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CRIMINAL MINDS: Notorious criminals that once walked our streets

Fern Hollow Elementary School in Moon was renamed to honor slain Principal Richard J. Hyde.

By Lisa Mullen


With the popularity of TV channels like Investigation Discovery showing us crime around the world, many of us have become true crime junkies doing a bit of crime-solving from the comfort of our armchairs.

It’s easy to watch these channels and become disassociated from the reality that there are real people attached to these crimes and real lives have been changed forever. Pennsylvania has its fair share of some of these infamous crimes. Take a look at some of the more infamous crimes that you probably haven’t heard of.

Criminal lovers

In 1902 a woman by the name of Kate Soffel was married to Peter Soffel, the Allegheny County jail warden at the time. Brothers Ed and Jack Biddle had just been incarcerated in the jail to serve out their term for robberies they had committed as part of the “Chloroform Gang” who, you guessed it, used chloroform to render their victims unconscious before they robbed them.

Kate took it upon herself to try to rehabilitate the brothers. She didn’t succeed but did end up falling in love with Ed Biddle.

This infatuation led her to help them escape from jail when she smuggled in a hacksaw and gun for the brothers.

The brothers escaped on Jan. 30, 1902, by throwing one guard over a railing and shooting another. Kate joined them that night leaving behind her children and husband to be with Ed.

The trio escaped to Butler County where they were caught by the police on the Graham farm. In the ensuing gunfight, the Biddle brothers were killed, and Kate was shot.

As the lone survivor, Kate ended up serving several years in the same prison she helped the Biddle brothers escape from. Her story was so compelling that it was turned into a movie in 1984 called “Mrs. Soffel” starring Mel Gibson and Diane Keaton.

Racial murder spree

Unemployed Mt. Lebanon immigration lawyer Richard Baumhammers became a spree killer when he began his rampage on April 28, 2000 at 1:30 p.m., by killing his Jewish next-door-neighbor, Anita Gordon. After fatally shooting her, he set her house on fire.

Afterward, he drove to the Beth El Congregation, a synagogue located in Scott Township, where he shot out the windows and spray-painted swastikas on the building.

He then drove on to the India Grocers located in Scott Town Center where he shot and killed Anil Thakur and paralyzed the store manager, Sandip Patel, after shooting him in the neck.

Next on his list was another synagogue, the Ahavath Achim Congregation in Carnegie where he again shot out the windows.

He moved on to a Chinese restaurant in Robinson Town Centre where he shot and killed both the manager Ji-ye Sun and the cook, Theo Pham.

The last location he targeted was in Center Township in Beaver County. Arriving at the C.S. Kim School of Karate, Baumhammers shot and killed an African-American student at the school, Garry Lee. After leaving the karate school, he was spotted by the Aliquippa police as he crossed the Ohio River into Ambridge.

Ambridge police were able to stop him without incident. It was 3:30 p.m. when he was stopped.

Over the span of two hours, Baumhammers had killed five people, all racially motivated. He was convicted and sentenced to death for his crimes.

“Shotgun killer”

The city of Aliquippa is the home of a little-known serial killer nicknamed the “Shotgun Killer.”

Edward Surrat, a former veteran of both the Army and the Marines, is a suspect in 27 murders committed in three different states. As a truck driver, Surrat traveled through Pennsylvania and Ohio cities where some of these crimes were committed.

Surrat served almost four years in prison for the attempted rape of a 13-year-old boy in Virginia Beach, Va. After his release, Surrat returned home to Aliquippa in 1977.

By June of 1978, he came under suspicion for the murder of Luther Langford who had been killed with a baseball bat at his home in Columbia, S.C. on June 1, 1978. Surrat was seen driving Langford’s car around Aliquippa and the police attempted to arrest him. He escaped.

When Langford’s car was examined, they also found items belonging to Joseph and Catherine Weinman, both who had been beaten to death on Sept. 30, 1977 in their Marshall Township home in Pennsylvania.

Surrat was also a suspect in many local deaths including the shooting death of Frank Zeigler on Sept. 27, 1977. Zeigler lived less than a thousand feet away from the Weinman’s home. Surrat also was a suspect in the murders of William and Nancy Adams which occurred on Nov. 20, 1977, in Fallston, Pa.

He was also a suspect in the deaths of Richard Hyde, the principal of Fern Hollow Elementary School in Moon Township and his wife Donna, a beautician who worked from home.

Their murders occurred on Dec. 3, 1977. Richard Hyde was killed by a shotgun blast. His wife attempted to escape but was caught by Surrat who beat her to death. The couple’s two daughters who slept through the ordeal both still live locally.

Eventually, the “shotgun killer” was arrested on July 1, 1978 in Vilano Beach, Fla after he raped a 15-year-old girl. He was found guilty of burglary, assault involving rape and threatening murder. He was sentenced to two life terms with an additional 200 years imprisonment. He was then extradited to Lexington County, S.C. where he was tried for the murder of Luther Langford and the attempted murder of his wife.

He was found guilty and given an additional two life sentences. Later, he confessed to murdering John Shelkons with a shotgun at his home in Baden, Pa. Beaver County declined to prosecute as Surrat was already sentenced to such long imprisonment terms.

In 2007, Surrat confessed to six more murders: David and Linda Hamilton on Sept. 20, 1977 in Beaver Township, Ohio; the November 1977 murders of John and Mary Davis also of Beaver Township, Ohio; a 17-year-old boy named John Feeny from Coraopolis and his 16-year-old girlfriend, Ranee Gregor.

They were all killed with a shotgun. Surrat never confessed to the killings of the Hydes nor the Adams though both were linked through matching shell casings found in both homes, according to the Beaver County Times.

“House of Horrors”

Gary Heidnik, nicknamed the “House of Horrors” killer, killed two of the six women he kept locked in chains in his basement. He raped them and kept them under control with electrical shocks in his North Philadelphia home.

Honorably discharged from the Army in October of 1962 after being diagnosed with schizoid personality disorder, Heidnik became a licensed practical nurse.

He spent a great deal of time in and out of psychiatric hospitals and attempted suicide 13 times.

On Nov. 25, 1986, Heidnik abducted his first victim, Josefina Rivera. He subsequently kidnapped four more women by January 1987 and kept them in his basement where he raped, tortured and beat them.

One of the women, Sandra Lindsay, died of hunger and an untreated fever. Heidnik dismembered her body.

At one point, he ordered three of the women into a pit he had dug in his basement, filled it with water and then forced Rivera to apply an electrical current to the women’s chains. Deborah Dudley was electrocuted to death. On March 23, 1987, Heidnik used Rivera to help him abduct Agnes Adams.

The next day, Rivera talked Heidnik into letting her go visit her family. Heidnik drove to a gas station, let Rivera go and said he would wait there for her. A block away from the gas station, Rivera called the police.

The police arrested Heidnik. When they went to his house, they found Jacquelyn Askins and Lisa Thomas sitting on a mattress and chained to the ceiling of the basement and Agnes Adams in the bottom of the pit that he had dug in the basement.

Heidnik was sentenced to death and was executed by lethal injection in July 1999. He is the last person to have been executed in Pennsylvania. Author Thomas Harris based his Silence of the Lambs villain, “Buffalo Bill,” on Heidnik.


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