Fear Street Sewickley
Friday, October 15, 2021

Map of Sites on Tour can be accessed by clicking HERE.

Strava Route you can use in real time can be opened by clicking HERE.

Use the following guide to read along or to take a self-guided tour on your own time! Links at the bottom can be used to do your own research.

This is a work in progress. If you have a story to add, email Meghan at spookypgh@gmail.com

This tour is approximately 2.6 miles and begins at the
Sewickley Public Library – 500 Thorn Street Sewickley, PA 15143

Stop # 1 – Charles Isabella’s Restaurant – 425 Walnut Street – The large red brick building at 425 Walnut Street used to be home to a restaurant owned by Charles Isabella. On February 18, 1923, Mr. Isabella was murdered while he slept upstairs in his apartment. Eventually it came to light that he was murdered by Biagano Spartaco, a young man he had been mentoring.[1] On March 11, 1923, Mike Rosate, the man who purchased the restaurant after Isabella’s death, was found shot dead in his auto in front of 300 Walnut Street. In April 1925, Biagano was found shot to death and tossed down a hillside in Rochester.[2] In September of 1928, Tony Curcio and Nick Bartolotto were found dead on Curcio’s farm in Sewickley Heights. County Authorities tied these murders to the vendetta involving Charles Isabella. Curcio was the president of the Sons of Italy and a made man in the Sewickley Mafia. He always had a target on his head and expressed that sentiment frequently.[3]

Stop # 2 – Miss Mattie’s Tea Room – 515 Pryor Way – This location is now a private residence but during Prohibition it was a restaurant with a lively backroom. “In addition to restaurants for the hungry there were places to quench a thirst, legally or not. Even before the start of Prohibition in 1920, liquor sales were banned. Speakeasies in Sewickley, however, operated outside the law and are not well documented. The official police report for 1925 recorded 17 speakeasy arrests, 21 gambling arrests, and 6 for disorderly houses.’ In addition, hearsay abounds. There was one speakeasy on Broad Street, where a parking lot is now; one near Sickler’s across from the Pittsburgh National Bank parking lot; two on McCready Way; and two on Dickson Road. Often a restaurant had a speakeasy in back. Miss Mattie’s Tea Room, 515 Pryor Way, served more than plain tea. Miss Mattie was charged with operating a disorderly house when police found “’three men engaged in a card game with 25 cents in the pot and . . . a gallon of grain alcohol gurgling out under the bed.’”[4] In 1935, Mrs. Mattie Cox was fined again for having moonshine whisky in her home.[5] Later, at age 60, Mattie Cox would be murdered in her own tavern in Glenside at the Pleasant Inn. An employee, Alan Bell was the main suspect in the slaying.[6]

Stop # 3 – Dead in “Indian Battle” Game in Sewickley Home – 321 Hill Street – This is the location of arguably the most tragic death, or rather, deaths on our tour. On August 7, 1935, Robert Conley, 13, and his sister Betty Jean, 11, were home alone playing what authorities assumed to be a game of Cowboys and Indians. A few days prior, Robert had seen a Western movie with his friend Jack Edgar of 110 Kramer Street. It is believed that Robert found his stepfather’s gun and proceeded to pretend shoot his sister in the head. Robert didn’t know the gun was loaded and accidentally shot Betty Jean, killing her immediately. A neighbor at 309 Hill Street heard the gunshot and then listened to Robert crying for a few hours until she heard a second gunshot. Why she didn’t head over to the house to check on the boy, we will never know. Grief-stricken and moments before his stepfather Fred Ague returned home from work, Robert stood in front of a mirror, aimed the gun at his own temple, and pulled the trigger. Fred arrived home to find Betty Jean lying dead in the living room. He would find Robert upstairs, his face covered in red streaks, the gun lying inches from his hand. The house where this tragedy occurs is gone as it sat where this hospital parking lot is now. According to the 1940 census, Fred and the childrens’ mother, Mary Ague lived in this house at least 5 years after that horrible afternoon. I think I would have moved.[7]

Stop # 4 – Domenic Toia Murdered by Sewickley Mafia at Broad and Division on September 4, 1933 – Reports vary about Domenic Toia. His brother is quoted as saying that he owned a restaurant and was gunned down on Division Street because he wasn’t buying moonshine from the right people. [8] However, an article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette claims that Dominic frequently boasted that he was the Al Capone of the Sewickley Valley and that he was on his way up. Allegedly he warned other bootleggers that they would be wise to not undercut him. We don’t know if they listened but he was asked to join the new Italian Club on Broad Street. As he was walking to the club, he was ambushed. On this corner, the assassins jumped from the bushes and attacked him with blackjacks (a type of club with a leather strap for beating.) They hit him a few times (he was bloodied and bruised) until he fled. As he ran away, they shot him three times in the back, killing him.[9][10]

