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Prison housed some high-profile inmates

| Friday, Jan. 14, 2005

If the walls of Western Pen could talk, they'd probably scream.

Since opening in 1882, the prison officially known as SCI Pittsburgh has been home to perpetrators of some of the most high-profile and grisly acts in Western Pennsylvania. Here are a few:

Alexander Berkman

Berkman was one of the prison's first high-profile inmates. He served 14 years in Western Pen for the attempted murder of Henry Frick in 1892, shortly after the bloody battle in Homestead between steelworkers and strikebreakers from the Pinkerton Detective Agency. Angry with the iron-fisted steel magnate for hiring the strikebreakers, Berkman shot Frick three times. Frick recovered, and Berkman was released from Western Pen in 1906.

-- Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center archives

Walter Dorman

A member of the Biddle Boys gang, Dorman turned state's evidence on Ed and Jack Biddle after a botched robbery led to the murder of a Mt. Washington grocer on April 12, 1901. A few days later, police surrounded the house where the Biddles, Dorman and two women were hiding. A shootout in a darkened room left Pittsburgh police Detective Patrick Fitzgerald dead. Ed and Jack Biddle were sentenced to be hanged after Walter Dorman testified against them in exchange for immunity from the death penalty. He was sentenced to life in Western Pen. Ed Biddle began an affair with the Allegheny County Jail warden's wife, who eventually helped the Biddles escape -- and who escaped along with them. The brothers died from wounds suffered in a Butler County shootout soon after escaping, and Kate Soffel, the warden's wife, recovered from at least one gunshot wound and served several years in the Allegheny County Jail.

-- Allegheny County and the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center archives

Stanley Barton Hoss

Hoss, of Tarentum, was sentenced to life for the 1969 slaying of a Verona police officer. While in Western Pen, he and two other inmates -- Daniel Delker and George Butler -- beat a corrections officer, Capt. Walter Peterson, to death on Dec. 10, 1973. Hoss was transferred to SCI Graterford, near Philadelphia, where he hanged himself in 1978.

-- The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Department

Eugene Spruill

In September 1972, during a prison outing in Lawrenceville, Spruill escaped from Western Pen, where he was serving a life sentence for the murder of John Beck, of Natrona Heights. Spruill eluded police for 11 months, during which he was accused of committing at least four murders, including a decapitation in St. Claire Village. After being caught in July 1973, Spruill was involved in as many as eight attacks on other prisoners and guards in Western Pen and SCI Graterford, where he was eventually transferred.

-- The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Department

Michael Travaglia and John Lesko

From Dec. 27, 1979, through Jan. 3, 1980, Travaglia and Lesko went on a drug- and alcohol-fueled killing spree, murdering four people, including rookie Apollo police Officer Leonard Miller, who was the last to die. Pretrial publicity was so intense that an impartial jury couldn't be found any closer than Berks County. Both men were transferred to Graterford prison in the 1990s. Their death sentences are under appeal.

-- The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Department and Tribune-Review archives

Richard Henkel

A bank robber-turned-contract killer from Hampton, Henkel was suspected of committing as many as 32 murders until he was arrested in 1979. One victim had more than a dozen bullets fired into his head, and another had nearly 70 stab wounds all over her body. He was accused in 1980 of planning to kidnap Steelers owner Art Rooney Sr. and strap a remote-control bomb to him, though that charge was dismissed. In 1983, he and fellow Western Pen inmate Dennis Coviello took two guards hostage, beginning a five-day standoff.

-- Pittsburgh Characters, a book edited by J.C. Grochot Sr. (1991)

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