|They had driven to Duck Island to make love in the back seat of a Ford, sheltered by pitch darkness and the scraggly boughs of the sycamore trees.
In their gossipy Trenton neighborhood, the man and woman had to keep away from prying eyes. Frank Kasper, 28-year-old husband and father, lived at 15 Elm St.; Katherine Werner, 36-year-old wife and mother, at 5 Elm St.
But on this crisp, fall Saturday night, Sept. 30, 1939, Mr. Kaspar and Mrs. Werner caressed and kissed each other like a couple of teen-agers, excited to finally be alone. Outside the steamy windows, the only sounds were wind whistling through the marsh reeds and mallards quacking softly.
Out of the trees came a man, and in his hands was a shotgun.
One blast tore into Mr. Kaspar's face and neck, killing him instantly. Mrs. Werner, her lusty passion turned to survival instinct, broke from the car. She made it only a few feet before the birdshot blew off her right arm.
Another pump of the shotgun and a squeeze of the trigger, and she too was dead.
The police who combed the murder scene for evidence the next morning had a sickening sense of deja vu. A year earlier, a couple had been shotgunned to death on this very same, lonely roadside. Now the cops realized they had a serial murderer on their hands.
No one knew his name, so the papers invented one for him — the Duck Island killer.
For three more years, he would prowl the lover's lanes of Hamilton Township and Bucks County, Pa., gaining perverse pleasure every time he emerged from the bushes to surprise petters in their parked cars. He might steal something — but mostly, he just wanted to kill.
By the time he laid down his 20-gauge shotgun in 1942, he had accounted for six murders — and had young lovers throughout the Trenton area quaking in fear.
"It's spooky enough just to drive through Duck Island at night and see the woods," remembered William "Bud" Glover, who was a teenager in Hamilton in the '30s. "But to know there was a madman with a shotgun out there, it sent chills through you."
Duck Island is not an island, but rather a low-lying, triangular peninsula washed by marshy estuaries that flow into the Delaware River. In the late 19th century, the streams forming the island's northern boundary were filled in with ashes from the Roebling steel plant and mucky river dredgings. Upon this surface were built brick kilns, oil depots and Duck Island Road.
It was nature's perfect lover's lane.
The stretch of macadam was lightly traveled, and once you parked off the shoulder, the thick underbrush concealed whatever forbidden behavior went on inside your car. From the crowded neighborhoods of South Trenton and Chambersburg, where everyone gossiped endlessly about each other, it took only a few minutes to scoot south to Duck Island and privacy.
This was where the first of the killer's victims came, on Nov. 8, 1938.
They were Vincenzo "Jim" Tonzillo of Walnut Avenue and Mary Myatovich of Steamboat Street, and they had special reason to keep their affair quiet. The 20-year-old Tonzillo was married — and Myatovich, 15 years old, was not his wife. The teen girl's father had discovered their affair and, furious, ordered her not to leave the house at night.
But Tonzillo still arranged to pick up his teen-aged lover about 7 p.m. and drive to their usual rendezvous at Duck Island. Outside, it rained, turning the soil into a muddy morass. Inside the car, the two lovers were warm and comfortable as they undressed each other.
A man with a shotgun pulled the door open.
"This is a stickup," he said.
Tonzillo, frightened and embarrassed, could barely move. It didn't matter. The gunman shot him dead right there, letting his body drop out of the back seat and into a puddle.
Myatovich was ordered out of the car. When she tried to run, the intruder sadistically shot her square in the buttocks. Then he raped her.
At 8:30 p.m., the headlights on another car caught Myatovich lying next to the car, gasping for help. Who did it? she was asked. "A big Negro," she sputtered.
For 36 hours, Mary Myatovich lingered at St. Francis Hospital, unable to add much to her description of the killer. Five homeless black men who camped in the shanties of Duck Island were rounded up for questioning. One was brought before her. "He's too big," was all she could say. She died on Nov. 10.
The police had two shotgun shells at the scene, a palm print on the car that didn't belong to either of the victims — but no leads. Prosecutor (and future Trenton Mayor) Andrew Duch was convinced that a jealous relative of either Myatovich or Tonzillo had a role in the killings. But he couldn't prove it.
The Sunday morning of Oct. 1, 1939 dawned bright and warm over Duck Island. For Pemberton Wemmer, it was the ideal time to scavenge the scrub brush for junk, deposit bottles and coins. You never knew what you might find here; a week ago, Wemmer had discovered a woman's artificial leg.
This morning, as he saw a foot poking out from a trash heap, it looked like the scavenger had found another false leg. He gave a tug. >From the mound of garbage came a woman's body. She was Katherine Werner.
