Police press for final confessions from Pennsylvania’s dreaded serial killer

A lifetime after the funeral, the broken heart, the despair, Karen Moore still seethes with fury over the man she is convinced shattered her dreams.

She was a young mother that day four decades ago, deeply in love with her 28-year-old husband, Frank Zeigler. A bright future beckoned as they set up house on a pastoral acre near Kittanning.

But Zeigler’s job as a milk hauler for dairies would prove more treacherous than his combat service in Vietnam. His life was cut short, say police, by a serial killer named Edward Arthur Surratt.

In another context, the two men could have been reflections of one another — both Marine sergeants who had gone to war, both truck drivers, both from Western Pennsylvania.

But Surratt charted a radically different path when he returned home to Aliquippa from the rice paddies of Southeast Asia and began terrorizing communities during a killing spree unparalleled in Pennsylvania history.

Starting in 1977, the trail of bodies he left dominated newspapers’ front pages and terrified a generation while his spurts of savagery — including vicious sexual attacks on women — astonished even veteran investigators.

Covering the “shotgun killer”

Serial killer Edward Surratt terrorized communities in Western Pennsylvania in the 1970s

“What a wild maniac,” said Robert Meinert, the Allegheny County Police inspector who ran the squad hunting the killer. “He had to see blood, kill the man, then go after the woman, rape her and kill her.”

While Surratt has largely evaporated from public memory, investigators are once again paying close attention to him.

From a Florida prison, the aging murderer earlier this year confessed six slayings to Pennsylvania State Police, and the troopers are angling for more. Buoyed by the confessions, they hope to close the books on other slayings that are linked to Surratt, including Zeigler’s.

But with the killer turning 80 last month, time might be running out for the police, the relatives of those he is believed to have killed — and for the family of Surratt’s youngest known victim, a 15-year-old girl whose body remains missing more than 40 years after her death.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette examined scores of police and court records, correspondence between law enforcement agencies and confidential letters written by Surratt from prison, in addition to conducting more than three dozen interviews with victims’ families, police investigators and others to piece together a portrait of one of the most prolific serial killers of modern times.

Raised in a stable and relatively prosperous home, Surratt played tenor saxophone in school, spent two semesters in college, served as an assistant chaplain in the Army and once drew praise from a judge for the “superior intelligence” he displayed in writing a legal brief appealing a conviction in Florida.

Enzo Yaksic, a Boston expert on serial killers, maintains an extensive database of mass murderers across the country — 3,000 of them dating to 1900. Surratt occupies a special place in that gallery of death. “Surratt’s victim tally is similar to some of the most infamous serial murderers in history,” he said, listing other notorious killers such as Jeffrey Dahmer.

From fall 1977 through the following summer, tensions gripped both sides of the Pennsylvania-Ohio line, prompting people to lock their doors, hover over their children and buy guns, dogs and alarms.

The killer, then in his 30s, attacked victims in vehicles and violated them in their homes. He targeted the old and the young alike, families and people who were alone. He wielded guns, a knife, a baseball bat, abducted women, and left children orphans.

“To sneak into people’s homes in the middle of the night with murder and rape — that’s pure evil,” county police Superintendent Christopher Kearns said during a recent interview.

The shotgun slaying of a teenager in October 1977 helped spur Allegheny County’s sheriff to declare a “state of emergency” and warn that residents in southwestern Pennsylvania “are living in terror for their lives and the lives of their children.”

While he rampaged with impunity, his brutality and the haphazard nature of his crimes baffled authorities.

Lacking the crime-fighting technology that’s common today — DNA, GPS tracking, instantaneous communication — the panoply of police departments desperate to restore order found themselves handicapped. Investigators sometimes refused to cooperate with one another. And later, possible evidence that might have linked him to crimes in Allegheny County was destroyed after a 1996 flood ravaged a county basement storage area.

Making investigators’ jobs more difficult was the fact that Surratt’s victims didn’t fit a pattern.

The weapons he used differed. Police would later realize that he shifted his appearance like a chameleon, modifying his facial hair and donning wigs and disguises to mask his balding head and shield his identity. Surratt is Black, but witnesses misidentified the killer as white at least twice.

CHAMELEON KILLER: A Pittsburgh Press clipping from June 15, 1978 shows how Surratt would change his appearance to hide his identity.

