Tuesday, July 03, 2007

The Washington Strangler

by Annette Dashofy

The question of why I choose to write crime fiction has come up several times lately. When I started writing “novels” back in my early teens I wrote westerns and science fiction mostly. They were all crap. Trust me. I think my mother probably still has them hidden away somewhere as potential blackmail material. But at some point, I switched to a life of crime…writing, that is. And after giving it some thought, I think I’ve pinpointed exactly when that happened.

I’ve lived in rural Washington County, Pennsylvania all my life. Most of our crime is small potatoes, although lately, drug dealers have been moving out here from Pittsburgh. But back in the mid-seventies, it seemed like a pretty safe place to live. Then came November of 1976.

On November 25, 1976, Susan Rush, age 21, of Washington was found strangled in the trunk of her car. She’d left her job at Murphy’s in the Washington Mall shortly after 6PM the night before.

Mary Irene Gency, age 16 of North Charleroi disappeared on February 13, 1977 after leaving home to meet some friends after dinner. Her battered and raped body was found six days later in some secluded woods.

Seventeen-year-old Deborah Jeannette Capiola of Findlay never made it to her school bus stop on the morning of March 17, 1977. Her body was discovered ten days later, just over the Allegheny County line in Robinson. She had been raped and strangled.

And on May 18, 1977, Brenda Ritter, age 18 left her boyfriend’s house shortly after 10PM as he and his mother watched her drive away, making sure that her doors were locked. Girls in Washington County were getting jittery. Still, she never made it home. Her body was found the next morning, three-quarters of a mile from her abandoned car. She also had been raped and strangled.

Some say the string of murders ended there, as suddenly as it began. Further research reveals other similar murders in West Virginia and Ohio before and after these dates.

The Washington Strangler, as this “serial killer” was called, made quite an impression on me. I was a senior in high school at the time. The dead girls were close to my age. I frequented the Washington Mall and G.C. Murphy’s where Susan Rush had worked.

It was during that time period that I wrote my first crime fiction novel, inspired by the real life unsolved mysteries. I created two women cops, the female versions of Starsky and Hutch. (Shortly afterwards a new hit TV show premiered. Cagney and Lacey. I guess I was a little ahead of my time.) Like my westerns and science fiction efforts, my first crime novel sucked swamp water big time. But in that novel, my fictional cops solved the string of murders. Small comfort. Three of the four real ones remain unsolved. Deborah Capiola’s killer was arrested in December 2000 after advances in DNA connected him to the murder. It’s also cleared him of at least two of the others.

That potentially leaves at least one other crazed killer out there.

That string of murders left me rattled as a young female, suddenly aware that her rural home wasn’t the safe haven she’d previously believed. But it also sparked my interest in crime writing. In our fiction, we have control over the outcome. Our heroes find all the clues, connect all the dots. The bad guys get caught and justice is served. There is a strange sense of fulfillment in making things turn out “right” in the end. Thirty years later, there is still no satisfactory ending to the stories of Susan Rush, Mary Gency, or Brenda Ritter.


Tory said...

How haunting, Annette! So, they never found the killer?

Happy Independence Day, Working Stiffs!

Joyce said...

Great post, Annette.

One of the many sad things about these three girls that most people don't think about is that the cops who investigated probably still think about these cases on a daily basis. Kind of like the cops who found the Boy in the Box fifty years ago, they want justice for the victims.

The best thing about writing crime fiction is that we can bring closure to the case that doesn't always happen in real life.

Annette said...

Or killers, Tory. No. Only the one killer was arrested and tried (and I assumed convicted although I couldn't locate any news clippings beyond that he was going to trial) for one of the murders.

Good point, Joyce. My heart goes out to the families, but the cops, too, still grieve I'm sure.

Kristine said...

Wow, Annette. It's one thing when we read about serial killers in books or watch them in movies, or even write about them in our own fiction, but when a serial killer strikes close to home like this, it's something entirely different. It becomes reality and that can be unsettling, even for the most seasoned writer.

brenda said...


As usual, I'm hooked. Excellent piece.

lisa curry said...

Wow, Annette -- this was a riveting read. You tell a great story. I got goosebumps.

Erin said...

I actually just stumbled across your blog googling this. I live in TX now, but I used to live in Brownsville, PA, and my dad grew up in Charleroi/Monessen. I remember my mom telling me about a cop or someone disguising themselves as a cop killing local women. I had to google a lot before I found anything. Do you know if Sherriff Hanna John was cleared (he committed suicide a few days after Ritter's murder)? I just wondered... Thanks for blogging about this!

Anonymous said...

Has anyone ever opened this cold case up and looked back into these murders? I'm a friend of the Ritter family and watched Brenda grow up. I also know Susan Rush's sister-n-law who was strangled as well. I lived in the Washington County area when this occured and still reside here. This was a very horrible time for our community. Feelings remain very unsettled because a killer has never been caught.

Anonymous said...

Finally after 33 years, on May 24, 2010, two people were arrested for the murder of Mary Gency

Anonymous said...

I also remember talk about the sheriff that committed suicide and the possibility of it being him. Rumor was that a note left behind made references to guilt to the crimes. Again...those were rumors. Was there anything done w/ DNA to clear him name? I would hate to see anyone's good name ruined. But there was alot of talk of how it all ended when he died. Does anyone know?

Anonymous said...

I believe my father is the police officer that found the girl in the trunk, if my Mother's memory is correct. She (my Mother) also told me about some police chief(?) or someone of some importance in that department committing suicide sometime after the girls were found. According to her, he was always "assumed" to be the killer

Anonymous said...

Contrary to verbal reports still being cited Sheriff Hannah "Pie" Johns was never cleared of Brenda's murder. The Sheriff was questioned by State investigators once, then summoned for a second round of questioning at which point in time he chose to drive home (while on duty) and commit suicide rather than udergo more questioning. What never gets discussed is the how and why Sheriff Johns was identified as a person of interest at the time of the murders. There was definitely a reason for this involving some eyewitness evidence of Johns' patrol cruiser parked behind Brenda's car on the night of the murder (and where Brenda's car was subsequently found the next day). It is very likely that Johns murdered two of the five women.

Cindy Goff said...

I'm stumbled upon the Washington Strangler because I have been looking at unsolved murders around the same time period. My small rural town of Chilhowie VA was rocked when a local girl went missing was found strangled in the woods. No one was ever charged. It has haunted me. If you are interested, here is a link to an article I wrote about the crime in my hometown:http://cindygoff.blogspot.com/2011/11/murder-of-sharon-blankenbeckler.html

Anonymous said...

And to this day they did not find the killer of Mary Gency The arrest of Bob Urwin was not right. As God as my witness he is an innocent man. The other one is a rotten coward that was able to testify against an innocent man. His day will come Filthy coward

RedSun76 said...

My mom worked at the courthouse for the DA office when this was all going down. She said she saw the pictures and certain stuff they witheld... chilling stuff.