Ex-Florida homicide sergeant draws critical confessions

One retired police chief still recalls the jet-black eyes of the handcuffed serial killer staring at him across the desk. A former state trooper remembers the convict’s propensity to argue about anything.

And the law enforcement officer who led the Allegheny County Police hunt for the killer decades earlier can still picture him ignoring questions while doing push-ups in a jail cell after being caught.

Investigators over the years tried — and failed — to break the man they all described as a difficult suspect who despised law enforcement officers.

Police knew they couldn’t turn to DNA or any modern forensic technique to tie Edward Surratt to a string of slayings in Pennsylvania and Ohio in the 1970s. They would have to rely on the mercurial killer himself.

But it wasn’t until 2007, when a former homicide sergeant from Florida forged a bizarre relationship with the prolific murderer, that critical details finally emerged and shed light on one of the country’s most treacherous series of killings.

By then, Surratt had already been behind bars for nearly 30 years on a pair of life sentences for raping a mother and her daughter in Florida and had rejected all efforts by inquisitive cops who had come to see him.

Joe Matthews, a detective sergeant from Miami Beach who had taken on rapists, pedophiles and killers, got through to the Aliquippa native.

When they met at a prison near the Alabama border, things began poorly. Surratt told Mr. Matthews that he hated cops. Mr. Matthews countered that he was retired and just wanted him to listen. If Surratt didn’t like what he heard, he could leave.

“When he didn’t leave,” Mr. Matthews recalled recently, “I knew I had him.”

Sitting across from one another, Surratt mounted the next challenge. A guard brought two coffees, the first Surratt had in decades — but only one spoon.

The two stared at each other. Mr. Matthews likened it to the gunfight at the OK Corral. Surratt, he said, got the drop on him and grabbed the spoon.

The killer added his cream and sugar and stirred. Then he sucked on the utensil and handed it to Mr. Matthews, who put the same spoon in his mouth and removed it with an exaggerated pop.

It was, Mr. Matthews said, “Checkmate.” That uncomfortable interaction, he believes, helped solidify their relationship.

“Surratt, basically when he wasn’t arrogant, when he wasn’t cocky, playing the role, he was pleasant,” Mr. Matthews said. The men traded stories, “like buddies talking.”

After hours of conversation over two days, Mr. Matthews got Surratt to open up and make his first confessions to six savage crimes that had lingered unsolved since the late 1970s. He believes he reached Surratt, who had fought as a Marine in Vietnam, by relating to him as a human being.

“I wait patiently. You have to make it socially acceptable when somebody does something wrong. I probably said when he was talking about all the deaths in Vietnam and how bitter he was — and he was genuinely bitter — and I said, ‘My God, no wonder you’re here instead of out there and no wonder you did what you did,’ ” Mr. Matthews recalled.

“I let him know that he convinced me it wasn’t his fault.”

After coaxing the confessions, Mr. Matthews knew there were still secrets to plumb. Authorities had initially suspected Surratt of perhaps three dozen murders.

“I truly believe it could be double that or more,” Mr. Matthews said.

But there would be no more admissions of guilt to Mr. Matthews.

Surratt, always fickle, turned off that spigot. He grew mad that his confessions were publicized — Mr. Matthews said Surrat wrongly blamed him — and that he couldn’t get transferred to South Carolina, which has a prison system that he believes has better amenities than Florida’s.

It wasn’t the end of their relationship, however.

For the next decade, they exchanged letters. Surratt would discuss his health, prison conditions and inventions he dreamed up. He wrote wistfully about the Aliquippa of his youth. He thanked Mr. Matthews for sending him stamps and trying to reach people for him on the outside.

The killer in his own words

Samples of Edward Surratt’s correspondence with Joe Matthews

He even asked Mr. Matthews to call him Eddie, the same name that his father called him.

The killer, now 80, made Mr. Matthews his emergency contact during heart surgery several years ago and even sent him a fruitcake one Christmas.

Surratt’s note on the dessert, which remains uneaten: “I must be growing old in my old age. I can’t believe I’m doing this for a cop! :-) You have been a pal.”

Despite Surratt’s posture of friendship, Mr. Matthews said he was never suckered. He described the serial killer as considerate, sociable and even emotional.

But there was also a darkness. Surratt, he said, is a sociopath who could be “controlling, merciless, resentful and unsympathetic.”

“I also knew the inmate that would turn on me in a second, use me for his own benefit, and probably put a knife in my back, if one was available and if that is what he felt like doing,” Mr. Matthews said, describing him, above all, as a “survivor.”

All along, Mr. Matthews’ goal of maintaining a long-term relationship was to get the killer to continue to open up and confess to more of his atrocities.

In 2018, Surratt expressed concern about Pennsylvania state troopers who had visited him to take his DNA and quiz him about an unsolved murder.

“Oh, oh, Joe,” he wrote. “Trouble for me on the horizon.”

While Surratt denied involvement in that murder — and authorities said the DNA results vindicated him — he would eventually provide six more confessions earlier this year to one of the troopers, who became Surratt’s new pen pal, supplanting Mr. Matthews.

While those letters remain private between Surratt and the trooper, Mr. Matthews allowed the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to review a portion of his correspondence.

Surratt once wrote cryptically, “Aw, man, Joe, you are a real pal and I thank God that you are my friend. Keep your head down, Joe, and keep your powder dry. You never know when some maniac will come calling.”

Jack Nichols was a patrolman in Boardman, Ohio, in 1978 when he got a glimpse of the killer. He remembers babysitting a handcuffed Surratt as investigators prepared to interview him about the murder of a 70-year-old widow.

“At one point he goes, ‘If I wasn’t in these handcuffs, I could kill you like that.’ … He was not a tall guy, but he was put together pretty well. I remember him being stocky and muscular, not fat.”

A pre-sentence report from Florida in 1979 said a captain in the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office viewed Surratt as “depraved.” Deputies there called him “an extremely dangerous criminal, very fast or agile and extremely strong …”

“They advised that he … will kill at his first opportunity in an effort to escape custody and confinement.”

No trace of that Surratt emerged in the letters that Mr. Matthews provided to the Post-Gazette.

But an exchange recounted in a report written by Mr. Matthews after their 2007 meeting serves as a sobering reminder of what lurks under the surface of a serial killer.

“I have hurt a lot of people, a lot of families, but it doesn’t bother me,” Surratt said. “It never did, because that’s in the past, and I live for now.”

Jonathan D. Silver: jsilver@post-gazette.com