Son recalls murdered father: 'We were like brothers in a lot of ways'

A 1977 photo from the wedding of John Shelkons, 68, second from right, of Baden. (Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette)

John Shelkons grabbed a shotgun and raced to his parents’ house just a few miles away in Baden. All he knew was that someone had broken in.

It was Jan. 7, 1978. He and his wife had just returned from a double date with his sister and her fiance — the foursome had seen a new sci-fi film, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” — and the phone was ringing. His sister was urgently summoning him to the family home where she still lived.

The ranch-style house was set on a dead end abutting the woods, roughly 75 feet from the road. When Mr. Shelkons rolled up, he saw an ambulance with its back doors open. He feared the worst, and rightfully so.

In 1978, detectives leave a house in Baden where John Shelkons was shot to death and his wife, Catherine, beaten. The 56-year-old steelworker was Surratt’s last known victim in Pennsylvania before police believe the killer struck again in Ohio. (Ross A. Catanza/The Pittsburgh Press)

Edward Surratt, known as the ‘Shotgun Killer,’ had struck again.

Mr. Shelkons remembers his parents had talked about the murderer rampaging through southwestern Pennsylvania since the fall. He would kill the men and abduct the women, who were either raped and slain outside or never seen again.

Mr. Shelkons’ father, also named John, warned his wife, Catherine, that should they ever be targeted, she mustn’t let the killer take her away.

“My mother absolutely refused to go out,” Mr. Shelkons said, “and that’s why she got beat the way she did.”

More than 40 years later, Mr. Shelkons, 68, does not shy away from talking about the most wrenching chapter of his life and the father he lost.

“He wasn’t just somebody who got shot. People need to realize when this happens it’s more than a headline. I think we get hit so much with this that people get jaded,” Mr. Shelkons said. “I really felt that if I let this ruin my life, I wouldn’t be honoring him.”

His father, a 56-year-old millworker of Lithuanian descent, had met his Italian wife at a dance at a Polish club. They moved into the family house built in the 1930s on McNair Street and had three children, John and his two younger sisters.

Mr. Shelkons said his father grew up among girls, too. With seven sisters, he and his son bonded as the only men in the family.

“We were like brothers in a lot of ways.”

He recalled his father as soft-spoken and easy to talk to. “He didn’t spend his time drinking,” Mr. Shelkons said. Rather, he was a family man, and Mr. Shelkons said he “couldn’t ask for a better dad.”

Investigators believe that John Shelkons was Surratt’s 17th murder victim — and his last in Pennsylvania. A week earlier on New Year’s Eve, Surratt had killed a couple in Breezewood and a man in nearby Fulton County on the Maryland border.

Now, around 12:45 a.m., Surratt slipped in through the locked cellar door on McNair Street. He climbed the stairs and saw the steelworker.

John Shelkons had no chance.

“He was shot pretty much point blank, they tell me. He would have dropped dead on the spot,” Mr. Shelkons said. “He took him out right away. He fell to the floor and fell against the couch my mother was sleeping on.”

Catherine Shelkons had taken pills to help her doze, but the commotion roused her. She would later tell her son that she woke up and saw her husband lying on the floor.

John and Catherine Shelkons, pictured here around the time of their marriage in 1950, were attacked in their Baden home by Surratt. The killer fatally shot John and kicked and beat Catherine with a telephone, breaking her nose, before he bolted from the house.

Surratt stood there, a bandana covering the lower half of his face, wearing gloves, a flannel shirt and jeans. His mother said the killer’s hair was neat. In fact, Surratt likely wore a wig. Mrs. Shelkons initially misidentified him as white, though he was Black.

“She said, ‘You killed my husband!’ She looked at him. He had his gun cross his body. He said, ‘Be quiet, you’re coming with me.’ She said, ‘No, I’m not going.’”

Mrs. Shelkons grabbed the phone and started to dial for help. But Surratt yanked the phone out of her hands and struck her with it. Then he caught her by the hair and kicked her in the face, breaking her nose.

“The last thing she remembers is he put his foot on her throat,” Mr. Shelkons said. She passed out.

Right then, his sister and her fiance walked in. And Surratt, possibly hearing their arrival, fled.

Six months after the murder, Surratt was finally captured in Florida. From jail, he confessed to the Shelkons slaying in a recorded interview with police, but he later recanted.

The Beaver County district attorney at the time abandoned the prosecution because Surratt had already been given multiple life sentences in Florida and South Carolina for other crimes.

It would take 43 more years before Surratt finally gave a confession that would stick in the Shelkons case — one of six slayings from that era that he would admit to earlier this year.

All these decades later, Mr. Shelkons thinks about the chain of events that spared his mother’s life.

Left:Top: John Shelkons, 68, of Baden was 25 when his father, also John Shelkons, was murdered in his Baden home by a shotgun-wielding Surratt, who broke in through the cellar and struck down the father of three. | Right:Bottom: John Shelkons (second from right) was married just months before Surratt killed his father and beat his mother during a home invasion on Jan. 7, 1978. (Andrew Rush/Post-Gazette)

The movie started late. The four of them went out for pizza afterward. Had his sister not arrived home at the time she did, probably startling Surratt, no one knows what would have happened.

Mr. Shelkons said a malaise had been nagging at him that week, starting around his 25th birthday a few days before the murder. All he wants now is to understand why Surratt killed his father.

“It’s almost like a search for the Holy Grail. What was it? What was it that would just kick him into gear?”

Jonathan D. Silver: