|1958: Terror in Chambersburg|
|By PAUL MICKLE / The Trentonian|
|A young religious fanatic who grew up in a broken home storms a convent and shotguns three nuns, then escapes out the back as police fire away at shadows in the front window of the nunnery.
If the story rings like some crazy crime of a few weeks ago out in middle America, think again.
It happened in 1958 in Trenton’s Chambersburg section, where even today most lives center around family, work and church.
So imagine the terror that struck the balmy evening of April 19, 1958, when Chambersburg’s revered St. Joachim’s Roman Catholic Church became the target both of the mad sniper and the cops who shot up the convent thinking the crazed gunman was still inside.
Old-timers on Bayard Street still remember it vividly. On the 40th anniversary last year, Rose Guidotti recalled seeing the gunman, Louis Felipe Marrero, walking up Bayard toward the church from his house down the street, where he had been fixing his kids’ doghouse earlier in the day.
A 24-year-old steelworker with a wife and two little girls, Marrero looked to everyone like a teenager that evening when he rang the convent doorbell and pulled a 12-gauge shotgun from under his dark trench coat as Sister Madeline Fussile, 23, answered.
On seeing Marrero raise the shotgun, Sister Madeline bolted past him on to the sidewalk. Marrero turned slightly and fired, downing the nun with birdshot that hit her in the right thigh.
In the chaotic seconds that followed, several screaming nuns were seen running out of the convent with Marrero in pursuit, firing away to wound two more sisters and a man who happened to be walking up the street at the time.
“He chased them out of the convent waving his rifle,” said Guidotti, who was 87 when interviewed last year. “He chased them down the street, firing at them! I just remember seeing the two nuns lying in the street.”
Marrero hit three nuns in all. In addition to Sister Madeline, he shot Sister Lorenzina Sassani, 50, in the chest, and Sister Angela Bulla, 24, in the right arm.
When Trenton police officers Gene Johnson and James Thomas arrived on the scene, they found the wounded nuns, plus the bypasser, 53-year-old Stephen Koncsol, with a pellet in his head, and a neighborhood girl, 13-year-old Evelyn Cipriano, screaming in shock.
Then Johnson and Thomas were hit with birdshot apparently fired from an upstairs convent window. The cops fired back, blasting out the windows of the parish school annex, when a neighbor came up with a stretcher and tried to move in with it to help Sister Lorenzina.
Guidotti recalled her son, George, then 16, also trying to get close enough to help the wounded nuns.
“I yelled to him to mind his own business and get inside,” said Guidotti. “But he loved those nuns so much he kept going.”
The son, now 57, remembered seeing the nuns running out in terror and hearing shooting coming from inside the convent.
“I tried to run over and help, but they kept pushing me away,” George Guidotti said.
Guidotti’s younger cousin, Sal Guidotti, who was playing in the street with some of his friends when the shooting began, described it as “a nightmare. There was a nun on the ground. She was my fifth-grade teacher, and she was hollering out in pain. People who were standing there gathered around and tried to help. It was horrible.”
But the cops, crouched behind their patrol cruisers as they fired their handguns toward the convent upstairs, were afraid the sniper was going to pick off more innocents on the street.
The cops would fire 1,000 more shots at the convent and filled the nunnery and school with tear gas before officers were satisfied it was safe to bring medics into the building to take away the injured. By that time, it came out later, Marrero had been long gone, having climbed down the back wall of the convent as the police started firing.
Marrero reportedly made his way along a city railway bed to the Delaware River, where he stole a rubber raft. Halfway across, Marrero later told investigators, he decided to swim the rest of the way, but quickly had to retrieve the ditched raft because the river current was strong and he was afraid he’d drown.
After crawling up the Pennsylvania riverbank, Marrero walked to the guard shack outside the U.S. Steel Fairless works, where he worked, and nonchalantly told the security officer, “I just shot a bunch of nuns.”
In the days after his arrest, investigators for the new Mercer County prosecutor, Stanley Rutkowski, found out everything about why Marrero went on his rampage.
Rutkowski reported that Marrero was an orphan whose father had been murdered when he was a boy living in Philadelphia. Marrero’s mother ended up in a Pennsy mental facility, Norristown State Hospital.
Holding down a job and raising a family, Marrero came across to neighbors as a responsible, if youthful-looking, family man. In the hours before the shooting, they noted, Marrero had been seen in his Bayard Street back yard fixing up the doghouse and playing with his girls, ages 2 and 10 months, and young wife Dina Marrero.
But as Rutkowski learned, Marrero was a deeply troubled man despite appearances. He had been talking for weeks with priests at St. Joachim’s about various passages in the Bible, for instance, and had been expected at the parish rectory that evening to pick up some writings on biblical subjects he had given the clerics to review.
Marrero also reportedly was upset because he couldn’t get a churchman to baptize his institutionalized mother and because no one seemed interested in his idea of striking a religious medal for America’s new astronauts to take on their journeys into space.
Despite the signs of his mental problems, authorities dealt with Marrero as a criminal suspect. They charged him with aggravated assault and attempted murder and brought him to trial.
Justice was swift in those days. By mid-September, only five months later, Marrero had been tried, convicted and sentenced to 28 to 42 years in state prison.
In 1963, following five years at New Jersey State Prison in Trenton, Marrero was transferred to a state mental hospital. He was paroled in 1977, after almost 20 years behind bars.
On Bayard Street in the ’Burg today, there are few remaining witnesses to perhaps the wildest night in neighborhood history.
It’s not talked about much, but the incident is part of St. Joachim’s lore. A particularly favorite detail at the church is how a crucifix on a wall in the convent was not hit by any bullets, even though the wall around it was riddled with holes when the gun smoke cleared.
Two of the three wounded sisters – who all recovered from their wounds – and the two cops hit with birdshot had passed on by the 40th anniversary of the incident. Sister Madeline, who was living in retirement in Florida, could not be reached for her remembrances.
Marrero, who would be 65 today, also could not be found, and all the Marreros who live in Greater Trenton said they never heard of the man.
Or even that a Marrero committed a crime 41 years ago that still ranks as the most bizarre in ’Burg history.