When law enforcement finally linked the carnage to the Aliquippa native — his car and license plate were spotted near a murder scene in Bedford County — those who knew him were astounded. Wayne Lipecky, a former Beaver County public defender, considered Surratt a friend from first grade to high school.

“It came like a bolt out of the blue,” Mr. Lipecky said.

Allan D. Pass, a forensic mental health consultant and Kennedy native, worked with the homicide task force pursuing the killer. Before police had identified Surratt, Mr. Pass had put together a personality profile that he said proved to be highly accurate. In 1978, shortly after Surratt was captured, Mr. Pass interviewed him in his Florida jail cell.

Surratt, said Mr. Pass, “was killing people at record-breaking speed” and “dropping bodies at a faster rate than any other serial killer.”

Nineteen deaths — possibly more

Even as the region shuddered, the Zeiglers carried on with their plans to build a life. They had met on a blind date and quickly warmed to each other.

“I dated guys, but not like him,” Ms. Moore recalled recently. “He kept saying, ‘You’re my soulmate,’ and I said, ‘I think you’re mine, too.’ ”

By Sept. 27, 1977, the couple had two boys and a girl, and had just signed bank papers to buy four milk trucks for a new business venture.

That same day, Zeigler had been out on a milk run. This time, he wouldn’t return. His bloodied body was found in the cab of his tanker — shot twice in the head.

Robert Amann was the first police officer at the scene on Warrendale Bayne Road in Marshall. It was his first homicide — and Zeigler would become the first known Surratt victim in the county.

Walking up, Mr. Amann saw the blood. It streamed from under the driver’s door, stained the step leading to the cab. The windows were up, the doors locked.

“Murders didn’t happen in Marshall,” Mr. Amann recalled.

But three days later, Mr. Amann would head to another homicide scene in the quiet township, this time with two victims: Joseph Weinman and his wife, Katherine.

It would take months before police focused on Surratt as the culprit — in those murders and many others. For nearly a year, the long-haul trucker carved a bloody path through at least four states, zigzagging between Pennsylvania and Ohio before surfacing in South Carolina and finally emerging in Florida for a final spasm of violence.

Two of his victims were teenagers on a date. Another, police say, was a paraplegic Vietnam veteran and his wife. There was an apprentice electrician and a steelworker. Many were parents whose young children were home as the murders were carried out.

Ultimately, police would link 19 killings to Surratt but suspect that the true total is far higher.

Not until he was finally arrested in Florida and convicted in 1978 of the twisted rape of a mother and daughter did the bloodletting come to an end for the man dubbed the “Shotgun Killer” for his weapon of choice.

Edward Surratt is led to a hearing by sheriff’s deputies Ronald Bochenek, left and Ben Tillman, right in 1999. (Post-Gazette Archive)

“What Edward Surratt took off of me is we were supposed to grow old and watch our grandkids grow. I have so much anger over it,” Ms. Moore, 66, said. “I want to see him electrocuted. And I want to see him in a room one-on-one, no shackles, and ask him why he did this.”

Killer coffee

Over the decades, Edward Surratt melted into anonymity in the Florida prison system, hundreds of miles from his victims and their families.

He was doing two life sentences for raping a woman and her 18-year-old daughter in their St. Augustine home as the woman’s husband lay, hogtied and helpless, in the room.

Surratt was on the run at the time, and this was his sadistic coup de grace. If he were somehow ever released from Florida’s grasp, another twin life sentence awaited him in South Carolina after being convicted there of murdering a 66-year-old man with a baseball bat and raping and beating his wife so badly that she required “major cranial surgery, a throat operation and her jaw wired,” according to an Associated Press account during the trial.

From time to time, investigators made forays down south to try their luck at extracting confessions.

They always left their conversations with Surratt empty-handed.

But a major break would take place in 2007 when a retired Miami Beach detective sergeant named Joe Matthews walked into a Florida prison near the Alabama border.

Retired Miami Beach police homicide Sgt. Joe Matthews was the first investigator to extract confessions from Surratt. (Courtesy of Joe Matthews)

In a 29-year career, Mr. Matthews had encountered the worst of humanity — assassins, drug traffickers, pedophiles, rapists, crooked cops and thugs — during some of the most violent periods in southern Florida’s history.

By then he was well known to true-crime buffs.

