Peterson's murder caused national outcry
Second in a series
Prison guard Capt. Walter Peterson's murder 37 years ago today brought hundreds to Peterson's funeral the following day, including then-Pennsylvania Gov. Milton Shapp, and set off a prison strike over safety concerns.
“He was one of the few African-Americans working in the prison at the time,” said James Hollock, who authored a book on Peterson's killer, Stanley B. Hoss. “It brought then-Gov. Milton Shapp to little Clairton to attend the funeral at Mt. Olive Baptist Church. Hundreds lined the streets so that they could hear the service from the street. It was quite a big deal.”
Peterson's murder is covered in the book “Born to Lose: Stanley B. Hoss and the Crime Spree that Gripped the Nation.”
Hollock began working as a prison counselor at Western Penitentiary on March 10, 1975, and was a unit manager before the prison closed in 2005.
“Peterson was probably a hate crime before we came to know the term,” Hollock said. “Surely, it was a complete decision based on race. It was a racial killing.”
Shirley Coon King, the sister of Peterson's wife Asaline, said it seems like Peterson's murder happened only yesterday.
“The hurt is still there,” she said. “Nothing went away. He was buried on his birthday.”
“It may have been the most horrific murder of a state official ever,” Hollock said.
Hoss and inmates George Butler, Daniel Delker and Robert McGrogan kept trying to lure Peterson, known as “Pete,” to Western Pen's recreation area in the basement. They finally succeeded when Hoss set up a message from a Hoss family member to be sent down to him.
Hollock said there was a guard at the end of the hallway corridor who was caged in an observation area and couldn't even let himself out.
“They didn't want anyone to be able to reach through those bars, grab him and take his keys to unlock it and get to him,” he said.
Hollock said Peterson was jumped within about 20 seconds of entering the area. He said while Peterson was being beat and stabbed mercilessly with different objects, the guard in the cage just kept yelling, “Hoss, Hoss, Hoss.”
Hollock said no other officers could get in the room because of a “design flaw,” as the handle was inside the door that opened outwardly and Peterson's attackers tied bed sheets on the insides of the door handle.
“After a while you had tons of officers down there looking through the door and seeing what was happening trying desperately to get inside to save Peterson,” he said. “They were all helpless.”
At a family reunion a few years ago, King said, she was talking to cousins who are prison guards in another state.
“They said they used Walter's death in their training as things prisons shouldn't do,” she said. “Even in his death, Walter is helping prison guards and security people.”
Approximately 30 state troopers were brought in to Western Pen after Peterson's murder to keep order, and fellow prison guards left their posts in protest of the prison's security conditions.
King said Asaline is doing well and recently celebrated her 80th birthday with the family.
“This time of year is especially hard for her,” she said. “When she thinks of him, she just remembers how he was buried on his birthday.”
Peterson and his wife, who both grew up in Clairton, were high school sweethearts since they were 12.
King said Asaline broke many racial barriers in Clairton.
“My sister was the first African-American secretary to the superintendent in the Clairton School District,” she said. “She started as a switchboard operator and worked her way up.”
King said Asaline also was the first African-American to work in the office of Pennsylvania Industrial Chemical Corp. when it was in Clairton.
She said she played piano at Mt. Olive for years, and still answers requests to do so, even though she has retired.
King said Peterson was more a brother than a brother-in-law.
“He was very kind to me,” she said. “He'd wash my car when he washed his. He'd take me places.”
Peterson graduated from Clairton High School in the late 1940s. King and Dr. William Coon, the brother of Asaline Peterson and King, said their brother-in-law was a very intelligent man.
“Walter was very bright in school,” Coon said. “He did very well.”
Peterson was in the military police when he served in the Air Force for four years.
“He was in the Honor Guard,” Coon said. “He came out of the Air Force and was thought of very well.”
King said Peterson took a test to work for the FBI.
“He was a finalist for the FBI and went to Washington, D.C., for a final physical,” she said. “He had to wear glasses and, at that time, they didn't hire people who wore glasses.”
Peterson worked for Western Pen for 15 years before his death.
“He was a very professional corrections officer,” said White Oak police Chief Joe Hoffman, who worked as a prison counselor at Western Pen for two years. “He was a quiet man. He had a tremendous amount of respect from the correctional officers that he supervised, prison counselors and the staff. I got to know him quite well because he and I traveled to Harrisburg, to the Bureau of Corrections. The bureau was like the administrative headquarters. He and I were selected to go and we traveled together for a week-long seminar. He was a pleasure to be around for that week.”
King said on Saturday, Dec. 8, 1978, Peterson was just telling the family how much we were looking forward to a banquet for Western Pen's lifers, or inmates serving a life sentence, that he planned for the next day.
“He planned that banquet for the same people who killed him that Monday,” she said. “He was the type of person who wanted to rehabilitate people and they took advantage of his kindness.”
The Rev. William Callaway preached Peterson's eulogy at Mt. Olive Baptist Church.
“At that time, Clairton was bustling,” Callaway said. “Gov. Shapp did attend. It was standing room only. There were 500-600 people. There were numerous policemen. He was a very likable person with deep roots in the Clairton community.”
He called Peterson “100 percent policeman from his heart.”
“He was one of Clairton's sons,” Callaway said. “It was like losing a family member.”
Hollock said Peterson was a lieutenant at the time of his death and posthumously promoted to a captain at Western Pen.
“My sister, society and the community missed out because they snuffed out his life,” King said. “It was brutal and it was hatred. He fought them as long as he could.”
Walter's son Walter Neal Peterson, known by the family as Neal, was only 8 when his father died. He has followed in his father's footsteps in law enforcement.
“He was a good kid,” King said. “My brother and I played the father role. He was very respectful.”
In the final series installment, Daily News staff writer Stacy Lee will report on her interview with Delker, the only man still alive who was convicted of Peterson's murder. He has been in solitary confinement for 37 years, the longest term ever in the state and one of the longest terms in the country.