MURRYSVILLE, Pa. — While the death of “Kill for Thrill” murderer Michael J. Travaglia gave momentary relief to a surviving victim, memories of terror still haven’t left her 38 years later.
Store clerk Mary Campbell, who lived in Murrysville, was robbed at gunpoint by Travaglia and partner John C. Lesko at the Stop N Go on Route 66 at Route 22 in Delmont.
Campbell said she still believes Travaglia and Lesko’s bloody, eight-day murder spree that claimed four victims, which started in late December 1979, could have started with her a few weeks earlier.
Except for one thing: Two men happened to enter the Stop N Go store at just the right time on that Dec. 9 morning.
Lesko and Travaglia were put on death row in 1981.
They were convicted, retried and convicted again for killing an Apollo police officer and three others between Dec. 27, 1979, and Jan. 3, 1980.
But rather than being executed, Travaglia died in a state prison Sept. 4 of natural causes. Lesko remains on death row, like Travaglia, having won several appeals over the years.
Campbell said she noticed that Travaglia and Lesko had visited the store about three times in the days before the robbery.
“It was always between 2 and 3 a.m., and when they came in at about 5, I knew something wasn’t right,” said Campbell, then in her 30s.
Travaglia pulled a gun.
“He stood over me holding a revolver with a long, dark barrel. His face was evil incarnate, and I had the feeling they were in drug withdrawal,” she said.
“I asked them not to hurt me and told them I was the mother of two sons, ages 10 and 11,” Campbell said. “It didn’t matter to them.”
Lesko used a hatchet to chop a small, red safe out of the counter near Campbell.
“I was begging for my life. They had me lay down behind the counter, and Travaglia leaned down with the pistol,” Campbell said.
“I was meant to be their first victim.”
Later, she said, police and others told her she wasn’t killed because of two men who came at the right instant.
On that frosty morning before dawn, Richard Stevenson of Greensburg and Larry Clawson of Delmont stopped at the store to buy cigarettes and chocolate milk on their way to work for a tech company in Pittsburgh.
They remember holding the door for Lesko, formerly of Homestead, who was using both hands to carry a heavy, paper bag.
“We thought that was odd. What could you buy that would weigh so much?” Clawson asked Friday from his residence near Raleigh, N.C.
“We didn’t notice Travaglia. But when we walked in, we saw doughnuts all over the floor and we knew something was wrong,” Stevenson said from his Greensburg residence.
Clawson said the smaller man, who he later learned was Lesko, came out first, followed by the taller man, Travaglia, then of Washington Township.
“We hardly noticed them,” the former Delmont resident said. “Then I heard someone ask, ‘Are they gone?’?”
Clawson found Campbell laying on the floor behind the counter: “I’ve just been robbed. Lock the front door!”
They only got about $800.
Clawson said she spent 10 minutes bound as she sat on the floor, having been forced there at gunpoint after Lesko tied her hands.
Days later, killing starts
The killing spree was under way by the end of the month.
On Dec. 27, 1979, the men killed Peter Levato of Pittsburgh’s North Side in Loyalhanna Township after they kidnapped him outside of a Pittsburgh bar.
Then on New Year’s Day 1980, the hitchhiking pair were picked up by Marlene Sue Newcomer of Connellsville. They got the ride near Delmont; authorities found her body in her vehicle in a downtown Pittsburgh parking garage.
The next day, they kidnapped William Nicholls of Mt. Lebanon from outside a Pittsburgh bar and drowned him in an Indiana County lake.
The men were finally caught on Jan. 3 in a seedy hotel in Pittsburgh — but not before they fatally shot Apollo police officer Leonard Miller.
Memories of the robbery were seared into Campbell, even as she lived her life with her family. They lived in Texas, northwest of Fort Worth, for more than 20 years after the robbery.
In 2005, authorities flew Campbell from Texas to testify at a retrial for Lesko and Travaglia at the Westmoreland County Courthouse in Greensburg.
Campbell recalls District Attorney John Peck telling the jury that she was the only living survivor of their terror.
She was the last witness to testify against Travaglia in his new sentencing trial, for slaying Miller. She told the jury that she was terrified.
“I was very much afraid for my life,” Campbell recalled. “I know in my heart they intended to kill me, because I could identify them.”
After the robbery, Campbell and her husband, Earl, had a third child, and many grandchildren since.
Today, Campbell and her husband live in Shippenville, Clarion County. She is 72 years old.
Lesko remains on death row at the state prison in Graterford, Montgomery County.
“My wish has been that Travaglia and Lesko would both be in their graves before I die.”
Information from: Tribune-Review, http://triblive.com