The Virginia Beach murders

(Illustration by Chance Brinkman-Sull)

Pain remains despite arrest in the 1973 murders of two Penn Hills women in Virginia Beach.

A terrible scream of anguish pierced the stillness of the last afternoon of June 1973 in Penn Hills.

“Janice is dead! Janice is dead!” a trembling Lucille Pietropola shrieked. A Virginia newspaper reporter had just called to talk about the murders of her daughter Janice and Janice’s friend, Lynn Seethaler of Penn Hills, both 19, in a seaside cottage here where they had been vacationing.

Janice’s younger sister, Judy, then 16, ran down the stairs of the family home on Golden Gate Drive.

“She screamed so bad that all of the neighbors came out of their houses,” recalled Judy Poklemba, now 62, of Monroeville. “I turned around and went to the kitchen and people were all standing along their backyards of Sara Lane.”

About 15 minutes later, detectives in suits from the Penn Hills Police Department walked up the front steps of the house. Mrs. Pietropola and her husband, Michael, were waiting.

“She’s screaming, she’s yelling out of the door, ‘Is it true? Is it true? Is it true?’” Ms. Poklemba said.

“They nodded their heads.”

And so began the decadeslong mourning of two promising young women, both 1972 graduates of Penn Hills High School, whose lives were taken before they had really begun.

In this sleepy beach resort, a block from where waves crashed against the shore, someone had raped Janice and fatally shot both young women in the head inside their cottage at Farrar’s Motel on 10th Street at Atlantic Avenue. Their bodies were found on the day they planned to fly back to Pittsburgh.

The front page of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporting the murders of Janice Pietropola and Lynn Seethaler.

Virginia Beach police pulled out all the stops to find out who could have committed such barbarity. But the case went cold, leaving saddened and stunned residents of two cities 445 miles apart to grieve a mystery without resolution.

Suspect Ernest Broadnax. (Courtesy of Virginia Beach Sheriff’s Office)

That is, for nearly 46 years. On April 8, Virginia Beach police arrested Ernest Broadnax in his apartment in a housing facility for military veterans in Queens, N.Y. Broadnax, a convicted felon with several state prison stints in New York, was charged with two counts of homicide and one count of rape. He waived extradition to Virginia Beach, where he is being held. There has been no preliminary hearing because Broadnax, who turned 81 in July, has yet to be ruled competent for adjudication. He was 34 at the time of the crime.

Authorities have said that Broadnax was arrested after they followed a “strong lead” and utilized “advanced forensic technology.” The New York Times, quoting an unidentified law enforcement official, said DNA evidence found at the crime scene was matched to Broadnax’s profile in a national database.

The case is the oldest here to be cleared by arrest. The tenacity of the Virginia Beach police to never give up on the case has been hailed by law enforcement, the victims’ relatives and friends, and the townspeople here who only knew Janice and Lynn as “those poor Pittsburgh girls who were murdered at Farrar’s.”

But the trauma in the years between the crime and arrest cannot be overstated.

“A little bit of us all died,” said Janice’s older sister, Michelle Vaglia, 66, of Apollo. “My mother was never the same. It ruined her life.”

“It ruined our whole family,” Ms. Poklemba added.

'Very nice girls'

Lynn Seethaler, center, had been a member of the Rhythmettes, a dance team that performed at halftime of the Penn Hills High School football games. The photo is from her senior high school yearbook, the Seneca.

Back in 1972, the graduating class at Penn Hills High School was so huge — about 1,250 students — that Valerie Scalzo didn’t even know her future husband, Edward Mittereder, was a classmate. About 30 years later, they met by chance at Dick’s Diner in Murrysville and discovered their shared history. Five years later, they wed.

But Ms. Mittereder knew Janice and Lynn because they stood out.

“They were both very smart girls, very pretty, very nice, very popular,” Ms. Mittereder, of Murrysville, recalled. “They were very nice to people. You’d go by them in the hall, and they would say ‘Hi’ and smile. They had lots and lots of friends.

“They seemed to be the best of friends. When you’d see one, you’d see the other one.”

Janice and Lynn became friends in their sophomore year. Janice had spent only half of her freshman year at Penn Hills High because the family had moved from Wilkinsburg in January 1969, her sisters said. Attempts to reach Lynn’s surviving siblings were unsuccessful.

Both had brown hair. Lynn, 5 feet, 7 inches, had blue eyes; Janice, 5 feet, 2 inches, had brown eyes.

Next to their senior photos in the 1972 Seneca, the Penn Hills High School yearbook, were these notations:

“Lynn Maria Seethaler — ‘Skinny’…Commercial…Booster Club…Rhythmettes…Student Council…Student Secretary…Secretary.”

“Janice Pietropola — Commercial…Student Secretary…Honor Guard…Booster Club…Junior Homeroom Treasurer…Secretary.”