Appearing on TV as the criminal investigator for “America’s Most Wanted,” Mr. Matthews was still a year or so away from perhaps his greatest investigative coup — assembling the evidence needed to finger a long-suspected drifter as the killer of Adam Walsh, the 6-year-old Florida boy whose 1981 death triggered a seismic shift in how police handle missing persons cases and spurred the creation of a national sex offender registry.

Now Mr. Matthews had been asked as a favor to a friend of the chief of the Beaver Township police department in Mahoning County, Ohio, in whose jurisdiction four murders had occurred in 1977, to see if he could crack Surratt, a suspect in those killings.

Armed by the chief with a list of 41 possible Surratt victims, including Zeigler, Mr. Matthews sat down with the Shotgun Killer.

In a series of interviews with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, marking the first time he has publicly discussed his interactions with the serial murderer, Mr. Matthews explained how he developed a rapport with Surratt.

A natural raconteur, Mr. Matthews bantered with the killer about his upbringing, the cold weather in Aliquippa, his parents. He was trying to find Surratt’s humanity as he mined for information.

But always, Mr. Matthews said, there was an underlying objective: confessions. And Surratt, cold and calculating, had a goal, too — to be moved out of the Florida prison system, preferably to South Carolina’s, which he deemed superior.

Despite Surratt’s upbringing in a well-to-do churchgoing family, media reports would later indicate that he had several brushes with the law, including breaking an Aliquippa police officer’s nose and molesting a boy in Virginia Beach.

A background report on Surratt compiled by state police lists encounters with law enforcement back to 1958, when he was 17. It said he attacked a man with a pipe in 1964. The following year he was charged while in the Army with loitering and prowling, though the case was dismissed. He was charged with petty theft in California, arrested as a fugitive in Arizona, and racked up traffic violations in North Carolina.

But there was no outward sign of the horrors to come.

Surratt joined the Army in 1964 and trained as a chaplain. During his rape trial in Florida, he testified that he became a Green Beret and left the service on a hardship discharge after his father died in 1965. The next year he enlisted in the Marines and went to war, fighting in the Tet Offensive and receiving a Purple Heart.

Surratt’s squad would accompany the team that manned a howitzer, targeting Viet Cong fighters, Mr. Matthews said.

A letter from Edward Surratt written to Joe Matthews. Read more of these letters in “The cop and the killer”

One incident haunted Surratt.

“This one particular night it was unusually dark, and they felt really uncomfortable. If ever something was gonna happen, it would be that night. They were all in their foxholes, and then they heard all kinds of noises coming over,” Mr. Matthews said Surratt told him.

The Marines shot flares and saw Viet Cong streaming over the razor wire.

“They opened up on them, shooting and killing them all, and then [the Viet Cong] were using the dead bodies to try to climb over,” Mr. Matthews said.

Someone tossed a hand grenade, and the explosion shot Surratt’s friend out of the foxhole, blowing off his arm. Surratt’s eardrums were ruptured, and shrapnel pierced his chest.

Surratt harbored a deep animosity toward the U.S. over Vietnam, according to Mr. Matthews.

Those familiar with the Surratt case, such as Ms. Moore, can’t help but wonder whether Vietnam turned him into a mass murderer.

The killer told Mr. Matthews that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I couldn’t distinguish between right and wrong. I felt nothing. I didn’t care, and I never lost a second of sleep because life and death meant nothing to me,” Surratt told Mr. Matthews, according to a report he wrote at the time.

Edgewood police Chief Robert Payne, seen here in 2004 when he ran the Plum department, hopes that ongoing efforts by law enforcement can coax additional confessions from the aging Surratt, who is the only suspect in five unsolved killings in Allegheny County. Chief Payne was a homicide sergeant on the Allegheny County Police task force in the 1970s that hunted the murderer. (V.W.H.Campbell/Post-Gazette)

Robert Payne, police chief in Edgewood, doesn’t buy the Vietnam theory. He served as the county police homicide sergeant during the Surratt investigation.

“I was in Vietnam at the same time he was, and I got out at the same time. I didn’t come back here and kill people.”

Surratt told Mr. Matthews that sex drove him to commit the crimes.

There was at least one undeniable link between Surratt’s military experience and his bursts of violence as a civilian.

“One time he said, ‘I went on a mission’ ” when he referred to killing people,” Mr. Matthews said.

