The final act of a disturbing and tragic love story began on a chilly February morning in 1955, when a two-tone Oldsmobile with whitewall tires pulled to the curb near the Lang Hotel on Frankstown Avenue.
Two men exited the vehicle. One was Russell Winterbottom: 32, tall and slender, with a long face and sad eyes. The other, his friend William Stanton, carried a .32 caliber pistol.
The two men entered the hotel, once a grand Victorian house but now just a bunch of shabby apartments. They marched up a set of stairs to the second floor. There, they pounded on an apartment door.
The two women living in the apartment were alarmed. They knew who was knocking. “Go away,” they called out.
One of the women was Lorraine Rodgers, 20. News pictures show her as a blonde with high cheekbones. Her lower eyelids have the puffy darkness of someone who’s endured too many sleepless nights. For 18 months, she and Winterbottom had lived together, but the relationship had recently come to a bad end.
Frightened, Rodgers darted to the bathroom.
Winterbottom forced his way into the apartment. At this point, Stanton handed the pistol to his pal, then left the scene.
Within seconds Winterbottom found his former girlfriend. He grabbed her by the wrist, dragged her into the kitchen and threw her to the floor.
Then he brandished the pistol and pointed it at his head. “I’ll kill myself if you don’t take me back,” he said.
Screams on the second floor attracted the attention of two downstairs tenants, Elizabeth Moser and Walter Henry.
Henry, 49, was an unemployed iron worker and World War II veteran who’d split with his wife a few years earlier. He rushed up the stairs, taking two at a time. His neighbor Moser followed more slowly.
As she reached the second floor, Moser heard two gunshots.
Then she saw Henry stagger out of the apartment. His face, she said, was an “iron color” and his eyes were closed. Henry started to fall. Moser caught him, then laid him on the floor. “I was holding him, trying to help,” Moser said. “But he was dead.”
By then, Winterbottom was dragging Rodgers down a back stairway and through an alley, where Stanton waited in the Oldsmobile. Rodgers was pushed into the vehicle; Winterbottom climbed in beside her and the Oldsmobile took off, toward Braddock Avenue.
I killed a man, Winterbottom said to Stanton.
This news took Stanton by surprise. He seemed upset and said he had to go to work. He pulled over near a drug store and got out. Winterbottom took the wheel. Now it was just he and Rodgers.
With the gun in his pocket, Winterbottom drove north out of the city and onto country roads. Mostly, he was quiet.
Rodgers was uncertain where they were driving, though she thought at one point they were were near Zelienople. She was concerned about the gun. Finally, Winterbottom pulled over to the side of a dirt road. In the distance, Rodgers could see farm houses.
I have to think for a while, Winterbottom said. He sat with his hand on the pistol. After a while, he asked Rodgers, What’s the right thing to do?
You need to give yourself up, she replied. Winterbottom, she said, seemed to agree.
She pleaded with him to put the pistol in the glove compartment. He complied.
On the drive back to Pittsburgh, Winterbottom meandered on back roads and claimed he was confused. “I killed an innocent man,” he said. “I didn’t mean to kill him, but I did.”
At a coroner’s inquest a month later, Winterbottom briefly sat next to his former girlfriend. In a news photograph of the encounter, Winterbottom appears calm and has slipped his arm around Rodgers, who cradles a cigarette between two fingers. After a day of testimony, Winterbottom was held on a charge of murder in the death of Walter Henry.
The trial was front-page news in Pittsburgh. Winterbottom was described as “love crazed and psychotic” after the breakup with Rodgers. His mother said he spent his days moping at the family’s’ Turtle Creek house and wouldn’t eat. He often woke in the middle of the night and paced the floor.
“I lost the only girl I ever loved,” Winterbottom said on the stand.
His estranged wife Florence, sitting in the first row of spectators, lowered her eyes and twisted a handkerchief.
Winterbottom testified he killed Henry by accident during a struggle for the gun. That was bunk, said Rodgers. She testified that Henry was killed while trying to intervene as Winterbottom dragged her out of the apartment. Winterbottom fired two shots — one missed, the second went into Henry’s chest.
A jury of eight women and four men found Winterbottom guilty of voluntary manslaughter. He sobbed as the verdict was read. Rodgers was not in the courtroom.