From the first time anyone asked him why he shot and killed his father, Mickey Chervenak always said he only did it to protect his mom and younger sister.
Mickey, whose given name was Michael, was just 10 when he was charged on Sept. 6, 1957 with murder for shooting his father, Michael E. Chervenak Jr., 31. At the time, he was said to be the youngest person ever charged with murder in Allegheny County.
Though the 1957 case lasted a mere week, it quickly grabbed attention in newspapers across the nation, where pictures of the striking, towheaded boy with the piercing eyes who shot his father in the chest with a shotgun to defend his mother, ran in papers big and small from coast to coast.
Photographers not only got pictures of Mickey in a police car as he was taken from his home at 8438 Dersam St. in Pittsburgh’s East Hills neighborhood, they were given access to him the next day at the police station. They took touching photos of Mickey, still in the same grimy white T-shirt he was wearing when he shot his father, when his mother came to the station to bring him a sandwich and comic books.
And a week later when a coroner’s inquest — a jury trial held by the coroner’s office, now known as the medical examiner — found Mickey’s case to be justifiable homicide and he was set free, photographers were there, again, to get photos of Mickey, his younger sister, Janet, 3, and their mother, Shirley, hugging each other in joy. What happened to the family after the case left the newspapers is unclear. They may have moved, and the Post-Gazette was unable to discern what happened to Mickey and his family after that.
In 1957 the case got so much attention for the same reason that it was so quickly resolved: At least to those outside of the father’s family, it was a clear-cut case of a son defending his mother from a longtime abusive father.
According to stories at the time in the Post-Gazette and the Pittsburgh Press, as well as police reports the Post-Gazette recently obtained, it began at about 9 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 6, 1957, when Mickey and his father returned from fishing together.
Mr. Chervenak (pronounced SHER-ven-ak), who worked at US Steel’s Edgar Thomson works in Braddock, brought home six beers and began drinking. He quickly downed two beers and was working on his third when he became enraged about 40 minutes later over the eggs his wife served him, and then the corn she cooked up instead.
He threw the eggs at her and began yelling that he hated her. He slapped her several times and choked her before she broke free. Then he turned his rage on his son, beating him across his behind with his belt, and slapping him across the face hard enough that Mickey’s head slammed into a wall.
It was not the first time. Neighbors said they routinely heard him yelling at his family. And Shirley Chervenak told police her husband would sometimes take her down into their basement to beat her so that the neighbors would not hear.
“All my married life has been awful,” Mrs. Chervenak told police, according to the Press. “I just couldn’t please him. The children and I lived in fear 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
But on that day, Mickey had had enough. After his father stopped beating him, he ran upstairs and got a J.C. Higgins Sears & Roebuck 12-gauge shotgun from under his parents’ bed. His father had taught him how to use it after buying it just a couple weeks earlier because someone tried to break into the home.
Mickey loaded it and brought it down the stairs, resting it on the banister and aiming it at the doorway to the living room. The shotgun was nearly as long as he was tall, and weighed nearly 6 pounds.
When his father came through the doorway, Mickey shot him once from less than a foot away, blasting a 2 ½-inch hole in his father’s chest, killing him almost instantly.
“I just couldn’t take it any longer,” Mickey told police. “I could mind father beating me, but I just couldn’t stand him beating my mommy. He beat Janet too.”
Despite the abuse, neighbors described Mickey as a nice and polite boy, and Mrs. Chervenak as a good mother.
The inquest was just a week after the murder. And the evidence — in particular color photos police took of the injuries to Mickey caused by his father and the testimony from neighbors about the father’s abuse — proved to be overwhelming to police, the coroner, and, ultimately, the jury.
“Gentlemen of the jury, I cannot honestly ask you to find that this boy be held for the grand jury,” Allegheny County Coroner William D. McClelland told the jury, according to the Post-Gazette. “There are circumstances that can be termed justifiable homicide, and you should give that your consideration.”
They quickly agreed and voted the case to be justifiable homicide.
Mickey, who had quietly testified on his own behalf, admitting he shot his father, was confused by the verdict.
“What does it mean?” he asked his mother.
“It means you get to go home,” she said, the Post-Gazette reported.
They, and Janet, fell into each other in a family hug, crying.
Not everyone was overjoyed.
After Mickey testified, the Post-Gazette reported that while he was walking back to his seat, one of Mr. Chervenak’s two sisters who attended the inquest, Mary Janucko or Ann Matechen, said out loud to Mickey: “You lied! You lied!”
Mickey answered back, “No I didn’t,” before sobbing and collapsing into his mother’s arms.
A few days earlier at Mr. Chervenak’s funeral, one of the two sisters also screamed: “My brother… my brother… if she [Shirley Chervenak] had given him a home, he wouldn’t be here. She killed him… She killed him,” according to an account in the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph.
Mr. Chervenak’s two sisters and one brother, Frank, are all deceased now.
A daughter of one of the sisters, who asked that her name not be used, knew about the story and said “it was a long time ago and it was a tragedy. But it’s over and it’s done.”
“I really don’t think there’s any interest in digging this up again.”
Two other relatives, who asked to remain anonymous, said that the statements from the sisters at the inquest and at the funeral are part and parcel of what Mr. Chervenak’s family really believed happened in the case: That it was not Mickey who shot his father, it was Mr. Chervenak’s wife, Shirley. Mickey was just covering for his mother — a theory detectives quashed early on after questioning the boy alone.
The Chervenak family never reconciled with Shirley Chervenak or Mickey and his sister.
“They hated each other,” a relative said. “They never really made up with each other.”
“It’s a shame, because I always wondered what happened to them, what happened to Mickey.”
No one from the Chervenak side of the family has any idea where Mickey, his mother and sister ended up. And there is no traceable record of the family after February, 1958 — except on two last court documents.
First, a will was filed for Mr. Chervenak. The only asset listed that would go to Mrs. Chervenak was the family’s 1956 Chevy Sedan, valued at $700.
Then, in an odd request, but one that probably spoke to the family’s troubled financial life after Mr. Chervenak’s death, Mrs. Chervenak on Feb. 14, 1958 filed a request with the Allegheny County Coroner’s office to get back the shotgun that Mickey had used to shoot his father.
It was returned to her the next day.
In the last story about the family ever to appear in a Pittsburgh paper, the day after the coroner’s inquest set Mickey free, Mrs. Chervenak, 31, told the Pittsburgh Press that she was thinking about leaving town and going back to her hometown in New York state.
She was an only child. Her father had died in 1955, and her mother sometime before that.
“I have no relatives, only the children,” Mrs. Chervenak said then. “I may go back to New York but I’m not sure. I don’t want to stay here.”
Looking at Mickey, who was playing with his sister during the interview, she told the reporter: “I don’t know how it will affect him later on.”
— Sean D. Hamill (email@example.com, or 412-263-2579 or Twitter: @seandhamill)