Stranger Than Fiction?


Third in a series


Investigating an old murder case built on circumstantial evidence, The Medill Justice Project finds police records and witness accounts that don’t add up


Pittsburgh man serving a life sentence in the wake of a recovered memory from the victim’s son, who was 5 at the time of the killing


A 1975 murder on Marlboro Avenue—pictured in 2017—turned neighbors into victims, defendants and witnesses. Some accounts of what happened call into question who saw what and whether the convicted killer pulled the trigger. (Allisha Azlan/The Medill Justice Project)

By Henri Adams, Annie Boniface, Benjamin Din, Jacob Frazer, Jun Tae “Walter” Ko, Ross Krasner, Jamie Schmid, Lauren Sonnenberg, Amanda Svachula and Emagin Tanaschuk
The Medill Justice Project

WILKINSBURG, Pa.—Shots were fired and­ a man slumped dead, bloody in his basement on a late snowy December night in 1975. Within minutes, Sgt. Dominick LaBella of the Edgewood Police Department entered the modest brick home where he found the victim’s 5-year-old son hysterical.

On Dec. 28, 1975, John Mudd Sr. was shot in the basement of his Wilkinsburg, Pa., home. The Mudds’ former residence is pictured on the left side. (Henri Adams/The Medill Justice Project)

LaBella later testified, “He was really screaming and carrying on.”

Or maybe not. The child, John Mudd Jr., was fast asleep on the couch when Wilkinsburg Police Officer Dominick Mangano arrived moments after LaBella. Though Mangano later testified at least three times that the child was asleep on the night of the murder, it was never explored in court how the child could also be screaming and crying. LaBella died in 2005.

In an interview for this story, Mangano said he carried the slumbering child to his own home on the same street. When Mangano handed the child to his wife, Linda Mangano, the boy was still asleep, she confirmed with The Medill Justice Project.

“He was in a deep sleep,” said Linda, who did not testify in the case.

Arlene, the child’s mother, said he was asleep when the murder occurred, according to two of her interviews with police, records show. She said after her son fell asleep, she and her husband, John Mudd Sr., were watching the news on television and then the power went out. That’s when she said her husband went into the basement to check the fuse and was shot. Arlene declined to comment for this article.

Fifteen years later, when Mudd was 20, he said he suddenly remembered what happened that night, records show. After hearing “loud noises,” he said he remembered seeing his father’s body at the foot of the basement stairs. Mudd also said he remembered seeing a man standing with his mother—and he recalled him as the neighbor across the street: Steven Slutzker.

A case that remained unsolved for 15 years suddenly was reexamined, authorities said, leading to Slutzker’s arrest, murder conviction and life sentence.

The case has continued to draw attention. In 2004, the Innocence Institute of Point Park University in Pittsburgh published an investigation raising questions about Slutzker’s conviction. The Medill Justice Project’s investigation builds on the Innocence Institute’s examination.

Mangano, the former Wilkinsburg police officer, is unpersuaded of Slutzker’s guilt, especially, he said, because the child was asleep and couldn’t have seen the assailant. “He was out,” Mangano said. “… There is no way in God’s green acre he could’ve saw who that person was.”

Mangano added, “It’s a shame they got the wrong person in jail.”

Former Allegheny County Detective Regis Kelly was a leader on the police investigation that began in 1990 and interviewed John Mudd Jr. after he reported recovering a memory from the night his father was killed. (Allisha Azlan/The Medill Justice Project)

Regis Kelly, then an Allegheny County homicide detective who began investigating the Slutzker case in 1990, said Mudd’s recovered memory was credible. But when asked for this article how Mudd could have remembered anything if he was asleep, Kelly, now a special agent for the Pennsylvania Attorney General, replied, “That’s an excellent question.”

Judge Jeffrey A. Manning, who presided over Slutzker’s trial, said in an interview for this story he didn’t find Mudd’s testimony “particularly compelling.” Mudd declined to comment for this article. Manning said it did not matter if he believed Mudd’s testimony because the jury, not the judge, is responsible as the fact finder. Manning credited the testimony of other witnesses and evidence, which he said ultimately led to Slutzker’s conviction. Slutzker was, for instance, found guilty in 1976 and served about a year in prison for seeking to hire a hitman to kill Arlene’s husband. By his own admission and that of Arlene, the two had an affair in 1975. What’s more, Slutzker’s daughter testified against him, as did a neighbor, a former coworker and a former tenant of a building he once owned.

Photographed in front of a backdrop in prison, Steven Slutzker, 66, has served about a quarter century for a crime he says he did not commit. (Photo courtesy: Steven Slutzker)

Nonetheless, records show the case against Slutzker was built on circumstantial evidence as no gun was recovered, no physical evidence was tied to him and he insisted he was asleep, drunk, at a couple’s home about eight miles away from the scene of the crime, an alibi buttressed by those friends who refused authorities’ offer of immunity to testify. Found guilty in 1992, Slutzker won a new trial after he discovered some police documents withheld from his lawyers that raised questions about his conviction. He was found guilty again in 2007. Now 66 years old, after about a quarter century in prison, he continues to maintain his innocence.