Stop # 5 – Walter Besterman found bound and beaten to death in his home at 604 Centennial Street on November 5, 1979 – Walter’s cousins from Coraopolis found his body when they were unable to reach him for a few days. Upon arrival they found the house in disarray and Walter lying face down in the hallway. Walter, 79, was a retired car salesman who was known to be quite frugal. He saved money by reading the Wall Street Journal every day at the library and by taking advantage of the free meals the hospital served to local senior citizens. He was not rich but had a habit of carrying a single 50 or 100 dollar bill in his wallet. His daughter-in-law warned him not carry such big bills because someone would try to take them from him.[11] It was suspected that the motive was robbery and in 1980 two teens from McKees Rocks were convicted of his murder. Joseph A. Turner and Ronald Bunkley had been committing crimes all over the area and were finally caught.[12]

Stop # 6 – Home of Sam Trunzo in 1929 – 617 Straight Street – This story has more twists and turns than the Bellrock caves (more on those later.) Sam Trunzo was an Italian immigrant who in 1929 had recently lost his position  as a gardener on the J.D. Lyon Estate. He blamed another Italian gardener named Vianese (or Dianese) Sgro for his departure. When the two men “bumped into each other” on that fateful day in March near Sgro’s home nearby on Nevin Street, they exchanged words. Accounts vary but Trunzo would eventually claim that he shot Sgro in self-defense. Immediately after the shooting, Sgro was dead and it was thought that Trunzo fled through the cemetery.[13][14] However, while doing my research on Ancestry.com I found Vianese Sgro’s death certificate and what I found shocked me. On death certificates they list an informant, meaning the person who helped the official fill out the form. Usually, the informant is next of kin. In this case, the informant was none other than Sam Trunzo![15] While witnesses claimed Sam had run up the hill to the cemetery, he probably came back down and went to the hospital to see if Sgro was actually dead. All of this was presumably happening while the police were out combing the woods for him!

Stop # 7 – Home of Vianese Sgro when he died in 1929 – 844 Nevin Ave – None of the articles I could find stated exactly where the murder of Vianese Sgro happened, but I think it probably happened very near to his home here. After Trunzo murdered Sgro, he fled to New Jersey and worked as a laborer in a factory there. Eventually he sent for his wife and child and they made a life for themselves, eventually having two more children. The story of Sam Trunzo in Sewickley should end there but fortunately for us, it does not. In March of 1940, Sam Trunzo turned himself in to Allegheny County detectives because he was tired of living in fear as a fugitive. His story was refined to the point that he claimed the murder was clearly self-defense and that Sgro had shot at him first. No one had heard that Han Solo used that excuse first so they believed him! During trial another gardener took the stand as a surprise witnesss. Lawrence LaSpada claimed he frequently saw the two men quarreling when they worked together on the Lyon Estate and the deceased man was known to have a violent temper. Sgro couln’t come to his own defense so a jury took less than 3 hours to acquit Trunzo of all charges. He went free and that should be the end of this story. It’s not and now we climb up the hill known as Dickson Road.

Stop # 8 – Home of John Dippolito when he died from multiple gunshots – 877 Dickson Road – The house on Dickson Road is still standing (despite there being a perilous quarry above it.) Also remaining are bushes that Sam Trunzo used to conceal himself while he hid, in the wee hours on February 25, 1954, waiting for John to come home from his job as a crane operator in the Sewickley Mill. John, 40, was separated from his wife Yolanda who was living with their children in California. Carmella Trunzo (Sam’s 23-year-old daughter) began dating John and Sam did not approve. Whether it was because of the age difference, the scandal of a married man, or the rumor that Carmella herself was married to someone back in Italy where her eight-year-old son still lived, we can’t be sure. Sam shot at John 5 times and then fled down Dickson, to Nevin, to Beaver, to Peebles, to Grimes, and then down to the river where he tossed the murder weapon. We know all of this because Sam confessed to it 3 years later in 1957. [16] In October of that year, Sam Trunzo was sentenced to 6-12 years. [17]

Stop # 9 – The Hill below the Bellrock Caves of Sewickley – We are not heading up into the caves tonight. I’d like to live to see tomorrow.
Legends and folklore have surrounded these caves for longer than the oldest person still living in Sewickley. Every child has heard the rumor that the caves go under the river and come out on the hill overlooking the Sewickley Bridge. Experts claim that this is simply not possible, but we still believe.
In his book, the Bellrock Caves of Sewickley, Richard S. Taylor[18], recounts many tales of him and his friends exploring the various rocky formations such as Dead Dog Gorge, (one of the explorers accidentally plunged his hand inside a dead dog while sightlessly searching for his flashlight) Fat Man’s Squeeze, the Devil’s Kitchen, and Tall Man’s Drop.
Because there have been many cases of children getting lost in these caves, they are continuously sealed up, only to be opened again. If you do decide to explore these caves (definitely not tonight!) please be aware that they are quite dangerous, and the area is infested with ticks. They can be accessed from the cemetery above or Miller Street at the end of Dickson Road.

