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.