Mondays are Murder: Lesko and Travaglia

Ciao, amici! Today’s murder spotlight hits close to home. Literally. I’m talking about the “kill for thrill” duo John Lesko and Michael Travaglia. They’re from Western Pennsylvania, where (most of) you know I was born and raised. Travaglia went to my high school, and I know some of his family.

Like I said, close to home.

In 1979, Lesko and Travaglia were both 19 years old. They met while working at the Allegheny County Airport. Both abused drugs and alcohol. Some accounts claim they both tortured animals.

A few weeks before Christmas, the pair committed their first-known crime—they robbed Mary Campbell, a convenience store clerk, in Delmont. She believes she would have been their first kill had two customers not entered the store, prompting Lesko and Travaglia to flee.

Then, the week after Christmas, they began their “kill for thrill” murder spree. In a span of eight days, they:

  • kidnapped Peter Lovato (49), stole his wallet, tried to drown him in a Loyalhanna creek, then shot and killed him.
  • fatally shot Marlene Sue Newcomer (26) in her van on her way home from a party after she picked them up while they were hitchhiking.
  • abducted William C. Nicholls (32), stole his car, drove to Blue Spruce Lake, then shot him; while he was still alive, they bound and gagged him, weighted him with rocks, then threw him through a hole in the ice, where he drowned.
  • intentionally sped past Patrolman Leonard Miller (21) to get him to give chase, and after he pursued them, they shot him when he approached the car (Miller had only been a full-time officer for three days).

They were arrested in Pittsburgh when a detective with a keen eye spotted a man with a gun standing by a car. When they approached, he claimed he got the gun from two men staying at the Edison Hotel. It was Officer Miller’s gun. When the police found Lesko and Travaglia, Lesko was armed. Instead of shooting the police, he put down the gun and tried to hide it. As soon as the police retrieved it, Travaglia grew cocky. (Strange timing, if you ask me.)

The two killers were sentenced to death in 1981 for killing Officer Miller. They received life sentences for the other three murders. Upon hearing the verdict, Travaglia (then an avowed satanist) turned to his attorney and said, “Are you happy? I’ll be back to get you.”

The cases dragged on over the years, lingering in the appeals process. A few times, the men were retried. They were again found guilty. Twenty-five years after their arrests, Travaglia and Lesko claimed to have found Jesus. Survivors had little sympathy, and their new-found Christianity (obviously) didn’t change anything in their appeals.

Travaglia died of natural causes in prison on September 4, 2017. He was 59. Lesko is still on death row.

Can you imagine a killing spree so close to your home? How strange it is to know the family?

Can you imagine writing a novel about the topic?

Let’s discuss it.

54 thoughts on “Mondays are Murder: Lesko and Travaglia

  1. Pingback: Friday Finds – Staci Troilo

  2. Some people don’t seem to value life at all, especially other peoples’. The killing spree part is bad enough, but shooting the one poor victim and then drowning him? It’s the sick stuff that gets to me the most.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. That definitely hit close to home, Staci! It’s impossible to know what goes on inside the minds of such sadistic murderers, but many have tried to find out. This is such great story fodder!! Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I can’t read or watch true crime. Fiction? No problem for the most part, although I’m starting to be bothered by some of that too, depending on how graphic and/or brutal. I think it has to do with getting older.

    I live about thirty minutes from the heart of Amish Country in PA. Back in 2006, a guy went into a one room schoolhouse, tied up 10 Amish girls, shot all of them, then killed himself. Five survived and five died. It was such a heartbreaking tragedy.What I also really remember is that the families of the girls–every last one of them–forgave the killer and extended their sympathies to his wife. It wasn’t just the Amish community that was rocked, but all those around them. You just don’t it expect it to happen where you live.

