John Shelkon grabbed a shotgun and raced to his parents’ house, just a few kilometers away in Baden. All he knew was that someone had broken into.
It was January 7, 1978. He and his wife had just returned from a double date with his sister and her fiancÃ© – the four of them had seen a new science fiction movie, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” – and the phone was ringing . His sister urgently called him to the family home where she still lived.
The ranch-style house was on a cul-de-sac that bordered the forest about 25 yards from the road. When Mr. Shelkons rolled in, he saw an ambulance with the back doors open. He feared the worst, and rightly so.
Edward Surratt, known as the “shotgun killer,” had struck again.
Mr. Shelkons recalls his parents talking about the killer who had been raging in southwestern Pennsylvania since the fall. He would kill the men and kidnap the women who were either raped and murdered outside or never seen again.
Mr. Shelcon’s father, also known as John, warned his wife Catherine not to let the killer take them away if they were ever targeted.
“My mother absolutely refused to go out,” said Mr. Shelkons, “and that’s why she was beaten the way she did.”
More than 40 years later, Mr Shelkons, 68, is not afraid to talk about the most painful chapter of his life and the lost father.
âHe wasn’t just someone who was shot. People need to realize that this is more than just a headline. I think we’re getting so hit by it that people are jaded, âsaid Mr. Shelkons. “I really felt that if I ruined my life, I wouldn’t honor him.”
His father, a 56-year-old mill worker of Lithuanian descent, had met his Italian wife at a dance in a Polish club. They moved into the family home on McNair Street, built in the 1930s, and had three children, John and his two younger sisters.
Mr. Shelkons said his father grew up among girls too. With seven sisters, he and his son were the only men in the family.
“We were like brothers in many ways.”
He remembered his father as being soft and easy to speak. “He didn’t spend his time drinking,” said Mr. Shelkons. Rather, he was a family man and Mr Shelkons said he could “not ask for a better father”.
Investigators believe that John Shelkons was the 17th Surratt murder victim – and his last in Pennsylvania. A week earlier, on New Year’s Eve, Surratt had killed a couple in Breezewood and a man in nearby Fulton County on the Maryland border.
Now, around 12:45 p.m., Surratt stormed through the locked basement door on McNair Street. He climbed the stairs and saw the steel worker.
John Shelkons had no chance.
âHe was shot pretty close, they tell me. He would have dropped dead on the spot, âsaid Mr. Shelkons. âHe got him out immediately. He fell to the floor and fell against the couch on which my mother slept. “
Catherine Shelkons had taken pills to help her sleep, but the excitement woke her. She later told her son that she woke up to see her husband lying on the floor.
Surratt stood there, a headscarf covering the lower half of his face, wearing gloves, a flannel shirt, and jeans. His mother said the killer’s hair was neat. In fact, Surratt probably wore a wig. Mrs. Shelkons initially mistakenly identified him as white, even though he was black.
“She said, ‘You killed my husband!’ She looked at him. He had his gun over his body. He said, ‘Shut up, you come with me.’ She said, ‘No, I’m not going.’ “
Mrs. Shelkons grabbed the phone and started calling for help. But Surratt snatched the phone out of her hand and hit her with it. Then he grabbed her hair, kicked her face and broke her nose.
“The last thing she remembers is that he set foot on her throat,” said Mr. Shelkons. She passed out.
At that moment his sister and her fiance came in. And Surratt, possibly hearing their arrival, fled.
Six months after the murder, Surratt was finally captured in Florida. While in prison, he confessed in a taped interview with police that the Shelkons had killed, but later retracted.
The Beaver County District Attorney at the time dismissed the charges because Surratt had been sentenced to several life sentences in Florida and South Carolina for other crimes.
It would be 43 more years before Surratt finally made a confession that would remain in the Shelkon case – one of six murders from that period he would admit earlier this year.
All these decades later, Mr. Shelkons ponders the chain of events that spared his mother’s life.
The film started late. The four then went to eat pizza. If his sister hadn’t come home at that time, which would probably have startled Surratt, no one knows what would have happened.
Mr Shelkons said he had a nausea this week that began around his 25th birthday a few days before the murder. All he wants now is to understand why Surratt killed his father.
âIt’s almost like searching for the Holy Grail. What was it? What was it that would only get it going? “
Jonathan D. Silver: [email protected]