Lynn Seethaler in her senior photo from the 1972 Penn Hills High School yearbook, Seneca.

Janice Pietropola, senior yearbook photo.

Her sisters said Janice had excellent grades and a strong work ethic, waitressing at the Gold Circle restaurant and later doing secretarial work at Howard Hanna during her high school years. She saved so much money that she was able to buy herself a new white Volkswagen Beetle.

“A former boyfriend described her as the ‘nice, sweet girl next door,'” Ms. Poklemba said. “I think she was nicer than all of us.”

“She was smarter than all of us,” added her sister, Ms. Vaglia.

After graduation, Lynn worked as a secretary at Dun and Bradstreet Inc. Janice was a secretary for the Urban Redevelopment Authority in East Liberty. She was considering college and a career in law or journalism.

But in that fateful summer of 1973, Janice and Lynn were seeking fun and relaxation. Sun, surf and, they believed, safety awaited.

'Having a great time'

Lynn Seethaler and Janice Pietropola, both 19 of Penn Hills, stand in front of their vacation cottage at Farrar's Motel in Virginia Beach, Va., during the last week of June 1973. They were found murdered inside the cottage on June 30. After nearly 46 years, Virginia Beach police arrested a suspect in April. (Courtesy of Virginia Beach Police)

For Janice, “this was going to be the big vacation,” her sister Ms. Vaglia recalled.

Janice was so conscientious that she passed up a family vacation to Disney World when she was 17 because she didn’t want to miss work. But in 1973, she was ready for a break before starting a new job and possibly college.

The trip nearly didn’t happen. Initially, eight young women had planned to go, but six of them backed out for one reason or another, leaving only Janice and Lynn.

“I do remember them being really upset and deciding whether they were going to go or not,” Ms. Poklemba said. “I remember Janice saying, ‘I don’t really want to go, but I’ll go for Lynn,’ and Lynn kind of felt the same way.”

Virginia Beach was nothing like it is now. The city where the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean meet had a population of 198,700 in 1973. Today, it is more than double that, making it the largest city in Virginia, but it retains a lower-than-average violent crime rate, as it did in 1973.

“The types of controversies that we had then, people liked to cruise on Atlantic Avenue. That was the so-called big issue then that had to be addressed,” said Linwood Branch, 64, a lifelong resident and a city councilman from 1992 to 2002.

Mr. Branch’s family owned the one-story Lynn-Dee Motel on 11th Street. It was next to Farrar’s Motel on 10th Street, also family-owned and one story. Farrar’s had 30 units, including four cottages. It was opened in the 1940s by “Daddy” Bill Farrar and passed on to his children, including his daughter, Sadie Taylor.

An archival photo shows the cottage at Farrar’s Motel, where Lynn Seethaler and Janice Pietropola were murdered in June 1973.

This Days Inn owned by Linwood Branch sits on the site of the former Farrar’s Motel and Mr. Branch’s family’s Lynn-Dee Motel. (Julia Rendleman for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

“Back then, there was not a lot of crime,” said Mrs. Taylor’s son, John, now 71, a lifelong Virginia Beach resident. “There were a lot of wood frame motels along the boardwalk.”

“The resort then was seasonal and was basically made up of mom-and-pop motels,” Mr. Branch said. “We had young people and families. It really was a personal type of relationship. Farrar’s had the same thing.

“Pittsburgh was a huge draw for us. [They] would bring Iron City beer, and we’d catch crabs and eat together.”

That was the safe, homey, laid-back environment that Lynn and Janice entered when they checked into Farrar’s on Monday, June 25, 1973. They stayed in the first cottage nearest the beach. It contained a bedroom, a living room with a couch that pulled out into a bed, a kitchen and bathroom.

The intersection of 10th Street and Atlantic Avenue in Virginia Beach, Va., as it looks today. On the northern corner is where Farrar’s Motel once stood. (Julia Rendleman for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

At the time, Mr. Branch said, Virginia Beach had a lot for young people to enjoy, such as music and dancing in rocking clubs and bars, among them The Shack, The Peppermint Beach Club, Rogue’s Gallery. All of them are gone now.

Days Inn owner Linwood Branch, standing on his hotel’s balcony, said the 1973 murders “shook” him and the entire community. His hotel stands on the site where the murders took place. (Julia Rendleman for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

Mr. Branch’s grandfather died in 1977. “If he came back down to Virginia Beach and was transported to Atlantic Avenue, he wouldn’t know where he was,” he said. In the early 1980s, Mr. Branch bought Farrar’s and demolished it and the Lynn-Dee and constructed a multistory Days Inn. Similar development continued along the beachfront into the ’90s with national chains and high-rise hotels.

By all accounts, Lynn and Janice were having a ball. They hung out with other young people, went on a few dates, enjoyed the sun and ocean.