    I was in Amish country just last weekend, sharing the roads with horses and buggies, passing Amish farms and workers. For such a quiet people, they have an amazing and strong conviction.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This reminds me of Capote’s In Cold Blood. So chilling. The random killings are the scariest, I think. Just murdered for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It could happen to any of us. Great post for the Halloween season, Staci.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. We recently had a pair of teens from a town up-island that went on a killing spree like this (a man from Australia and his American girlfriend, and a marine biologist). They led police in a chase across the country before turning the guns on themselves. Now I’m wondering if they got their idea from Lesko and Travaglia?
    I’ve written one thriller with POV’s done in the mind of the killer and have to admit the psychological aspect really pulled me in. What makes them turn to murder? They say no one is born evil- I say maybe not, but there are those who are born with a cruel streak. It’s only one small step to killer.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. As many of you know, Staci and I are sisters. I remember the murders quite well. The newspapers came up with the phrase kill for thrills murders because the had no reason for who they chose to kill. They simply chose people that crossed their paths. There were rumors that they killed just to see how the victim would react.

    I remember the parents and the brothers. They lost everything defending their son. The story is sad on multiple levels.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. People are the scariest monsters of all. We really have to be diligent around strangers. I like my stories to be a little more fun, so I won’t be picking this one as the basis for a tale. Someone like Sue Coletta could run with it.

    Liked by 4 people

  9. The evil men do – that’s terrifying. A guy hubby went to school with – all American-type, good athlete and student, friendly – murdered his girlfriend at an old drive-in. Shocked everyone in the community. I think he’s still in prison.

    Liked by 3 people

  10. It’s particularly scary when something like this hits close to home. Several years ago we had a couple of serial arsonists in this area, one of whom lived within a couple of miles. Although I write murder mysteries and have had serial killers, I don’t often delve deep into the psychological reasons behind the killings. Too scary!

    Liked by 4 people

    • It’s the psychological reasons that interest me most. I like to think if I understand the motivations (and pray those reasons are nothing that I’d ever relate to), I can accept the tragedies easier. I suspect there is no way to ease the feelings that accompany these horrors, but I still look for something to help me cope.

      Liked by 4 people

  11. Having this so close to home and knowing those connected/involved does put a whole different focus on the events. I wonder what set the pair off? This could make for a great story … my muse is coming up with posession theories, etc. Thanks for sharing, Staci 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think it’s the “pair” part of the story that’s most frightening. Well, along with them being in my backyard. To think that two people share such twisted thoughts and desires is… well, it’s beyond my ability to describe it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Staci, just reading your post now and remembering my classmate Leonard. We graduated together from Apollo-Ridge in 1977. I am so proud and grateful to had known him in his short life. Leonard was funny and kind. I believe I was in the Apollo square when the raced past trying to get Leonard’s attention. We used to hang out at the Stop n Go (I believe that was the name of the little convenience store).I went home right about the time Leonard took off in chase. I also think my sister and I might have been exposed to the pairs wickedness one night before the murder of Leonard and sometime when they threw Mr. Nicholls into the lake. My sister and I were travelling very late one night or early one morning along the road leading to Avonmore. We thought we saw something that resembled a person lying in the middle of the road. We did not stop because we were two young girls alone in the vehicle and no homes were close by and this was in the era where cell phones didn’t exist readily. I feel I should have called the police when we returned home; however, we were so unsure of what we saw. As we found out about their travels to Blue Spruce Lake we talked about how they might have been out in the are of Salina perhaps trying to kidnap others in the middle of the night for more of their “thrill killing”. Although I have moved away from the Apollo area, I still remember this viscous time in our community. I am proud of the way that the community has paid tribute to such a fine and serving young man, Mr. Leonard Miller.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Thank you for sharing your memories of Leonard Miller. It’s a lovely and fitting tribute to a fine man.

          That was such a horrible time in our history. There’s no way you could have known what you’d seen, and had you called the authorities, there would have been nothing they could have done. The vile duo would have long since moved on from where you’d seen them. Thank God you and your friend didn’t stop that night.


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