One of Pittsburgh’s most famous bank robberies began in swashbuckling style, with a gun-wielding bandit leaping onto a counter and then springing over iron grillwork so he could get inside a teller’s cage. A second bandit whipped out a rifle and barked at customers to stay put.
This happened in Hays on a hot, muggy day in 1959, when Pittsburgh was in its industrial prime. An “iodine-colored” sky hovered over the city, the Post-Gazette later reported.
With $27,000 in loot, the robbers roared off in a getaway car. Police gave chase. The pursuit wound through the South Hills, along Castle Shannon Road, then Scott Road. At Greentree Road, the bandits roared through a roadblock while police blasted away, firing eight shots at the holdup crew.
The desperate robbers ditched their car on a dirt road called Junius Street on the West End and ran up a wooded hillside. Police were right behind them.
A Junius Street resident identified as Mrs. Robert Patterson was keeping an eye on neighborhood children playing outside when gunfire erupted behind her house. Take cover, she hollered at the kids. Bullets whizzed through the air. So began the Battle of Chicken Hill.
At least 200 law enforcement officers from several departments converged on the scene. Officials called for machine guns and the city’s “ace sharpshooters.” A helicopter hovered overhead.
Two policemen dropped with gunshot wounds. One, Anthony Paga, was injured so severely that a priest administered last rites on the scene. Paga later recovered and was given commendations for his courage that day.
Spectators clustered along the berm of the Parkway West and Saw Mill Run Boulevard. They had a great view as police closed in on the robbers. A breeze occasionally moved foliage enough to reveal the face of one of the gunmen. Residents on Wabash Avenue ran inside their homes to get cameras while gunshots echoed from the hill.
Finally, one bandit, Joseph Gaito, came staggering down the hill with his hands on his head. He’d suffered a bullet wound to the hip. Gaito was the swashbuckling robber. His partner Edward Kern was brought down in shackles a short time later.
Gaito, newsmen soon learned, was free on bail, awaiting trial on charges that he’d shot a Dormont police officer. He’d spend 17 years in prison on the bank robbery charges and become infamous as the “Chicken Hill Bandit.”
After his release from prison, Gaito continually made news. He was a suspect in the 1976 unsolved shooting deaths of his estranged wife and her lover, and in the 1982 robbery of a North Side supermarket. In 1993, a 73-year-old Gaito was accused of robbing a Downtown bank, but a jury found insufficient evidence to convict him.