Route between Stop # 8 and Stop # 10 (Blue Line on Google Map) – The route we will take to our next stop is almost the exact route that Sam Trunzo confessed to taking after he killed John Dippolito. After Sam threw the gun in the river he took the railroad tracks down a bit before catching a bus into McKees Rocks. He spent the night there and in the morning, he returned home to 512 Locust Street in Coraoolis. Numerous witnesses, including the bus driver, testified that they saw him the night/morning of the murder. Because so many hours had passed between the shooting (12AM) to the discovery of the body (8AM) a gunshot residue test did not conclusively show that Sam had shot a weapon. Because of this and lack of other evidence, Sam was let free and would remain so for 3 years until his confession in 1957.

Stop # 10 – Location of Sewickley’s first Cemetery – QV Middle School Football Field – The first place set apart in Sewickley for the general burial of the dead – then called “The Grave Yard” – was on a plot of ground of about half an acre in extent now occupied by the Quaker Valley Middle School on Graham Street, but originally known as Graveyard Lane. It continued in use for that purpose from near the early 1800s to 1867. It received about the same care, or rather neglect, usually accorded to country graveyards, and in its later years contained a thick and unsightly growth of tall grass and weeds, bushes, and brambles. When finally abandoned in 1867, the remains of two hundred and eighty-seven bodies were found and removed.[19]

Stop # 11 – Homemade bomb intended for older brother kills 13-year-old Terry Ford at 709 Harbaugh Street – At 11PM on July 31, 1976, Terry Ford went out into his front yard to search for earthworms for an upcoming family fishing trip. In the yard he found a pint can addressed to his older brother Ron. The package included directions saying “Crank 3 Times.” Terry did and he was simultaneously tossed in the air while his body was riddled with nails. He perished immediately and his mother, standing nearby was struck in the legs with shrapnel. It would come to light that Marine Pvt. Ralph “Billy” White of 234 Graham Street had intended the bomb for Terry’s brother but in the end it didn’t much matter who the victim was. White got a lenient sentence of 10-13 years for this crime.[20][21]


[1] The Daily Notes: https://www.newspapers.com/clip/87137189/

[2] Pittsburgh Daily Post: https://www.newspapers.com/clip/87102202/

[3] Pittsburgh Press: https://www.newspapers.com/clip/5649718/

[4] Sewickley: A History of a Valley Community by Frances C. Hardie, available at the library: https://librarycatalog.einetwork.net/Record/.b18569559

[5] Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: https://www.newspapers.com/clip/87102700/

[6] Daily Courier: https://www.newspapers.com/clip/87137668/

[7] Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=n49RAAAAIBAJ&sjid=JGkDAAAAIBAJ&pg=2455%2C5569049

[8] Sewickley: A History of a Valley Community by Frances C. Hardie, available at the library: https://librarycatalog.einetwork.net/Record/.b18569559

[9] Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Pg. 1: https://www.newspapers.com/clip/8753222/pittsburgh-post-gazette09111933-page/

[10] Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Pg. 2: https://www.newspapers.com/clip/8753163/post-gazette09111933-page-2/

[11] The Pittsburgh Press: https://www.newspapers.com/clip/87105901/

[12]Pittsburgh Press: https://www.newspapers.com/clip/87020723/

[13] Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph Pg 1: https://www.newspapers.com/clip/87107976/

[14] Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph Pg 2: https://www.newspapers.com/clip/87108056/

[15] Death Certificate on Ancestry.com: https://www.ancestry.com/sharing/26143905?h=504cab&utm_campaign=bandido-webparts&utm_source=post-share-modal&utm_medium=copy-url

[16] Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: https://www.newspapers.com/clip/76849502/

[17] Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: https://www.newspapers.com/clip/87109953/

[18] The Bellrock Caves of Sewickley by Richard S. Taylor, available at the library: https://librarycatalog.einetwork.net/Record/.b22640101

[19] Adapted from Sewickley Cemetery 1908, a brochure located in the Sewickley Public Library History Room vertical file. The original piece referred to the cemetery being where the Osburn residence was (the High School turned Middle school hadn’t been built yet.)

[20] The Pittsburgh Press: https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=SckdAAAAIBAJ&sjid=i1gEAAAAIBAJ&pg=7202%2C4053799

[21] Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: https://www.newspapers.com/clip/87112992/