Chief Payne believes that Surratt stalked at least some of his victims, harking back to the reconnaissance he did during wartime, and approached them with meticulous care, making sure to plan an escape route.

Surratt sought out ranch-style houses, often with glass doors leading into kitchens or living rooms. He would sneak up late at night, but not too late, when the occupants would still be awake.

“The guy’s usually in his shorts or underwear watching TV by himself, and the woman is usually in the kitchen or the bathroom,” Mr. Matthews said. “As soon as he walked in, he’d have a shotgun, the guy watching TV would stand up and say, ‘What the hell?’ and boom, he’s dead. The woman, hearing the explosion, would run out, and he’d rape her and then kill her.”

Old confessions

Over hours-long conversations during several meetings with Mr. Matthews, Surratt would come to admit to some of his earliest killings.

He confessed to shooting apprentice electrician David Hamilton inside his Beaver Township home on Sept. 19, 1977, and abducting his wife, Linda. Mrs. Hamilton, a former beautician who worked as a truck-stop waitress, was never found. Surratt told Mr. Matthews that she never would be.

He also admitted to blasting John Feeny in the neck with a shotgun a month later as the 17-year-old idled in his van along a lane in Findlay near the Pittsburgh airport with his date, Ranee Gregor.

The body of John Feeny, 17, was found in his family van on Oct. 22, 1977. The teen had gone on a date with Ranee Gregor, 15, when they were surprised by a gun-toting Surratt, who abducted the young woman and later claimed that he buried her in a slag heap. Her remains have never been found. (The Pittsburgh Press/Oct. 25, 1977)

John, one of six children, had dropped out of school and worked as a busboy. His brother recalled him as mechanically inclined and artistic. Ranee was 15, pretty and petite, just days shy of her birthday. The oldest of four girls, Ranee was a junior at Montour High School, where she managed the girls’ cross-country team and worked on the yearbook staff.

Police found John’s body in the blood-spattered van on a dirt road near an old strip mining area. The motor was still running. The only trace of Ranee was her blue suede jacket and purse, inside of which was John’s empty wallet.

She was never found. The killer would later tell Mr. Matthews that her body was unrecoverable because he had dumped her in a slag pile that was later covered with decades of debris — a claim that some local police say they don’t believe.

Ranee Gregor, left, and John Feeny circa 1977. (Post-Gazette Archives)

At some point, Mr. Matthews said, he asked Surratt whether he remembered any identifiable characteristics about Ranee — a scar, a birthmark, tattoos, jewelry.

Surratt said that Ranee wore a watch — shiny and new.

Mr. Matthews said that investigators would take the information he relayed and approach Ranee’s mother, visiting her house to check Surratt’s story. They asked to see the watch, he said.

For decades, Ranee’s mother thought the watch was in her daughter’s room, and when the police came calling, she directed them to it, he said.

“She said, ‘Here, it’s in the gift box,’ “ Mr. Matthews said. “She opens it up. And it’s empty.”

Despite Ranee’s age, Surratt was adamant that he never killed children.

Mr. Matthews crossed off three homicide victims on his list, including a 5-year-old. But he secured confessions to the two other killings in Beaver Township — John and Mary Davis, a couple in their 60s. They were the last confessions that Mr. Matthews would get from the Shotgun Killer.

New confessions

Though police in Beaver Township could now rest, their cases cleared, Surratt’s return to silence threatened to forever bury information about some of his worst atrocities elsewhere in Ohio — he is the prime suspect in the killing of Katherine Filicky, a 70-year-old widow from Boardman, who was beaten and left dead in her bathtub — and in Pennsylvania, where the unsolved killings continue to gnaw at old detectives.

Several years ago, a Pennsylvania state trooper working on an old murder case of a Black teenage girl got a DNA sample from Surratt. Authorities tested it against evidence recovered from that slaying and another from that era.

Surratt was cleared through the DNA results, according to Beaver County District Attorney David Lozier.

In a 2018 letter to Mr. Matthews, Surratt wrote about the encounter and claimed that he never killed a Black person.

“They questioned me about the murder of a young Black girl, whom I’ve never seen before or talked to,” Surratt wrote. “I have never killed anyone Black.”

But that wasn’t the end of the story.