She had been shot twice. Then the gunman had bashed her head in with a concrete slab and swiped her watch. About 100 feet away was the Buick, with Kaspar dead in the back seat.
Now the Duck Island killer had claimed four lives. The Mercer County Board of Chosen Freeholders posted a $1,000 reward. The Hamilton police warned everyone from using their township as a ground for trysts, but patrolled Duck Island to protect the spooners anyway.
More people on the island were rounded up and questioned, usually for no reason other than the fact they were black. And still there were no leads.
The Duck Island killer didn't return to Duck Island. He struck next on Nov. 2, 1940 outside Morrisville, Pa, wounding a man but allowing him to survive.
The killer waited only two more weeks before coming back — on Hamilton's Cypress Lane.
The victims were once again lover-neighbors in a secret tryst: Louis Kovacs, 25, and Carolina Morconi, 27, both of Roebling Avenue. They had parked amid the thickets of scrub oak and catbriars and gunned down at such close range that powder marks burned both man and woman.
"We are up against a lunatic, a man obsessed with a sex mania, probably a religious fanatic," said Duch, who had already discarded his theory of a jealous spouse as the culprit.
Now the Duck Island case was getting national attention. In 1941, American Weekly magazine did a story on it, breathlessly — and inaccurately — telling of a killer who came out on full moon nights. In fact, none of the murders coincided with a full moon.
"With the full moon at his back," the article reported, "three times the strange petting-party raider crept from the underbrush along a secluded lane and blasted thr lives from an unsuspecting couple trysting there."
American Weekly went on to insist that the killer would certainly strike again in 1941.
But the shotgun killer was quiescent all year, and on Dec. 7, America was suddenly at war with Japan. Trentonians temporarily forgot about the menace of the sex maniac.
They were reminded of his presence on April 7, 1942.
This time the shotgun killer's targets were a newly inducted soldier, John Testa, and his girlfriend, Antoinette Marcantonio, parked on a road in Tullytown, Pa. Testa lost his right arm to a blast of pellets, Marcantonio was clubbed over the head with the gun stock.
But the couple survived. And cops now had a much better description of the gunman. Even better, they had the wooden forearm of the 20-gauge shotgun which fell off when Marcantonio had been clubbed.
On the wooden stock was the serial number "A-639." After laborious records-checking that took more than a year, Hamilton cops and state troopers discovered it been pawned and redeemed at Krueger's Pawn Shop on South Broad Street. The man who had the ticket told detectives he'd given it to someone else: a medium-sized black man from Hamilton named Clarence Hill.
Who was Clarence Hill? He was married, worked as a laborer and taught Sunday school at the Mount Olivet Baptist Church, near his home on Wilfred Avenue. In late 1942, he had been drafted into the Army, and stationed in Georgia.
But under his respectable surface, Hill was the very picture of a sex pervert. He had lured some of his girl students to seamy sex trysts and fathered a baby with one of them, a 16-year-old. One of his closest friends told police: "When he could have intercourse with them, he would have it."
In December 1943, the Army arranged for the murder suspect to be transferred to Fort Dix, where Mercer County authorities questioned him. "I did those murders," he told them. What murders? "Duck Island."
Under closer questioning, the 34-year-old Hill spilled the whole, cold-blooded story of why he stalked lover's lanes.
"I just went there to see if I could see any parked cars there with girls and fellows in them screwing and to see if I could get a chance to bother around with a ... girl," he said.
This was his calm description of murdering Kasper and Werner in 1939:
"I took a peep inside the car to see what was going on in there. I saw a fellow and a woman. They were on the back seat. To me, it appeared that they was having a screwing party.
"I jerked the door open and they both jumped up and I shot the fellow and the girl ran out the other side screaming ... I shot her, I hit her in the arm, and she went down ..."
It took a jury five hours to find Clarence Hill guilty. The prosecution said he should die; the jury recommended mercy.
Sentenced to life, Hill served fewer than 20 years. When he was paroled in 1964, he disappeared quietly into civilian life, and the man who committed the worst string of murders in Mercer County history died of natural causes on July 9, 1973.
|1939: A shotgun killer stalks lover's lane
|By JON BLACKWELL / The Trentonian
|* World War II began as Germany invaded Poland. In response, Britain and France declared hostilities against Germany. Poland was helpless to resist the Nazi onslaught, and the country was partition by the unholy alliance of Adolf Hitler and Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.
* America’s first television broadcast began from DuMont Laboratories in Upper Montclair. Only a few hundred people with primitive TVs tuned in.
* The first event to be televised was the opening of the World’s in New York. The fair featured such wacky exhibits as the Aquacade, Futurama and a parachute tower modeled on the Stanley Switlik tower in Jackson Towship.
|ALSO IN 1939