One afternoon in mid-April, Marlene Vettorel drove her small white car down a narrow lane off of Route 50 in Washington County. “Road Closed, no outlet,” a sign read.
She navigated her vehicle around several massive potholes filled with rainwater and parked near a railroad trestle. From there she walked. A few hundred feet further down the lane, she found a footpath leading through a wooded area to her grandparents’ home. She hadn’t visited in years and was uncertain what she’d find at the hill’s crest.
Marlene, 69, had been cooped up for weeks in accordance with the governor’s stay-at-home order. During that time, she thought about the past and all of the things gone from her life. While picking up medication from a pharmacy near her Meadowlands home, she decided to revisit the place near Avella where she’d spent so much of her childhood.
She climbed the footpath until it leveled slightly. There, among a tangle of vines and thorny bushes, she found scattered piles of yellow bricks, a crumbling cinder block wall, concrete steps overgrown with moss. The house was gone.
Marlene wept at the memories. She recalled her family’s corn roasts, fishing at nearby lakes, her grandparents’ funky paisley linoleum floor, and stories about her first stay-at-home order.
That strange confinement began Nov. 30, 1952. And rather than coming from a distant governor, the demand was issued by a group of escaped prisoners, one of whom was nicknamed “The Gouger” because he’d once liberated a victim’s eyeballs from their sockets. The ordeal would for years haunt certain members of Marlene’s family, and at least one of the hostage-takers.
After an escape, trouble arrives
On a cold Sunday morning, as Marlene’s grandfather Emile Lerby and his son Bert were leaving for a days-long deer hunt, they watched an unfamiliar Plymouth pull off Route 50 and onto the lane leading to the Lerby home. Inside the car were several men.
Bert thought maybe the driver was having trouble navigating snowy Route 50. He suggested to his father that he turn around and make sure everything was OK. Emile demurred. There’s no problem, he said, and the two continued on their way.
Ethel Lerby, Marlene’s grandmother, was now alone. Around 10:30 a.m., she climbed the cellar steps and heard a knock at the front door. She answered to face a slim man with thick, dark eyebrows. “We have a sick man in the car,” he said. “We need to call a doctor.”
The man brandished a .38 revolver. He and four other men quickly pushed past Ethel and entered the house.
The men quickly searched each room while Ethel stood startled and afraid. The group seemed jumpy. One carried a long knife in his belt and another held a .22 rifle.
“All you can do is harm me,” Ethel said. “There’s nobody else here.”
“You’ll be alright, just take it easy,” said the man with the .38. He was Virgil Toney, 42, and until a few hours earlier, he’d been serving a 75- to 120-year sentence at Western Penitentiary on Pittsburgh’s North Side.
Shortly after breakfast, Toney and nine other inmates took over a large cellblock, tied up an assistant warden and several guards, then slipped through a hole they’d cut in the prison ceiling. The inmates escaped by making their way to the prison roof and then climbing down a homemade rope they tossed over the side of a 75-foot wall. The height was apparently too much for one, who stayed behind and was eventually captured.
Four of the escapees went in different directions, but five stuck together. They hustled to a nearby J&L coal yard, where they overpowered a watchman and stole his car and firearms. Before police could establish effective roadblocks, the escapees drove 30 miles into Washington County, looking for a place to hide.
At the Lerby home, Toney did most of the speaking — it was clear to Ethel he was the group’s leader. Newspapers described him as a “dope addict” and “leader of the deadly Toney gang.” His rap sheet included arrests for forging prescriptions, burglary, armed robbery and assault with intent to kill. While in prison, he stabbed a member of his own gang for “squealing.”
Toney took Ethel’s portable radio into a bedroom, where he and three of his cohorts listened to news of their escape. Reporters discussed the massive manhunt just getting underway. One of the escapees stayed in the living room to keep an eye on Ethel.
Minutes passed. By nature, Ethel was calm and polite, relatives say. She fixed coffee and french-fried potatoes for her uninvited guests, who kept watch out a front window overlooking distant Route 50.
Soon the five men changed out of their prison clothes, helping themselves to Mr. Lerby’s duds. They burned their prison money in the coal furnace.
Nick Derembeis, 41, took over coffee-making duties. Derembeis was a dark-skinned man who stood just over 5-foot-2. He entered Western Penitentiary in 1934 to serve a 38- to 97-year sentence for “mayhem — robbery and escape,” according to prison records. He and a companion had used a knife to pluck out the eyeballs of George Stratigos, owner of an Oakland bowling alley, during a $15 robbery.