“We all got postcards,” Ms. Poklemba recalled. “They said, ‘Having a great time.'”

And there were pictures. One in particular stands out: Lynn and Janice outside the front door of their cottage at Farrar’s. Arms wrapped around each other, they’re glowing.

Lynn and Janice were scheduled to check out on June 30. Mr. Taylor was working in Farrar’s office that Saturday.

It was 11 a.m., an hour before checkout. He wondered why the Pittsburgh women in Cottage No. 1 hadn’t indicated their plans so he could schedule housekeeping. He grabbed a key and headed to their cottage.

He knocked. No response. He opened the door a crack, just enough to see a foot on the floor in the living room. He thought someone was sleeping and went back to the office.

And then a chill shot through him. “Something’s not right.”

'An awful stillness'

Gulls fly along the shoreline in Virginia Beach, Va. (Julia Rendleman for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

Mr. Taylor, 25 at the time, hurried back to the cottage.

“I pounded on the door. I thought, ‘They’re not sleeping!’

“I pushed the door open. It was partially blocked by one of the young ladies. I just wanted to make sure if there was anything I could do in there, to see if they were alive.”

To his horror, one body was on the living room floor, the other was on the bedroom floor.

“There was an awful stillness in there that’s hard to describe. Two humans on the floor but no breathing. Just an awful stillness. I pulled the door shut and went back to the office and called police.”

He recalls seeing blood but can’t say how much there was or other details of the crime scene.

“Did I block out the scene in some regard? I’m not sure,” he recalled. “It may have been so shocking to me —there was not a lot going through my mind other than these girls are deceased, and there was nothing I could do but call police as soon as possible.”

Virginia Beach police and detectives rushed to the scene. They alerted Penn Hills police to notify the Pietropola and Seethaler families of the tragedy that had befallen Janice and Lynn.

Both had been strangled. Janice had been raped and was shot three times in the right side of her head with a .22-caliber gun. Lynn had her neck slashed with a broken wine bottle and was twice shot in the head.

According to news reports at the time, police believed the murderer removed a screen and entered through a window. It was not known if the assailant was lying in wait or broke in after they returned to the cottage about midnight.

Back in Penn Hills, after learning of Janice’s murder, the large family — uncles, aunts, cousins — gathered in the Pietropolas’ home.

Michael Pietropola, family patriarch and namesake of the youngest sibling, 11 at the time, was surrounded by his four brothers. The men each took a shot of whiskey, even though they rarely drank. And then they were off, driving all of those grief-stricken miles to Virginia Beach so Mr. Pietropola could identify his murdered daughter.

Virginia Beach residents were horrified by the slayings.

“A murder, you don’t believe it can happen, especially back then,” said William Sessoms, who served as a city official for 30 years, 10 of them as mayor from 2008 to 2018. “It was unheard of back in those days.”

Mr. Branch agreed: “The biggest thing that had ever happened around here was they found a guy shooting a BB gun at some people. Pittsburgh people are like family to us. For us, it was personal.”

Lifelong resident John Atkinson, 78, said the murders shattered the belief that Virginia Beach was “small-town safe.”

“I think it caught everybody by surprise,” said Mr. Atkinson, who retired as city treasurer in December after 40 years. “It really just upset everybody.”

The investigation was headed by Virginia Beach homicide Detective William Haden. The bodies were discovered on his 31st birthday. The case would haunt him for the next 46 years.

'My girls'

Old photos of Janice Pietropola lie across her sister Judy Poklemba’s dining room table in Monroeville. (Delia Johnson/Post-Gazette)

Police did everything they could. They searched by helicopter, scoured rooftops, climbed into manholes. All available detectives and police were assigned to the case. Dozens of leads were followed and interviews conducted — then and in the years that followed.

Detectives looked at the several young men who Lynn and Janet had met on the beach. They had gone on dates with two of them. On two occasions, they had invited some of their new acquaintances back to their place for beers, according to published reports at the time. All were eliminated as suspects, as was a suspect in a rape-shooting in nearby Norfolk.

Janice Pietropola’s 1972 high school prom photo, showing the pink gown in which she was buried. (Provided by the family)

Mr. Taylor himself was among scores of men who were questioned, gave statements and took lie detector tests. He said he was happy to do anything to eliminate himself as a suspect so police could find the real murderer.

The city set up a reward fund early in July 1973 because, as then-Councilman J. Curtis Payne said, the murders “weighed heavily on our minds, and we felt that there should be something we could do.”

In a July 17, 1973, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story, detectives presciently said there was “no end in sight” to their probe of the brutal slayings.

In Penn Hills on the Thursday following the discovery, hundreds of mourners gathered for the funerals of Lynn and Janice at St. Bartholomew Church and St. Gerard Majella Church, respectively. Janice was buried in the pink gown she had worn to her senior prom a little more than a year earlier.