“I’ve been sentenced to die in prison for a 42-year-old crime I absolutely did not commit,” said Slutzker in an interview at the State Correctional Institution at Fayette in La Belle, Pennsylvania.

Manning, who recently denied Slutzker’s latest petition to challenge his conviction, isn’t convinced. “Only way Steve gets out of prison,” he said, “is [if] he escapes.”

 

Asleep or awake?

Minutes after the crime, Officer Mangano and a “hysterical” and “screaming” Arlene took her child up Marlboro Avenue to the home of neighbors, according to a Wilkinsburg police report written about two weeks after the shooting.

Colletta and Dennis Ward lived up the street from the Mudds’ house in 1975. Contrary to a police report, the Wards say John Mudd Jr. was not brought to their home on the night of the murder. (Jacob Frazer/The Medill Justice Project)

The report quoted one of those neighbors, Susan Ward, saying, “Little Johnnie woke up when he was here. He didn’t know where he was.”

Susan is Ward’s middle name, which she went by in the 1970s. Her first name is Colletta, and she said in an interview for this story the police report is “completely wrong.”

What happened, she said, was that she and her husband, Dennis, were hosting a Christmas party the night of the murder. They said they heard Arlene, whom they did not know well, running up the street screaming that her husband had been shot. Mangano testified he asked Dennis to take Arlene into the Ward home. The Wards confirmed they comforted Arlene. They said in an interview for this article she remained in their home for a few hours; Mudd, the victim’s son, was not present, the Wards said.

Ward said she wasn’t even aware of the existence of the younger Mudd until she read about his recovered memory in the newspaper about 15 years later. “When it was in the papers that ‘Junior’ was remembering [the night of the murder], I said, ‘I didn’t know [Arlene] had a son,’” Ward recalled. She added, “The first time I see him is when he is remembering this,” she said.

 

People on the street?

When LaBella and his partner, Officer Timothy Brendlinger, responded to a 911 call that evening, they drove slowly up Marlboro Avenue, a one-way street, navigating dark, icy conditions while trying to locate the Mudd house.

As he drove by, Brendlinger testified in 1992, he saw Arlene holding a small child standing with a man whom he later identified as Slutzker. Brendlinger said Arlene and the man were standing on the right side of the street closest to the passenger door side.

LaBella, sitting in the passenger seat, did not see anyone on the street, according to his 1992 testimony.

Dominick Mangano, who lived on Marlboro Avenue and was one of the first police officers on the scene, says John Mudd Jr. was asleep on the night of the murder—not awake as others reported. (Jacob Frazer/The Medill Justice Project)

Mangano, who said he drove up Marlboro Avenue just moments after the crime, echoed LaBella’s account, saying he didn’t see anyone on the street then, and he would have recognized Slutzker and Arlene because they were his neighbors.

“There was no Arlene,” Mangano said. “There was no Steve Slutzker on the street. I would have stopped immediately and questioned [them].”

Brendlinger’s account also raises questions about how Arlene could have been seen on the street with her 5-year-old son because she said she left her child in her home after calling 911 and running outside for help, according to police reports. Police noted she said “she left the house and in the confusion even forgot her son.”

Brendlinger died in 2000.

Faces are distinguished with details, and it is difficult to identify a person in the dark while focusing on something else, such as driving, said Gary Wells, a professor at Iowa State University who is an expert in eyewitness identification. “You can’t say that the identification would be incorrect, but the chances that he could have gathered enough information from that kind of situation to be able to reliably make an identification are extremely low,” Wells said in an interview for this article.

When he testified in 1992, Brendlinger said he had seen a newspaper photo of Slutzker as a suspect just days after the crime in 1975 and then identified him as the man he had seen near the crime scene, not at a couple’s home eight miles away as Slutzker and those friends maintained.

Wells, the eyewitness identification expert, said identifying people after seeing them in the news is most likely what he would categorize as “weak evidence” because the media can convey suggestive information, which in turn can influence memory. This kind of identification, Wells said, lacks independent verification, “not like putting together a lineup.” Wells added, “They are going to pick out the one they saw [in] the newspaper. It takes a really strong memory to resist that suggestion. As long as you identify the person because of the context of the story, that person becomes your memory.”

Brendlinger testified he never wrote a police record about that evening. But in the 1976 coroner’s inquest, Mangano, then of Wilkinsburg police, read into the record a report written by Brendlinger in which Brendlinger described what he observed and did that night. What was read into the record did not mention Brendlinger saw anyone.