Derembeis chafed at the nickname he’d earned.
“Tell the public not to call me ‘The Gouger,’” he told reporters. “I’m not serving time for gouging. I’m serving on another charge.”
Ethel called him Nick.
Early Sunday afternoon, the sharp ring of Ethel’s telephone shattered the stillness that had settled over the Lerby house. Alarmed, the escapees jumped. Ethel answered. It was her daughter Mary Gagich, who lived with husband John Sr. and two young children in Rea, a few miles away. Mary wondered why Ethel hadn’t arrived for a planned visit.
Ethel answered vaguely. This didn’t sit right with Mary. After hanging up, she told John. Sr. they should check on her. They loaded their children, toddler Marlene and baby John Jr., in their 1948 Ford and headed west.
John Sr. parked near the Lerby house and instructed Mary to take the children inside. He then walked a short distance to check on a few of his muskrat traps.
With her kids in tow, Mary stepped through her mother’s front door. The escapees suddenly had three more hostages, two of whom were in diapers. The men watched warily through a window as John Sr. checked his traps. When he returned to the house, he too became a captive.
Ten people now crowded into the small abode. Toney kept the radio on for updates on the manhunt. The youngest hostage, sixth-month-old John Jr., began to cry. His mother feared he’d caught a cold. Tension mounted. The men offered to take the baby to see a doctor.
It wasn’t necessary. The youngest escapee, James Milk, 25, stepped forward. He’d been serving time for the brutal beating of an elderly couple during a holdup. Milk held John Jr. and paced the floor until the child calmed. Milk and fellow escapee Melvin Loveland, 31, a prolific burglar and habitual escapist, would spend much of their time in the Lerby house playing with John Jr. and Marlene, a 21-month-old with puffy cheeks and short, wavy hair.
The men fell into a routine. They listened to news, drank coffee (five pounds total), smoked cigarettes and occasionally conferred quietly among themselves in one of the bedrooms. Milk took charge of the furnace and made sure it kept the house warm. The fifth escapee, convicted burglar Andrew White, 31, mostly kept to himself.
Evening settled in. The men clicked on the small boxy television set in the Lerby living room. They were fascinated by its fuzzy images and laughed when they saw pictures of themselves on news reports. The pictures, they said, looked nothing like them.
The adults stayed up until 1:30 a.m. Monday, then Toney told everyone to go to bed. Ethel and the Gagich’s gathered in one bed, but no one slept well. The escapees slept in other rooms in shifts, with one always keeping watch.
The next morning, Ethel fixed breakfast — coffee and one piece of toast for each person. Food was running low. The kids needed milk. Toney convened another conference with his colleagues. He emerged to announce that Mary and Loveland would drive to a nearby A&P grocery store. The men had no money but Mary and Ethel each had $4.
Loveland closely followed Mary through the store isles. He told her not to do anything foolish. He said he didn’t have a gun but Mary thought that was a lie. People in the store knew Mary, knew she was married, and yet here she was with a strange man standing so close to her and no one took notice. She couldn’t believe it.
Next, Loveland told Mary to drive to a state liquor store. He stayed in the car and sent her inside with instructions to buy wine. Now Mary was alone. She could have raised an alarm but didn’t. She feared for her children.
At one point, water in the house became scarce. The Lerby’s well had dried up, so John Sr. carried an empty five-gallon milk container several hundred feet to a creek for a fresh supply. Two of the escapees accompanied him. John Sr. was slender but strong, relatives say. He considered wielding the metal container as a weapon and overtaking his two captors. But like his wife, he took no action, fearing the escapees would harm other members of his family.
Late Monday night, Toney told his hostages, “We want to thank you for all you’ve done. We probably won’t be here when you get up, but don’t spread any alarm because we might be back. If we hit a roadblock, we will be back, and we wouldn’t like anything to happen.”
Again, Ethel, Mary and John Sr. slept fitfully. At 8:30, they rose to find the escapees had indeed fled. Gone were the Lerby’s ‘49 Ford and Gagich’s ‘48 Ford, as well as a shotgun and a rifle. The escapees left behind a sweater, a knife, a gun holster and empty coffee cups filled with cigarette butts.
They’d also cut the wires to the Lerby telephone. John Sr. repaired the line, but, as instructed, he waited until 12:30 pm before calling authorities.
