Hidden in every town and city in America lies a dark secret. While white picket fences, finely pruned lawns, and bright blue skies paint a lovely picture of a perfect neighborhood, nefarious characters live in the shadows. On December 18, 1977, it was reported by The New York Times that 27 confirmed unsolved murders had taken place in and around the greater Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania area. At the time, it was speculated that there may have been 41 murders in total, but that number has yet to be confirmed or denied.
Many true crime and horror enthusiasts are familiar with the major names in serial killer history. However, it is less likely that they would be exposed to killers who weren’t as publicized as the nation’s most infamous. During the 1970s, Southwestern Pennsylvania transformed from an unsuspecting steel driven area to a horrifying landscape that prompted a rise in firearm sales. At the same time, Ted Bundy, “Son of Sam” David Berkowitz, and the “Hillside Strangler” were active criminals, which may explain why you’ve never heard of these less publicized crimes or names like Edward Surratt before.
In order to understand the full scope of these unsolved murders that took place in Pittsburgh, one must delve into several local newspapers from the city, various counties in the surrounding area, and different states. These crimes didn’t just occur in Allegheny County. In fact, some of the incidents took place in Washington County, 23 miles south of the city, and Beaver County, approximately 30 miles north. There was a wide radius that this killer—or killers—covered over the course of the late-1970s.
On October 26, 1978, The Evening Standard—now known as the Herald Standard—printed a story that listed the ages and deaths of numerous victims. The Uniontown, Pennsylvania based newspaper listed an 8-year-old girl who was sexually assaulted and strangled to death, as well as two young men. One was 15 and burned to death, while the other was 17 and shot three times. These gruesome murders epitomize the brutality of the killer. When the news hit, there were 15 other unsolved murders that were piling up at various police departments beginning in 1973. However, they did not reach their peak until the late-1970s.
The Evening Standard questioned what would drive a person to kill children in cold blood, and how someone could be driven to dousing another individual with gasoline to set them ablaze. While they were unsure if the same person committed these heinous crimes, it was logical to assume that there was some connection based on age and location. Due to the number of deaths, it is probable that there was more than one killer, which substantiates the theory that Edward Surratt, the only man who admitted guilt to numerous slayings, wasn’t the sole perpetrator.
The pattern revealed by police after revealing the identities of the 18 victims was that they were predominantly young women that had been sexually assaulted as well as strangled. However, there were several killings that threw a wrench in their theory. For instance, an elderly jeweler was one of the victims, as was a sex worker. It was largely agreed that their targets were in a younger age bracket, relatively innocent, and naïve—allowing them to be easily persuaded by the perpetrator.
Police were hesitant to reveal the little evidence they did have. Writing from a 2021 perspective, it is easy to feel a bit disheartened knowing that we now have the advancements in technology that may have assisted in bringing justice to the victims. Forensic labs and DNA detection technology has advanced to such a high degree that even one of the most elusive murderers of the 20th century, Joseph James DeAngelo, the Golden State Killer, was finally captured and imprisoned. He remained an anonymous threat for decades, but thanks to genealogy reporting, detectives were finally able to close one of the biggest unsolved murder cases.
It is important to note these advancements, as they are integral in not only stopping murderers from going on long-lasting killing sprees, but saving people before they become victims. Had they existed in the 1970s, perhaps the deaths mentioned in this article could have been avoided. However, the majority remain unsolved.
Those that were solved can be traced to Edward Surratt. Raised in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, Surratt's preying field was a lovers’ lane in Findlay township. There he encountered John Feeny (17) and his girlfriend Ranee Gregor (15) enjoying a date in his family’s shared vehicle. The night of October 22, 1977, Surratt shot Feeny. Gregor was reported missing. Surratt had only been out of prison for 8 months after serving an attempted rape charge in Virginia.
It was evident that Surratt was not done with his crimes, as he has a lengthy history with sexual assault and murder. His return home to Aliquippa in 1977 marked the largest moral panic of the decade, as 27 unsolved murders abruptly occurred. It wasn’t until 1978 that he was officially arrested for attacking a family of three and failing to flee the premises before the police arrived.
To date, Surratt has only confessed to 6 of the unsolved murders that plagued the Pittsburgh area, leaving dozens unsolved. He is currently serving multiple life sentences.
It must be noted that I, the author, am from Washington, Pennsylvania, where several murders took place. My relatives lived in the area when these heinous crimes were committed. The stories about purchasing firearms, buddy systems, and trusting no one—not even the police—were passed down to me and were deeply important in penning this piece of true crime history. The names of Brenda Lee Ritter, Deborah Capiola, Barbara Lewis, Mary Irene Gency, and Susan Rush were five that came up the most often.
Brenda Lee Ritter’s case had evidence, a killer profile, and even connections to Texas serial killer Henry Lee Lucas. However, no one was ever charged for her murder. To this day, these cases remain unsolved, and the mysteries of Pittsburgh’s decade filled with death permeates oral histories across nearly every county nearby.
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The last update on these cases was in October of 2003, which surmised that local authorities were still plagued with the question of who committed such atrocities. While David Robert Kennedy was placed on trial or the murder of Deborah Capiola, it was uncovered that her death was not connected to two others. In fact, these killings were essentially an amalgamation of multiple killers going on separate sprees that local authorities could not pinpoint.
Even with two confirmed killers, Southwestern Pennsylvania continues to grieve the loss of the dozens of people who died during the 1970s at the hands of multiple killers who remain unknown. However, there is still hope as some cases can reopen if there is just cause and new evidence can be uncovered. There is still hope for justice.