 

The back door

Reports on how officers at the crime scene opened the cellar door vary. As John Mudd Sr. was shot in the basement, the back door was a possible escape route for the assailant. (Jacob Frazer/The Medill Justice Project)

Moments after arriving on the scene, Brendlinger said he raced to the back of the Mudd house when Arlene told him and another officer she hadn’t seen anyone flee through the front door after the shooting. Given the house’s layout, Brendlinger testified there was no other way for the assailant to escape. He looked for footprints out back but found none. “I tried to open the cellar door and it was unlocked but would not open,” he wrote in his report. “I then kicked the door with my foot and it opened.”

Mangano, the former Wilkinsburg police officer, testified at the 1976 coroner’s inquest that Brendlinger kicked the door open. But Mangano later testified that with a flashlight, he slid down into the darkened cellar on his stomach to avoid getting shot if the assailant was still in the basement. Mangano said LaBella also slid down the stairs on his belly. From inside, Mangano said he and LaBella kicked the back door open.

“When we kicked the door in, it shattered the wood outside of it and the door shattered itself,” Mangano testified.

Or maybe not.

In an interview for this story, Mangano said he mistakenly testified he kicked the door open. “I believe what happened was I opened the door from the inside,” he said.

Mangano also said it wasn’t LaBella who crawled down the stairs into the basement with him but another officer.

LaBella, however, testified he was alone in the basement and did not open the door. “It was very hard—I didn’t personally open it, but several officers had a difficult time opening it, I remember,” LaBella said. “It was stuck or something.”

James Finello, a former Allegheny County sergeant, recounts how officers secured and processed the crime scene. (Allisha Azlan/The Medill Justice Project)

Allegheny Sgt. James Finello, who arrived about 90 minutes after Mangano, Brendlinger and LaBella, testified to yet another version of what happened to the door: He and other officers forced open the door with a screwdriver.

“We had to pry it open when we did open it,” Finello said. “I was one of the officers there when we did open the door.”

In an interview for this story, Finello said, “The cellar door was nailed shut, I mean, absolutely nailed shut. No one went out that door, I guarantee you.”

In a prison interview, Slutzker said the Mudd back door was not nailed shut; rather, a bent nail was hammered into the door frame to hold the door in place. His description is consistent with a 1976 Wilkinsburg police report that said a nail in the Mudd door “was nailed in and bent towards the door.”

Slutzker said he snuck through the back door frequently in 1975 during his affair with Arlene. Slutzker said he used the back door on Dec. 26, two days before the shooting; he said the door could be opened with a simple twist of the nail.

 

Fingerprints and other evidence

When the first officers arrived on the murder scene, Arlene told them her husband had been shot and led them to where his body was slumped in the basement. The then-Wilkinsburg police chief tightened the loose fuse to turn the power back on, according to Mangano’s testimony at the 1976 coroner’s inquest.

“They couldn’t take fingerprints after that because his prints were all over it,” Mangano said in an interview for this story.

Complicating matters, Mangano said in an interview for this story that the “fingerprint lady,” the person responsible for dusting for and processing fingerprints, could not be reached that night because it was the holiday season. Prints were not a part of the prosecution’s case against Slutzker.

Kelly, the former Allegheny detective, said in an interview for this story he did not want to second guess what other officers did; he was a leader on the investigation in 1990, and he said it would have been difficult to lift fingerprints from the loose fuse because it was small and round.

According to Mangano, formerly of Wilkinsburg police, at least one officer was “flicking [cigarette] ashes in the crime scene” on the night of the shooting. Finello, the former Allegheny sergeant, worked on the scene that night and said he was not surprised because it was the 1970s and a lot of people smoked then.

Brendlinger said he was the first to reach the back of the Mudd residence and testified there were no footprints. However, Finello told The Medill Justice Project the officers who arrived on the crime scene focused on securing the house, especially the back door, a possible escape route for the assailant. Finello said in their efforts to quickly reach the house, “first responders,” including firefighters, unintentionally trampled the small backyard, thus contaminating any footprints that may have been there.

By the time Finello arrived on the scene, there were “four or five officers’ prints going all around the house,” he said. “Which is a lot.”

Finello also testified no tests were performed on the hands of Arlene or Slutzker, and their clothing was not tested for gunshot residue. In such a test, police swab a person’s hands and clothing to determine if he or she was within close range of a gunshot or had fired a gun. Finello said in an interview for this story it would not have been common to test for gunshot residue on Arlene since she was not considered a suspect then. Also, gunshot residue tests become less accurate over time, and when police picked up Slutzker, about 10 hours had passed since the shooting.

 

The “Oh, sh— case”

When police found the elder Mudd shot to death in his basement, the investigation quickly turned to Slutzker, the neighbor who had had an affair with the victim’s wife.