Police officers, reporters and photographers flooded the Lerby house. Marlene was photographed sitting on a couch and clutching a ceramic piggy bank that the escapees “refused to raid,” noted The Pittsburgh Press.
By then, Emile and Bert Lerby were driving home from their hunting trip near Uniontown. As the two chatted, a news item on the car radio caught Bert’s attention. “Shut up a minute,” Bert told his father. Reports were a bit confusing and the announcer was mispronouncing names, but when Emile and Bert heard the names “Marlene” and “John Jr.,” they understood their family had been through an ordeal.
“We were all shook up,” said Bert, now 89. He and his father raced to the Avella home. Reporters were still on the scene when the two men arrived. Emile was speechless.
“He let out a loud squeal”
After leaving the Lerby house, the escapees split up.
Milk reached Charleston, WV, by Tuesday afternoon. There, he telephoned family members in Pittsburgh and asked for a wire transfer of $50. Police intercepted the call and arrested Milk in a Western Union office.
Two days later, on Thursday, Dec. 4, Loveland broke into a house in Morgantown, WV, and stole some watches. He then hopped in a taxi and tried to use the watches as fare. Exhausted, he fell asleep in the back seat. The suspicious cabbie drove him straight to a police station.
Later that evening, Toney and Derembeis hid quietly in a freight car at a Baltimore rail yard when the train jolted and a load of steel shifted, tumbling on Derembeis’ leg. He “let out a loud squeal,” drawing the attention of railroad police, newspapers said. The two were arrested as hoboes, then identified from FBI posters.
White was the last man captured. FBI agents caught up with him Friday night at his uncle’s house near Fredericksburg, VA. He offered no resistance.
“My nerves are trembling”
Newspaper accounts portrayed the hostage ordeal as an upbeat affair that left everyone unharmed. Ethel told reporters the escapees were “real nice boys” and praised them for not swearing. Newspaper pictures show family members smiling, obviously relieved the affair ended without violence.
Time revealed a darker truth. In April 1983, Mary Gagich acknowledged the ordeal’s impact on her family in a letter she addressed to KDKA-TV, which had aired a story on a recent hostage situation at Western Penitentiary.
Mary expressed relief that two hostages at the prison were released unharmed, then discussed the long-term effects of her family’s confinement decades earlier. “My mother passed away in 1963 and she never got over this experience,” Mary wrote. Her husband was on disability, she continued, “and part of his problems date back to when we were held hostage. As I write this, my nerves are trembling.”
She never mailed the letter, which Marlene keeps in a box with newspaper clippings and photographs.
As years passed, the ordeal took a toll on John Gagich Sr. “He had a nervous breakdown,” Marlene said. “He was scared all the time. He was always thinking someone was after him. He had a hard time taking jokes, even if people were just teasing him. Nothing was a game to him. Everything was serious.”
John Jr., 68, who now lives near Follansby, WV., believes his father was especially stressed when Loveland left the house with Mary to shop for groceries. “He probably was beside himself,” John Jr. said. “He had no clue what they were doing. Loveland could have killed her and thrown her out. No doubt that affected him for the rest of his life.”
His father, he said, continued to mull over one particular moment — the trip to the creek for water. “He said, ‘Johnny, I had notions to take these guys on that day. I know I could have done it,’” John Jr. recalled. “But he was afraid for us. Think about that: You’re’ worried about your whole family, and you can’t do anything.”
John Sr. died in 2016, Mary in 2018.
One of the escaped prisoners later expressed misgivings about his role in the takeover of the Lerby home. Melvin Loveland wrote a letter to Ethel Lerby, apologizing for any trauma he caused her family and indicating he was returning to prison with “a better outlook on life.” For this, he credits Marlene and John Jr.
“After being with these children, I realize now that I’m not a hardened criminal,” Loveland wrote. “I would gladly give up my life to protect these children.”
He ends the letter cheerfully.
“The boys all say hello — and send their best regards — and we all think very highly of you and your family.”
Loveland eventually was released on parole, but newspaper clippings show he was charged in 1962 with robbing a Mellon Bank branch on East Ohio Street. He died in 1987, according to records on ancestry.com.
For years after the hostage ordeal, however, Loveland maintained a colorful presence in the Lerby home. He became a jailhouse artist and sent a few pieces of his work to Ethel, who displayed them on a wall.
“He did a beautiful oil painting of a horse and another gorgeous one of Christ,” Marlene said. “But they weren’t preserved and they pretty much, after all these years, just rotted away.”
— Steve Mellon