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Some still haunted by 'Kill for Thrill' murder spree

Chuck Biedka
| Sunday, Jan. 3, 2010

Even 30 years later, "kill for thrill" nightmares terrorize Mary Campbell.

The then-Delmont store clerk was bound and robbed at gunpoint by John C. Lesko and Michael J. Travaglia, mere weeks before the men started a nine-day "kill for thrill" spree.

"I waited for the shot. I was sure he was going to shoot me," Campbell recalled this week.

Lesko, of Pittsburgh, and Travaglia, of Washington Township (Westmoreland County), killed four people -- for no apparent reason.

The first victim died on Dec. 27, 1979. The last, Apollo police Officer Leonard C. Miller, 21, was shot to death 30 years ago, Jan. 3, 1980. Police arrested the pair inside a seedy Pittsburgh hotel the same day. In 1981, Lesko and Travaglia were convicted and sentenced to death.

Numerous appeals have been filed in the past three decades. Even now, the men, who are now 51, await rulings from the state Supreme Court.

All of this frightens Campbell. "I'm terrified that somehow they will escape or be released. What would I do?" she said.

Campbell, as well as friends and families of the victims face an unwelcome 30-year anniversary.

Now 64 and living in Shippenville, Clarion County, Campbell still believes she would have been the men's first shooting victim, but they were interrupted at the Stop N Go on Route 66 just after 5 a.m. on Dec. 9, 1979.

Lesko and Travaglia had been in the store numerous times in the prior two weeks, so when they entered that day, "I didn't pay much attention ... I didn't think anything of it," Campbell remembers.

Lesko walked behind her menacingly and Travaglia pulled a pistol.

They tied Campbell with dirty, yellow nylon rope and forced her to lie on the cold floor.

While Lesko sledgehammered open a floor safe, Travaglia waved a pistol at her as she pleaded, "Please don't shoot me," as she thought about her husband and two children at their home in Slickville, Salem Township.

Travaglia glared back at her and pointed the gun at her head, she said.

But then the gunman suddenly yelled to his partner, 'Hey. Let's get out of here' and they left," Campbell said.

Two men had arrived in the parking lot.

They were computer programmer Richard W. Stevenson of Greensburg and his boss, Larry E. Clawson of Youngwood. Then aged 22 and 30, respectively, they stopped at the store to buy donuts and chocolate milk on their way to work.

"The first strange thing as we walked to the door another guy was coming out. He was holding a large paper bag in both arms and I held the door for him," Stevenson said.

"When we got inside we saw donuts all over the floor and nobody at the counter. Then Mary was trying to get up," he said.

Stevenson remembers Clawson yelling, "Lock the doors. Lock us in. I'm calling the police."

He said he and Clawson, who remain best of friends, never knew what became of Campbell. He said he was "floored" a few months back when Campbell called to say thanks.

"We often wondered what happened to her," Stevenson said.

Campbell said she didn't realize who she had dealt with until the arrests. "I saw a picture of Michael Travaglia in the Tribune-Review and I said, 'Oh, my God. That's who robbed me.' "

To this day, Campbell remains frightened by the pair.

Former Vandergrift police officer Lou Purificato was on patrol just after 5 a.m. on Jan. 3, 1980, when he heard a radio call he can never forget.

He was stunned by the gasping, garbled voice of his friend Miller. Purificato instantly knew Miller was minutes from death.

"The voice came over, 'I'm shot. Shhhoottt. Send...' and I knew he was only a mile away ... and I hit the gas," Purificato said.

"The voice sounded like a kid speaking under water, but I knew it was Leonard. I had worked with him Christmas night."

Arriving on the Oklahoma side of the Apollo Bridge, he found Miller on the ground on the driver's side of his cruiser.

"He was holding the mike and there was blood on it. There was blood everywhere," Purificato remembers. "He seemed unconscious (but) twitched. I told him 'We're here' and he relaxed and died in a puddle of his blood."

