Inspectors carry bags filled with severed body parts out of a boxcar where they were discovered in McKees Rocks in 1940.
By Jamie Wiggan
Right after his release from a Philadelphia prison in 1930, mobster Al Capone reportedly spent a night in McKees Rocks on his way back home to Chicago.
Ten years later, the famed crime boss was behind bars for good. McKees Rocks, meanwhile, had became the focal point in a multi-state murder investigation headed up by a special agent best known for bringing home Capone’s 1934 federal conviction.
The connection between these two events doesn’t go much further, but the ties in each case to McKees Rocks illustrate the dynamism of a small Pennsylvania mill town that has often caught the attention of the wider world.
Twenty years before Capone’s visit, for instance, McKees Rocks made national headlines when hundreds of striking immigrant workers held out for nearly two months in their fight for better wages and working conditions. Going back another 150 years to the French and Indian War, a young George Washington is reported to have met with prominent Delaware Indian King Shingas and Chief Guyasuta on a McKees Rocks bluff that overlooks the Ohio River.
Sometime in between, Meriweather Lewis washed up on a shore just a few hundred yards up river from Washington’s meeting place while en route to meet William Clark for their infamous westward adventure.
“McKees Rocks has such a great history, whether good or bad, and it needs to be told,” said Sandy Saban, McKees Rocks historical society president. “We have it all.”
For many years, the question of whether Al Capone really visited the Rocks has been held as a matter of dispute.
Contradictory stories published in back-to-back issues of the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette on March 21-22 of 1930 are largely responsible for the lingering uncertainty. The first article confidently reports “Scarface Al Capone… spent a restful evening, incognito, in the quiet little borough of McKees Rocks Wednesday.”
The reporter laments “a dearth of detail as to Capone’s actions in McKees Rocks,” but claims he spent time with a “prominent politician of the borough” during his short stay.
Although left unnamed in the first story, the person inferred – Ed Cerceo – was apparently roiled by the attention and called a press conference the following day to dispel what he referred to as a “dirty joke.”
“Al Capone has not been here, nor in this county, and I doubt very much that he would honor me with a visit,” Ed Cerceo told a pool of reporters.
Ed Cerceo of McKees Rocks reportedly entertained Al Capone at his Island Avenue hotel on more than one occasion. Pictured above Ed Cerceo sits with his young children Edna and Albert.
Cerceo owned a prominent Island Avenue bar and hotel, and was known as a bootlegger during the prohibition years, but it’s unclear whether he ever held a formal seat in local politics despite his description in the Post-Gazette. Cerceo and his brother Al also operated several local sporting leagues and were known associates of Jimmy Westwood, a Justice of the Peace convicted of murdering his wife in 1935.
Cerceo’s great-great-grandson Cary Milkovich never met his notorious forefather, but he heard stories about Capone’s visits from a great aunt who recently died in her late 90s.
“He used to frequent McKees Rocks a lot,” Milkovich said “...When he got out of Eastern Penitentiary, my pap and his brother drove up to Philadelphia to get him out. They picked him up from Eastern Pen and they brought him to the Rocks and they put him on the top floor of the hotel.”
While many knew of Cerceo’s association with Capone, Milkovich said his great-great grandfather carefully concealed the fact that they were blood relatives, a possible explanation for the high-profile Chicago mafia don’s otherwise unlikely connection to a small-time McKees Rocks racketeer.
“They used to call him King Cerceo,” Milkovich said.
Milkovich doesn’t know why Cerceo aggressively denied Capone’s reported 1930 visit, however, historical society member and resident Jim Levendosky has a plausible explanation.
“Al Capone was here because people know how to keep their mouth shut. He was here on R & R – he had no business in this area,” Levendosky said. “If he had to get out of town and go some place to kick back and have a few beers and not worry about business, there were families in this town who knew how to keep that secret.”
It seems the Pittsburgh reporters Cerceo heaped scorn on after the story broke did not know how to keep that secret.
Eight years before Capone’s popularized visit to McKees Rocks, a railroad inspector stumbled upon a decapitated body in a wooded field near the small town of Tionesta, Pa.
The body – never identified – was the first casualty in a string of similarly presented murders carried out across stretches of Pennsylvania and Ohio between 1922 and 1952.
How and whether the murders were related remains an open question. A concentrated spree of 12 killings in the Cleveland area during 1935-38 struck fear into the local inhabitants and pressed city officials to take action. The discovered corpses were all mutilated in different but related ways, with some emasculated, some decapitated, some dismembered.
Originally published in the Pittsburgh Press
Railroad workers Leyroy Rust of McKees Rocks and John Salak of Stowe display the newspaper under which they found a mutilated, decaying corpse on the morning of May 3,1940.
Flush from his successful indictment of Al Capone, former Chicago investigator Eliot Ness had been hired as Cleveland’s new public safety director to stamp out pervasive corruption there and was seen as the perfect public face for the investigation.
Despite a team of full-time detectives working the case, a culprit was never found, and the investigation was still ongoing in May 1940, when three mutilated corpses were discovered in boxcars at the P&LE Railroad Yard in McKees Rocks.
Energized by the possibility of unearthing new clues, prominent law enforcement officials descended on McKees Rocks in the days and weeks following. Many believed the case was connected to the so-called Mad Butcher of Cleveland.
The three male bodies were found in three separate box cars that were sent to the yard to be burned, having outlived their use.
Two of the bodies were castrated and the other had “Nazi” slashed across the chest, with the Z inexplicably placed back-to-front. Detectives could ultimately make nothing of these and other clues found at the scene and the case remained unsolved.
From early on, the efficiently severed bodies that showed up throughout the slayings suggested the killer either had a medical background or was trained as a butcher.
Though a culprit was never charged, documents that surfaced after the death of Ness revealed he was certain a disqualified doctor named Francis Sweeney was responsible.
Saban, who once researched the murders for a presentation with the historical society, said the gorey scenes at the heart of the story have stayed with her.
“I can’t walk down by Presston without thinking about those boxcars and [the workers] finding those bodies there.”