By Elizabeth Perry
This week we’re introducing a new column featuring two old news stories that still resonate with folks in our area decades later. The incidents described in our inaugural column are linked by many things including shootings, domestic violence, corruption, a McKees Rocks location and finally, the date they occurred, July 20.
This first story is about violence that bleeds out of a home and then stains a whole community.
On July 20, 1976, Richard Tegtmeier held his sister-in-law hostage in the Chartiers Avenue furniture store which she owned. Tegtmeier went into United Freight Salvage Inc. and held Eve “Dixie” Schneider at gunpoint for more than three hours in an attempt to trade Schneider for his wife, Golda. Meanwhile, Golda had asked for police protection when she learned her husband had escaped from Mayview State Hospital, a former psychiatric hospital in South Fayette Township near Bridgeville.
Tegtmeier was held at Mayview while awaiting trial for the murder of Vladimir Tritkovic, who worked professionally under the name Zoran the Magician according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Most of the headlines detailing the magician’s death mention this fact. It’s a detail that triggers a morbid laugh, but there’s nothing funny about the incident.
Tegtmeier killed Tritkovic during an altercation at his estranged wife’s apartment complex. Tegtmeier had gone armed to see Golda in order to try and convince her to attend church with him, and Tritkovic was apparently just an innocent person who happened to be there.
During the July 20 standoff, McKees Rocks Police arrested four witnesses at the scene and one of them, Edward Karmann, was found hung in his cell 10 minutes after being placed in the McKees Rocks Jail, according to reports. Police said it was an act of suicide and further mention of Karmann outside of the initial story was not available.
Tegtmeier pled guilty to Tritkovic’s murder and was committed to another state mental hospital known as Farview State Hospital located on top of a mountain in Wayne County Pennsylvania near the New York border.
The story doesn’t end there, though.
In 1980, Tegtmeier was poisoned to death with methaqualone at the hospital, according to the Scranton Times-Tribune, which caused a sweeping investigation at the hospital. The article detailed that Farview State Hospital had been the subject of investigation in 1977 because of unexplained deaths. The hospital was considered one of the worst in the country. In 1995, the facility was designated as a forensic treatment center and placed under the jurisdiction of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.
Forty years before Tegtmeier’s standoff on Chartiers Avenue – July 20, 1935 – a Coraopolis man was hauled in for questioning about the July 10 murder of McKees Rocks luminary Martha Westwood.
While Patsy Valicente was questioned at the McKees Rocks Police Station in connection with Westwood’s murder, a crowd of people gathered outside. Ultimately, Valicente would not be charged in the case. Instead, Martha's husband, Justice of the Peace James Westwood, would be convicted of her death.
This murder remains infamous in McKees Rocks.
The breathless news coverage prompted residents to become active in solving the mystery of the murder. The Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph offered a $1,000 reward for “exclusive information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or persons who shot and killed Martha Westwood as she slept in her home in McKees Rocks,” which could explain why a mob started to form when Valicente was taken in for questioning.
Coverage was similarly salacious and colorful. For example, this was a sprawling headline that screamed “Squire Romeo, Jurors Told,” with the subhead “Schoolgirl His Accuser, Dog Story Aids Defense.”
James Westwood had affairs, apparently, and on the night of his wife’s murder had been out dancing and hanging out in the backseat of a car with his mistress. The Westwoods had a French bulldog that barked when James Westwood came home, but had been silent the night of the murder, which was submitted as evidence he was innocent.
The coverage never fails to point out if women giving testimony in the case or who were friends of the deceased were physically attractive, and the women who provided the alibi for James Westwood were called “party girls” in the newspaper. Writers at the time felt the need to reassure readers that Martha Westwood wasn’t just an important member of her community but that her corpse was also pretty with her, “attractive, round face framed in coal-black hair.” The sexism didn’t end there, as the New York Daily News blamed Martha Westwood for her own murder because she was “nagging” her husband about coming home late, even though most accounts describe her as asleep at the time she was shot.
The sensational tenor of the coverage makes it difficult to discern the truth. What’s clear is that many people changed their initial stories, including James Westwood himself. Another recurring theme in the coverage was that witnesses were said to be afraid of the politically-connected Justice of the Peace.
George Mutza lived across the alley from the Westwoods and told police he saw James Westwood shoot his wife through the window of their bedroom. Mutza had been going to work accompanied by police detectives because he feared reprisals from Westwood, according to the New York Daily News. Mutza died in an Aug. 30, 1935 steel mill accident when he was crushed by the press he had operated for 12 years. No one was witness to the incident, according to the paper’s account.
Martha Westwood’s life was marked by tragedy even before it was taken from her.
In 1932, her 14-year-old daughter Clara died as a result of a shooting at home that was described as either a suicide or an accident. The girl was found with a stomach wound and died in the hospital days later. Six months later, Martha Westwood’s parents, who lived with her, died when her father John shot Josephine while she lay in bed, then he shot himself, according to the New York Daily News. In February of 1935, Martha Westwood’s home was destroyed in a gas explosion.
According to the Pittsburgh Press, James Westwood died in prison on May 14, 1951, after falling from a scaffolding. These are the types of incidents many in McKees Rocks have attributed to the curse. The parallels between two completely unrelated crimes occurring decades apart seem to undercut that reading.
Westwood was housed in the former Western Penitentiary across the river from McKees Rocks. The property, built in 1878, closed in 2017 and has sat abandoned for years. Last year it was placed on the National Register of Historic Buildings. In June, the Department of Corrections issued a land feasibility use study announcing its intent to sell the property.