“After she died, my mom was never the same,” Ms. Vaglia said. “She would stay in her bedroom all day, shut the blinds and just wail.”

Because of that, Ms. Vaglia and her husband moved out of their home and into her parents’ home to care for the family.

“My mother died in 1994. She was 62. I think we all basically agreed as best we can that this is what killed her,” Ms. Vaglia said.

Years passed. Detective Haden and other Virginia Beach investigators continued to follow leads, tracking down possible suspects as far away as California. Nothing panned out.

Detective Haden, who was later promoted to captain, eventually retired. “I have always referred to them as my girls,” he told the Associated Press on the 25th anniversary of the slayings. “I still don’t know why this case was so personal.”

Other detectives took up the mantle, following leads as they would emerge.

None led anywhere — until last fall.

'We got him!'

Photographs of Janice Pietropola and Lynn Seethaler were among those in framed collages of victims of the 70 cold case homicides that Virginia Beach Detective Kristy Curtis keeps in her office. (Courtesy of Detective Kristy Curtis)

At age 34, Virginia Beach Detective Kristy Curtis wasn’t even born when Janice and Lynn were murdered.

Still, she said, “this was a case I was well aware of” when she became the lone full-time detective assigned to the department’s cold case unit 18 months ago.

Photographs of Janice and Lynn were among those in framed collages of victims of the 70 cold case homicides that Detective Curtis keeps in her office.

“It’s a small collage to personalize them…to remind myself who and what I’m working for,” said Detective Curtis, who has 13 years on the force, nine as a detective, mostly in the Special Victims Unit.

Virginia Beach cold case Detective Kristy Curtis headed the recent investigation that resulted in the April arrest of a suspect in the 1973 murders of Lynn Seethaler and Janice Pietropola. (Julia Rendleman for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

Virginia Beach Police Chief James A. “Jim” Cervera said Detective Curtis is not only a “hard-charging, dynamic detective,” but has the “passion and compassion” that make her perfect for her current position.

“There’s a virtue to Detective Curtis coming to work every day and looking at the pictures and saying, ‘I’m going to try,’ to say to the families when they call, ‘I know. I remember you, I remember the case. I’m going to try.'”

Which is why it was no surprise that when that “strong lead” came in last fall — police won’t say what it was — Detective Curtis, working with other detectives and agencies, aggressively pursued it. She was in touch with the Pietropola and Seethaler families throughout the process but never gave false hope.

On March 12, she had a conference call about the case with Janice’s surviving siblings. Detective Curtis won’t discuss the details of the call but acknowledged that everyone knew the significance and symbolism of the day it was made

“It would have been her 65th birthday,” she said about Janice. “I told them to go outside and look at the sun and that Janice was shining down on them.”

The surviving siblings were as moved by Detective Curtis’ empathy as they were by her professionalism.

Less than a month later, on April 8, Detective Curtis made another conference call to Janice’s siblings.

“We got him!” she said.

“We all broke down, including Kristy, all four of us. She’s crying with us.” Ms. Vaglia recalled.

“I thank God that we had her.”

'Cases like this stay with you'

Michelle Vaglia, of Apollo, and Judy Poklemba, of Monroeville, hold a photo from Ms. Vaglia’s March 1973 wedding. This picture is the last one they have of the family before their sister Janice Pietropola was killed. In the picture, from left, is Janice; her father, Michael Pietropola; her brother, Michael (front); Ms. Vaglia; Joe Vaglia; her mother, Lucille Pietropola; and Ms. Poklemba. (Delia Johnson/Post-Gazette)

There were more calls to be made after Detective Curtis took Broadnax into custody in New York. Among them was one to the original lead detective, retired Capt. Haden, now 77.

Virginia Beach Police Chief James A. ”Jim” Cervera said the April arrest of a suspect in the 1973 double murder of Janice Pietropola and Lynn Seethaler shows that ”we never forget.” (Julia Rendleman for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

“Cases like this stay with you,” said Chief Cervera, who joined the force five years after the crime. “He took it very personally. It made me feel really good to tell him the case was cleared. He was overjoyed. There was a lot of emotion that came out.”

Mr. Haden later told The New York Times, “It was an albatross around my neck all of those years, and that albatross has now been removed.” He declined to talk to other media.

Detective Curtis also called Mr. Taylor. “I can’t describe how I felt other than great joy but saddened by what had happened. I wondered who was alive from their families to hear this news,” he said.

The parents of both victims died before they learned of the arrest.

Among those who continue to grieve is Ms. Mittereder, their former classmate.

“My sadness is that this man lived his whole life, and they just didn’t get a chance to live theirs. When you’re 19, you have the whole world ahead of you, and he took that away.

“They had everything going for them.”

Michael A. Fuoco: mfuoco@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1968. Twitter: @michaelafuoco


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