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'Kill for thrill' convict Travaglia seeks new trial

Rich Cholodofsky
| Wednesday, May 18, 2016, 11:35 p.m.
Michael Travaglia is led away from the Westmoreland County Courthouse by sheriff's deputies on June 5, 2005.
Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
Michael Travaglia is led away from the Westmoreland County Courthouse by sheriff's deputies on June 5, 2005.

Michael Travaglia — on death row for 35 years since killing an Apollo police officer and three others in a crime spree known as the “Kill for Thrill Murders” — is seeking a new trial, claiming poor legal representation led to his wrongful conviction.

Travaglia's new lawyer filed documents in Westmoreland County saying his client was the victim of an inadequate defense during his 1981 trial and a resentencing hearing in 2005.

The 161-page motion, filed by attorney Jeff Miller, details how jurors in the trial and resentencing should have been told about Travaglia's troubled upbringing, including physical and mental abuse by his father, his history of drug and alcohol abuse and the sleep deprivation that preceded the killings.

“The jury heard bits and pieces of family and social history information from Mr. Travaglia's life, but it was never explained in a cohesive theory,” Miller wrote. “The sum of all this testimony would have drastically changed the overall picture the jury would have seen of Mr. Travaglia.”

Travaglia and his co-conspirator, John Lesko, ended their eight-day spree by killing rookie police Officer Leonard Miller on Jan. 3, 1980.

Lesko, 57, formerly of Pittsburgh, and Travaglia, 57, of Washington Township were sentenced to death in 1981. They have been on death row longer than any other inmates in Pennsylvania.

Lesko's death sentence is on appeal in the federal courts.

Travaglia has repeatedly challenged his guilty verdict and sentencing in county, state and federal courts. In his latest try, his attorney claims a conflict of interest exists because District Attorney John Peck, who has overseen the prosecution since 1985, once worked in the public defender's office, which until three years ago presided over the defense.

Travaglia was represented by Dante Bertani, Westmoreland's chief public defender, throughout his first trial, several rounds of appeals, during the 2005 resentencing hearing and subsequent challenges. Bertani said Wednesday he had not seen the latest appeal and could not comment on its allegations.

Miller said he took over the case in 2013 and began a 2 12-year review that led to this week's call for a new trial on the basis that Bertani failed to present testimony, challenge witnesses and oppose court rulings.

St. Vincent law professor Bruce Antkowiak said bringing a new attorney into a case can often lead to finding issues not addressed in other appeals.

“Usually, if a case is this old, those problems have been weighed,” Antkowiak said. “But if the issues are ripe, there might be a reason for the appeal. If substantial errors were made 35 years ago, there are no provisions in the law where the court can excuse them.”

Peck said he had no involvement in Bertani's defense of Travaglia. He was elected as district attorney in the mid-1990s and served as an assistant under Bertani in the public defender's office while the defense for the original trial was being prepared.

“Mr. Bertani was representing him. I was totally unaware of what he was doing,” Peck said.

The killings that took place during the 1979 Christmas to New Year's holidays rocked the region.

Police said Travaglia and Lesko kidnapped their first victim at a Pittsburgh strip club, tortured him en route to a rural area in Westmoreland County, then killed him at Loyalhanna Dam.

While hitchhiking back to Pittsburgh, they were picked up by a Connellsville woman, whom they killed and left in a Downtown parking garage.

Their third victim was another man they took by force at a Pittsburgh strip club. They drove him to Indiana County, beat and shot him, then left him tied to a rock to die in the freezing water of a lake.

While driving back to Pittsburgh, police said Lesko and Travaglia shot the Apollo police officer, who was parked near a convenience store the pair wanted to rob.

A 15-year-old runaway, Richard Rutherford, was with Lesko and Travaglia as they drove to Indiana County and during the officer's killing. Rutherford was the lone eyewitness in the officer's shooting.

Travaglia's new defense contends Rutherford was not adequately questioned during the trial about what he saw and regarding a deal he reached with prosecutors to allow his criminal cases to be disposed of in juvenile court.

Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-830-6293 or rcholodofsky@tribweb.com.

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