The salmon-colored house rests on a slight rise about 75 feet from Greentree Road. You’ll probably miss it as you zip past on your way to the Starbucks or the Olive Garden or the Parkway West interchange, all less than half a mile away from the elegant home.
Like all older houses, it harbors secrets and mysteries. A young couple living there now have puzzled over a few: An old box of gun shell casings and a large piece of machinery, all discovered in the basement. Buried under several coats of paint on a living room wall, an Asian-inspired line painting. Then there is the story, now mostly forgotten, about a crime that occurred inside the house 70 years ago this week.
The story began on a wet and foggy Friday, Sept. 6, 1950. Shortly after 11 a.m., a young man carrying yellow papers and a flashlight stepped up to the back door of the house at 1023 Greentree Road. Rose Palermo, 60, the wife of a successful beer distributor, heard the man’s knock. Alone but apparently unconcerned, Mrs. Palermo answered the door. The man said he was there to check a meter. She let him in.
Once inside, the man brandished a handgun and ordered Mrs. Palermo to the front of the house. He opened the front door, briefly stepped outside and gave a signal. A blue Plymouth sedan rolled up the long driveway leading to the house and parked in the rear. Three men with silk scarves covering their faces exited the vehicle and joined the man with the gun inside the house.
The men made it clear to Mrs. Palermo they intended to rob her. She decided to fight and punched the man with the gun. He struck back, smashing her in the head with the butt of his pistol. The two scuffled. Mrs. Palermo punched her hand through a window — she meant to alert neighbors but succeeded only in cutting her wrist. She and the intruder tumbled down a set of steps into the basement. All four men rushed to subdue Mrs. Palermo — one held a kitchen knife and forced her into a wooden armchair. She was bound with a laundry line and gagged with one of her husband’s scarves.
The intruders rumbled up the steps and ransacked a dining room buffet. They soon found what they were looking for: a cosmetic case containing $10,000 — an especially large amount of money to be kept in a house. Mrs. Palermo and her husband, Salvatore, later said the cash was from the family’s beer business and was to be deposited later in the day. The men discovered another $100 in Mrs. Palermo’s purse.
Back in the basement, one of the intruders left the kitchen knife within reach of Mrs. Palermo and told her she could, in time, free herself but warned her not to make any noise until they were gone. As a precaution, the men ripped out the home’s phone cords.
Neighbor Paula Woods, peering from a window in her home 50 yards away, had seen the men enter the Palermo house. Several minutes later, she saw one of the men run outside the house and turn the blue Plymouth around. The other thieves then jumped into the car, which motored down the driveway and roared toward Pittsburgh.
Mrs. Woods raced to the Palermo house and found Mrs. Palermo standing in a doorway, bleeding from the head and wrist and screaming, “Oh, Mrs. Woods, I’ve been robbed, call the police.” Mrs. Palermo was taken to a hospital for treatment of her cuts and bruises.
Pittsburgh newspapers put the story on their front pages, depicting Mrs. Palermo as a plucky housewife who stood up to a ruthless band of thieves. The Post-Gazette published a picture of her in a printed dress and quoted her description of the fight: “I smacked him good.”
The police moved quickly at first. Within a day they announced the arrest of a former maid and three young men. After that, the story disappeared — no announcement of charges, no hearing.
Months passed. On April 16, 1951, police revealed the arrest of four new suspects, one of whom had been bragging about his $1,300 take in the Palermo heist. Police grilled the boastful Lewis Nath, 21, who soon gave up his cohorts, all 20 years old or younger. Nath, along with John Marsili and William J. Faust, were soon hauled into a hearing. A fourth suspect, “Honest” John Ciesielski, remained under police guard at South Side Hospital while recovering from an appendectomy. Newspapers offered a variety of spellings for the surnames of Ciesielski and Marsili. A fifth man, Fred Braun, was brought in as an accomplice.
The hearing quickly turned dramatic. As police escorted the suspects into the cramped hearing room, Barbara Nath stepped forward to embrace her son Lewis, identified as the man who posed as a meter reader. “My boy, my boy,” Barbara Nath sobbed. The outburst failed to move Salvatore Palermo, standing nearby with his wife, whose arm remained in a sling as a result of her injuries. He turned to Mrs. Nath and noted, “My wife isn’t crying.”
Mrs. Nath replied, “If he was your boy, you’d fight for him, too.” Her words would prove prescient.
News photographs of the hearing show the suspects cocking their heads with a devil-may-care attitude. They look like characters in a low-budget 1950s delinquent movie where the bad kids sport leather jackets and wavy pompadours. Braun stands out, wearing a letter jacket over a knitted sweater emblazoned with an image of a naying horse. He attempts to offset his Roy Rogers vibe by glowering into the camera.
Braun said he once worked as a handyman for the Palermo family and had “cased” the house for the robbers. His $500 cut of the loot was delivered by Ciesielski. “I never had so much money in my life and counted it seven times,” Braun testified. “But each time it came out $400. ‘Honest’ John gave me a fast count.”
The suspects were held for trial and it looked like the case would be closed quickly. Cielieski had other ideas. He gave authorities shocking news in June 1951: The robbery was orchestrated by Mr. and Mrs. Palermo’s son Samuel. Ciesielski told police that Samuel Palermo met the four suspects on Christmas Day 1949 at a Warrington Avenue gas station to propose the robbery. Samuel told them the house would be empty except for his mother, according to Cielieski. He quoted Samuel as telling them to “rough up the house to make it look good but don’t hurt my mother.”
When police arrested Samuel Palermo as an accessory, his wife, Anna, collapsed. The news was initially kept secret from his mother, who had suffered a heart attack during a visit to New York the day before.
By the time Samuel’s case went to trial in October 1951, the four men charged in the Palermo robbery had all pleaded guilty. Mr. and Mrs. Palermo stood by their son and vigorously denied his involvement in the crime.
“It’s impossible that Sam had anything to do with this,” Salvatore Palermo said. “He has worked for me for 18 years and makes enough money. He doesn’t have to steal.”
Samuel’s attorney, Ruggero Aldisert, called the accusation against his client a “frame-up” by the thieves and said it “was hatched up in the university of crime — the Allegheny County Jail.”
At trial, Nath and Braun backed away from the allegations and said Samuel Palermo had nothing to do with the robbery. They said they’d been pressured by the other three thieves to implicate the son. Samuel was then acquitted by Judge Michael A. Musmanno.
Mr. and Mrs. Palermo once again made headlines in 1964, this time because of a government plan to demolish the house at 1023 Greentree Road and build a post office in its place. Several Green Tree residents opposed the proposal by the General Services Administration and the house was saved.
Despite her heart ailment, Mrs. Palermo lived another three decades after the robbery that thrust her into headlines. She died April 9, 1984, at age 94. She was preceded in death by her husband. He died March 6, 1967 at age 81.
— Steve Mellon