The case of the Lobster Man put a circus sideshow performer and his family all over the news in a story that had an angry father, teens in love, a pawn shop gun, and a bearded lady as a character witness.
The accused, Grady Stiles Jr., had a genetic condition called ectrodactyly, which caused his legs to end below the knee with malformed feet and each of his hands to have just two digits apiece, forming a sort of claw.
Born in Pittsburgh, Stiles came from a carnival family that had been in sideshows for generations — ectrodactyly had run in the family since the 1840s. He started performing as a child and as an adult brought his two youngest children into the “Lobster Family” act.
The life of the real-life lobster family was grim. Stiles was a hard drinker who often beat his wife, Mary Teresa.
By 1978, Stiles and Mary Teresa had divorced, and he had married a woman named Barbara. The couple and some of Stiles’ children lived at 511 Foreland St., a North Side rowhouse.
One of Stiles’ daughters, 15-year-old Donna, did not have ectrodactyly. Described as pretty and petite, the ninth-grader had fallen for Jack Layne, 18, a high school dropout who lived at nearby 1041 Peralta St.
“She felt trapped in her home, and she wanted out, and this boy was the way out,” the assistant district attorney on the case, Robert Vincler, now in private practice, recalled this week.
Stiles did not like his daughter’s boyfriend, perhaps because Layne made it plain that Stiles would not control his daughter’s decision about whom to marry.
Stiles’ attorney Anthony DeCello had a different take. “The kid made fun of [Stiles],” DeCello said. “Grady never forgave anybody who did that. He carried that hate so badly. …The kid said he was a freak.” And Donna, according to DeCello, “was embarrassed of [her father]” in addition to being frightened of him. “When he said something, she jumped. She probably had a living hell in that house.”
To top things off, DeCello remembered, Stiles “wasn’t a dummy, he was pretty sharp. But he was a very violent person.” He was disliked by his fellow circus performers. “They hated him. … I never shook hands with him because I didn’t trust him.”
Stiles began to threaten Layne’s life and took Donna to an East Ohio Street pawn shop and bought a .32-caliber revolver, remarking jokingly that he would “use it on Jack.”
Donna ran away to stay for six days at the home of Layne’s sister, also on the North Side. She called her father from there.
“If you don’t get home in five minutes, I’m going to beat the hell out of you. Then, I’m going to kill [Layne],” Stiles told her, according to the Post-Gazette.
The girl then threatened to live with Layne if her father wouldn’t consent to her marrying him. At that, Stiles backed down and said he would prefer they married than lived together.
The wedding date was set for Sept. 28. The day before the murder, a friend of Layne’s saw Stiles pull a gun from the left side of his wheelchair, point it at Layne and say, “I will kill you before you marry my daughter,” according to news accounts.
On Sept. 27, Donna, her stepmother and Layne bought a wedding dress at Allegheny Center Mall. When they returned to the Stiles home, Stiles was in the living room without his wheelchair.
Donna and her stepmother went back outside to look for the wheelchair, but Stiles called back Layne.
“You got her now. Don’t laugh about it,” Stiles told Layne.
“I told you I’d get her,” Layne replied, according to Stiles.
Stiles grabbed the pawn shop gun from under the cushion of his stuffed chair, shot Layne in the chest, and as the teen turned to flee, shot him in the back.
Layne walked outside, mumbled, “He shot me,” and collapsed on the sidewalk in front of Donna. “He died in her arms,” Vincler said.
Donna later told the Associated Press that her father smiled at her from the window and said, “I told you I would kill him.”
“I’ll see you in your grave,” Donna cursed before she ran down the street.
When the police arrived, Stiles said, “Take me. I’m ready.”
Layne was pronounced dead about 30 minutes later at Allegheny General Hospital.
Stiles quickly gave his confession to police. “He was cooperative,” recalled one of the homicide detectives, Frank Amity. “We didn’t have any trouble with him at all.”
The trial lasted just a few days and included character witnesses such as a circus “fat lady” who got stuck in the witness chair and a bearded woman.
“That was one of the weirdest trials I ever covered,” said former Post-Gazette reporter Gabriel Ireton, now retired.
Stiles’ ex-wife came up from Florida with her new husband — a little person who performed as “The World’s Smallest Man” — and Donna, who had fled Pittsburgh to live with her mother.
Stiles, seated in his wheelchair, portrayed himself as a concerned father trying to protect his underage daughter from an older man. He claimed self-defense, saying Layne had lunged for him, but the jury didn’t buy it. He was found guilty of third-degree murder.
Then Ireton did something he didn’t usually do and entered the judge’s chambers to say. “Let me ask you something, Your Honor: How are you going to punish this guy?”
“I hadn’t thought of that,” replied Common Pleas Judge Thomas A. Harper. The judge contacted state prison officials, who responded that their facilities couldn’t accommodate Stiles’ special needs.
DeCello remembered it differently, saying he, Harper and another judge met in DeCello’s living room to discuss how to handle the defendant’s sentence.
In the end, Harper sentenced Stiles to 15 years’ probation, remarking that besides his ectrodactyly, Stiles also had emphysema, kidney disease and cirrhosis of the liver.
“Harper was kind of a softie in a lot of ways,” recalled one of the reporters covering the trial, Paul Maryniak, now executive editor of the Ahwatukee Foothills News in Phoenix, Ariz.
After the trial, Stiles moved to Florida, where his ex-wife lived in Gibsonton, a carnival wintering town near Tampa. The two eventually reconnected, divorced their respective spouses and in 1989, remarried. They lived with several of their children from their various marriages including Mrs. Stiles’ grown son, Harry Glenn Newman III. Newman, overweight and with an IQ of 79, performed at circuses under the name “the Human Blockhead,” hammering nails into his nostrils.
Stiles ran his own carnival shows and was known as a shrewd businessman. He also resumed drinking and abusing his wife.
In 1992, as Stiles sat in his trailer watching television in his underwear, someone shot him three times in the back of the head. Subsequent investigation led to Mrs. Stiles, Newman and a teen-age neighbor being arrested for a murder for hire plot. They were all convicted and sentenced to long prison terms.
Christopher Wyant, the teen-age triggerman, was released from prison in 2009. Newman, the middleman, died in prison in 2014. Among his tattoos was one on his arm that read “Forgive Me Mother.” Mrs. Stiles, who had paid $1,500 for the hit, was released from prison in 2000 and went back to Gibsonton. Tattooed on her buttock was “Grady Stiles Jr.”
No one from the family could be located for comment, although two of Stiles’ younger children, Grady Stiles III and Cathy Stiles Berry, appeared on AMC’s “Freakshow” reality program in 2014 to talk about their bitterness toward their father. Both inherited ectrodactyly.
Stiles was buried in at Sunset Memory Gardens near Tampa. According to the Associated Press, a bouquet of flowers adorned his coffin with a banner reading “From your loving wife.”
– Laura Schneiderman