Over time, much like Mr. Matthews had done, Trooper Max DeLuca developed a relationship with Surratt, one that enabled him, earlier this year, to coax the first confessions from the killer since 2007, these to murders in Beaver, Bedford and Fulton counties.

There was John Shelkons, a 56-year-old Baden steelworker; Guy and Laura Mills, a Breezewood couple in their 60s, killed on New Year’s Eve 1977; Joel Krueger, 36, who was slain the same night a few miles away; and William and Nancy Adams, a young couple from Fallston.

William and Nancy Adams, circa 1977. (Post-Gazette archives)

Mrs. Adams, like several other victims, had vanished. Eight years later, her bones would be found in Brady’s Run Park, not far from where she was abducted.

Mr. Lozier said the only thing he had to give Surratt was a written promise not to prosecute the killer.

“There was an opportunity so we jumped at it,” Mr. Lozier said. Top prosecutors in other counties followed suit.

Surratt’s confessions confirmed what family members of the Beaver County victims had believed for many years.

“They’ve all moved on,” Mr. Lozier said. “I hate to use words like that, but they’ve all forced themselves to move past the events.”

Now, Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. is looking into the possibility of authorizing a similar immunity agreement to present to Surratt so they can close the books on their remaining cases: Zeigler, the Weinmans, and Richard and Donna Hyde.

The tombstone marking the grave site of Frank Zeigler, who police believe was fatally shot by serial killer Edward Surratt in 1977, includes a photograph of him and his wife Karen. (Alexandra Wimley/Post-Gazette)

Police say Surratt is the “sole suspect” in those cases but not in any others in Allegheny County.

With their two young boys at home, Mr. Weinman, 30, a camera repairman and yet another Vietnam veteran, and his wife, Katherine, 29, were slain on their property in Marshall.

Joseph and Katherine Weinman. (The Pittsburgh Press/Oct. 5, 1977)

Though a Viet Cong bullet had made Mr. Weinman a paraplegic, he didn’t allow his injuries to define him. He worked, drove a motor home, swam and traveled. “Nothing could break his spirit,” one relative told The Pittsburgh Press.

He was found on his gurney with his skull crushed. Police believe he regained consciousness after an initial blow — possibly with a five-pound sledgehammer that was missing from the garage — and might have been scrambling for a long gun in the house when he was killed.

Katherine, who never gave up on her husband through his recuperation and ongoing bouts with bedsores, was studying child psychology and known for the Halloween costumes she made for her boys. She lay in the driveway, bludgeoned and stabbed multiple times with a steak knife, her throat slashed, clad only in socks. She had been raped. There were signs that she had fought her attacker.

Their children, who were 2 and 5 at the time, found the bodies. The brothers declined to be interviewed for this story.

Mr. Hyde, a longtime teacher, was principal of Fern Hollow Elementary School in Moon. Chief Payne vividly remembers arriving at the scene.

“I got chills because I said, ‘Jesus, this looks just like the Weinman house.’ ”

Mr. Hyde had been on the phone when he heard the sound of breaking glass and got up to investigate, Chief Payne said. His killer felled him with a shotgun blast. Today the school building where he worked carries his name.

Richard and Donna Hyde. (The Pittsburgh Press/Dec. 4, 1977)

His wife, Donna, a beautician who styled hair in her home, took off running, likely trying to get to her in-laws’ house. She was found a day later about two miles away, partially nude, bludgeoned to death. They had two daughters, who didn’t want to speak for this story.

Trooper DeLuca said he’s prepared to return to Florida and interview Surratt upon the request of Allegheny County authorities. Earlier this year, Mr. Meinert, the former county homicide boss, and Chief Payne briefed the trooper and county investigators about the unsolved murders.

Mr. Meinert made a plea.

“I asked them, please, see if they could get us Ranee Gregor’s body, even if they had some bones or partial bones or something.”

When Trooper DeLuca interviewed Surratt about the Beaver County killings, they touched on the Allegheny County cases.

“He didn’t make admissions, but he said he felt bad about Mr. Weinman having been a Vietnam vet,” Mr. Meinert said.

Now, investigators must wait to see if the DA will sign off on an immunity agreement. And Karen Moore must wait, too — for a confession, an explanation and the headline in her local paper that she yearns for, one that says Edward Surratt is dead.

“I won’t get my closure until he dies,” Ms. Moore said. “I don’t think I’ll have my justice until he takes his last breath.”

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