Descendants seek clues in 1919 Westmoreland double murder
Ruth Anne Monteleone loves a good mystery.
She prides herself on figuring out who the killer is on a television show long before it's revealed.
But for most of her life, Monteleone, 69, of Chicago has lived with an unsolved family mystery rooted in Westmoreland County.
This much she knows:
On Dec. 15, 1919, her grandmother and aunt were shot to death in their farmhouse near Jeannette. Another aunt was shot but survived.
For years, her father simply told her that the three were shot in a hunting accident, a story she believed until 30 years ago when a surviving aunt told her bits of the story — that she, her sister and her mother were shot by her sister's estranged husband.
Since then, Monteleone, her sister and cousin have spent decades searching for the answer to a fundamental question: What happened to the murderer?
Monteleone has yet to find evidence that the man who committed the crime was ever tried or even arrested.
So she turned to Tom Mauriello, owner of Maryland-based forensic consulting firm ForensIQ and a lecturer in criminalistics at the University of Maryland. She saw him on a Discovery Channel show about the Lizzie Borden murders and asked him to take on her case.
He agreed to do it — for free — with the help of two student interns from Maryland, Brittany Schuh and David Miller, who traveled to Westmoreland County last week.
They turned up some leads, but say their biggest break may come through someone who unknowingly holds crucial information about the case.
“If anybody has any kind of information, we'd be willing to listen to it,” Mauriello said.
Monteleone's grandfather and grandmother, Biaggio and Anna Sarnicolo — eventually shortened to Sarn — came to America from Italy with their two daughters, Mary and Carmela.
They settled in New York, then moved to the High Park area near Jeannette and bought a small farm in 1908 where they could work the land and raise their daughters and three sons, William, James and Charles.
Monteleone's father, James, spoke fondly of growing up in Pennsylvania.
“Nothing was ever mentioned about the horrific murders. When we questioned Dad about it, we were told his mother and his sister were killed in a hunting accident,” Monteleone said.
But as Monteleone and her sister, Marie Tabor, 66, of Lacrosse, Wis., got older, the explanation seemed ludicrous.
So she pressed further, asking the same questions of her Uncle Bill.
“‘That's nothing, honey. Go on with your life. That was something horrible that happened a long time ago,'” he told her.
It wasn't until her Aunt Carmela was in her 90s that the sisters began to learn the truth.
As Monteleone and her aunt talked about the family, she asked how they were killed.
“She stopped dead in her tracks. She said, ‘You know, this has gone far enough. I've got to tell you the truth,' ” Monteleone said.
And she began to tell the story:
Mary Sarn Sylvester had left her husband, Joseph Sylvester, because of abuse. She returned to her family's farm with her 4-year-old daughter, believed to be from a previous marriage.
“He kept badgering her to come back,” Monteleone said. “He would come there every chance he could.”
On December 15, 1919, the Sarn women were at the farmhouse preparing for Christmas. The two oldest boys were in school, and Biaggio Sarn was at work in one of Jeannette's factories.
Joseph Sylvester showed up.
“He came through the kitchen door and demanded that she pack her bags and leave with him,” Monteleone said.
Mary Sylvester wouldn't go. Anna Sarn tried to reason with him.
Carmela Sarn took the two children — her youngest brother, Charles, and Mary's daughter — to the cellar.
Then Joseph pulled out a gun.
“My grandmother dropped to her knees and begged that he please not do anything like that,” Monteleone said.
Joseph Sylvester pulled the trigger, shooting his mother-in-law and wife to death and gravely wounding his sister-in-law as she tried to shield her loved ones.
The little girl ran screaming out of the house — telling neighbors that her mother and grandmother were dying. The little boy, Charles, escaped unharmed, but was later killed in World War II.
When Monteleone would ask whether Joseph Sylvester was arrested, her aunt just shrugged her shoulders.
The need to know drove Monteleone to Jeannette, where she found some newspaper articles about the murders.
They named Sylvester as the suspect and said he fled to Pittsburgh, where he lived.
But there was nothing more.
She scoured the Internet, consulted the Jeannette Historical Society and tracked down a long-lost relative.
“He just disappeared into the woodwork. We know his name and that's it,” she said.
And she wondered what happened to the little girl in the cellar.
Her aunt never mentioned her and the newspaper articles only mention her as Mary Sylvester's daughter.
She hopes Mauriello can find those answers for her, her sister and their cousin, Irene Scott, 87, of Daytona Beach, Carmela's daughter.
“Maybe grandpa took it upon himself with his brother to take matters into his own hands,” Monteleone said. “I don't care what we find. I want closure.”
When Mauriello's team visited Westmoreland County, staff members at the coroner's office found information about an inquest into the murders.
“This specifically identifies Joseph Sylvester as the person responsible for the incident,” Mauriello said.
It was the first official evidence linking the man to the murders.
But no records of a court case involving Sylvester exist at the Westmoreland County Courthouse. A trip to the Westmoreland County Historical Society revealed nothing new.
They met with Hempfield resident Dorothy Vitolo — a Sarn relative Monteleone found during her research — who remembers her mother talking about the murder, but not about what happened to the murderer.
They have state police Trooper Steve Limani looking into whether records of an investigation exist.
Schuh, one of the student investigators, said the experience has made her realize that justice won't always be served.
“There won't always be answers, sometimes you'll still have questions,” she said.
And Mauriello said the answer may be that justice wasn't served by the courts but by vigilantes.
“In 1919 that would certainly be more acceptable and that could also be a reason for not discussing it,” he said.
Jennifer Reeger is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-6155 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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