About two weeks earlier, Arlene had pleaded with Slutzker to find someone to kill her husband, saying he had been abusing her, Slutzker told police.

“It got to the point where she was always complaining how scared she was of him and afraid of him and that the only way that she would feel safe is if he was dead,” Slutzker testified.

Judge Jeffrey A. Manning, who presided over the Steven Slutzker trials, calls the proceedings the “Oh, sh—case” because unexpected witnesses came forward to testify against the accused. (Allisha Azlan/The Medill Justice Project)

Arlene was later charged with the murder but the charge was dismissed. In an interview for this article, Manning, the judge who presided over Slutzker’s case, called it the “Oh, sh– case” because unexpected witnesses came out of the woodwork to testify against Slutzker during the two trials. One such witness was Joseph Lindsey, Slutzker’s former coworker at a construction site, who testified Slutzker showed him a box labeled with .32-caliber shells shortly before the murder. Lindsey also testified he taught Slutzker how to load a semi-automatic pistol. The victim was killed with a .32-caliber weapon. However, Slutzker said as a Navy veteran he was proficient in firearms. Slutzker owned two revolvers.

In an interview for this story, Lindsey said he bumped into Slutzker at a flea market five years later but didn’t recognize him; Slutzker introduced himself, reminding Lindsey they had worked together. About 12 years later, Lindsey said he saw Slutzker’s picture in the news and approached authorities. Lindsey was intoxicated when a detective first spoke to him, according to police records.

Asked about Lindsey’s account, Wells, the eyewitness identification expert, said in an email, “People often remember events but confuse who was at the event. So, he might have shown someone how to use such a gun, but not necessarily the defendant. In this case, the fact that he could not recall the defendant at all five years later (until defendant reminded him they had worked together) suggests that his memory was already too weak to reliably recall the circumstances of a prior encounter. The additional … years that then passed … makes it extremely unlikely that his account is based on a reliable memory.”

Another 11th hour witness to step forward was Slutzker’s daughter Amy Musselman. She said Slutzker visited her during the 1992 trial and tried to persuade her to testify on his behalf, saying they had been with friends, the O’Deas, in McKeesport about eight miles away. Musselman did not speak to authorities about her father until about 16 years after the crime when she testified that as a 6-year-old she remembered seeing her father get out of bed on the night of the crime and retrieve a gun, hearing “loud bangs” and then finding him downstairs in the living room. She said she and her father never went to the O’Deas that evening. Musselman gave this account again in an interview for this story.

Police records note, however, there were no footprints in front of Slutzker’s residence on the night of the crime; the only footprints, of an adult and child, led to where Slutzker’s car had been parked, which was consistent with his account, that he and his daughter had taken the car to McKeesport.

In an interview for this story, Musselman’s aunt Monica McIlvain said Musselman told her after Slutzker was arrested in 1991 that Musselman and her father had stayed at the O’Deas’ home on the night of the murder. “And she goes, ‘Me and Daddy were staying at [the O’Deas] house,’” McIlvain recalled Musselman saying. McIlvain did not testify.

The O’Deas testified in Slutzker’s second trial, in 2007, that Musselman and her father were at their house in McKeesport on the night of the murder. Finello, the former Allegheny police sergeant, also said he saw Musselman at the O’Dea residence the next morning.

In two police interviews in 1975, Cynthia DeMann, one of Slutzker’s neighbors, told police she had looked out of her window after hearing a sound, like a car backfiring, and saw Arlene with a man she did not identify on the night of the crime. In a subsequent police interview, DeMann said it could not have been Slutzker because the man she saw wasn’t tall enough, records show. But about 17 years later, in 1992, DeMann testified in Slutzker’s first trial that after hearing the loud noises she saw Arlene yelling while Slutzker tried to calm her in front of the Mudd residence. DeMann offered the same testimony in the second trial, in 2007.

In an interview for this story, DeMann said she felt pressed by police, who repeatedly approached her to testify against Slutzker. She stressed she indeed saw Slutzker on the night of the crime but hadn’t told authorities because she feared him. DeMann acknowledged she only got a glimpse that night, which lasted for two to three seconds from her second-floor window. That view, at night, was obstructed in part by a tree and several yards away from where Arlene stood, jumping up and down, in front of the man. Police records show Dennis, the neighbor, had been outside with Arlene, tried to calm her and took her to his house; he was the same height as Slutzker, 6-foot tall, with a similar physique. Asked whether DeMann could have mistaken Dennis for Slutzker, she said she was certain of what she saw “in my own mind.” But she added, “Anything is possible.”

 

This investigation was conducted by 10 undergraduate students at Northwestern University as part of an investigative journalism course taught by Prof. Alec Klein, director of The Medill Justice Project, which supported the class work. Amanda Westrich, director of operations at MJP, and Allisha Azlan and Rachel Fobar, MJP associates, also contributed to this report.

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