Lesko and Travaglia, then 21, goaded Miller into chasing them, racing past him several times in the imported sports car they had stolen from William Nicholls, a Mt. Lebanon man they had kidnapped and drowned in an Indiana County lake a few hours earlier.

Travaglia shot Miller as he approached the pulled-over car.

Miller was hit twice -- once in the lower throat and once in his abdomen.

Current appeals

Although the pair was convicted and sentenced in 1981, their lives have been spared by various court rulings.

After a new trial, Lesko was re-sentenced to death in 1995 and after another trial, Travaglia was re-sentenced to death in 2005.

Both have active appeals before the state Supreme Court.

In August 2006, Lesko was granted another trial for ineffective representation by his first trial attorney.

Westmoreland County District Attorney John Peck is appealing the new trial order.

It's unclear how long it will take for the appeals to wind through the legal system.

Peck said he still believes Lesko and Travaglia should be executed.

"It was how these crimes were committed. They were the most depraved crimes committed in the county in the last 60 years," Peck said. "Four innocent people were killed in cold blood."

Death versus life

Purificato, who now Vandergrift's mayor, and former Apollo Mayor William Kerr believe executing the killers is proper justice for the murder.

"Justice has to be swift if it means anything. Some people just need to be put to death," Purificato said.

Kerr, who gave Miller's eulogy 30 years ago, said the slain police officer "loved life, people and his job."

He said Miller talked to young people about staying out of trouble and spoke to numerous groups about the dangers of drugs and alcohol. He was personable, Kerr added.

Westmoreland County Public Defender Dante Bertani, Travaglia's attorney and a death penalty opponent, wants the men sentenced to life in prison -- the same sentence they received for the other three murders.

"Look at the millions of dollars that have been wasted. If they would have sentenced him to life then all this money wouldn't have been wasted," Bertani said.

Peck disagreed.

"The evidence is undisputed. They're guilty. Four different juries have brought back a finding of death penalty," he said.

Additional Information:

Celebrating Leonard Miller

The Leonard C. Miller Home of Adelphoi Village and the Armstrong County District Attorney's office will sponsor 'A Celebration of Life' public program on Thursday, Jan. 14, at 6 p.m. in the Apollo-Ridge High School auditorium, Spring Church.

'The program will not be a memorial service, but one that will honor Officer Leonard Miller for his distinguished service, heroic courage and supreme sacrifice to the community and will bring recognition to all law enforcement officers for their dedication to protect and to serve our citizens,' D.A. Scott Andreassi said.

All levels of law enforcement will be honored in presentations, as will the state police Camp Cadet, Lenape Technical School Law Enforcement program, and the Miller Home, named for the officer.

Additional Information:

Lesko, Travaglia time line

• Dec. 9, 1979: The pair rob Mary N. Campbell in the Delmont Stop N Go. They leave when two customers arrive in the parking lot.

• Dec. 27, 1979: Peter Levato of the North Side killed in Loyalhanna Township after being kidnapped outside of a Pittsburgh bar.

• Jan. 1, 1980: Marlene Sue Newcomer of Connellsville picked up the killers while they were hitchhiking. She was near Delmont and her body left in her vehicle in a downtown Pittsburgh parking garage.

• Jan. 2, 1980: William Nicholls of Mt. Lebanon kidnapped outside a Pittsburgh bar and drowned in Indiana County.

• Jan. 3, 1980: Apollo Officer Leonard C. Miller killed in Apollo.

• February 1981: Lesko and Travaglia convicted of Miller homicide and are sentenced to death.

• 1991: Federal appeals court vacates Lesko sentence.

• 1995: Westmoreland County jury re-sentences Lesko to death.

• 1996: Federal appeals court vacates Travaglia sentence.

• 2005: Travaglia is sentenced to death by lethal injection after a re-sentencing trial.

• August 2006: Lesko conviction overturned and new trial ordered.

• January, 2010: Appeals involving both men pending in state Supreme Court.

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