dead man and his identity. Dad said he didn’t know. Dad was the Coroner then as well. I watched the newspaper for an obituary. It never appeared. I asked again and was told there was no body. Was it all a figment of my imagination? No, because there was a picture. And, because when talking about those times George Kource told me his brother Mike had not only acknowledged the body, but said “they kept moving that body around.”
It was a warning; I now know what my Dad didn’t tell me then. It was real, I knew it had to be. When my Mom and Dad were going through a divorce a year later she wouldn’t have hidden the picture when she went out of town had it not become a valuable commodity. And, a Sheriff’s Deputy wouldn’t have slit the screen to our house to search for the photo when Mom was out of town.
It was real. And, it somehow was connected to the Letter from a Dead Man.