Tuesday, October 27, 2009

THE PHANTOM KILLER OF WHEELING STEEL



     William McCloskey peered out the curtains of his picture window facing the ghostly shadows of Lincoln Avenue on this unseasonably cold night.  As a full silver red- moon was rising in the east, he turned from the window toward his wife Mary and said, "someone is going to be shot tonight."
     Down the block, amongst the shadowy light, lumbered a barrel-chested figure with an ape-like gait toward the Steubenville plant.  He was reclusive mill sweeper, David D'ascanio, known by the neighbors as just Dasco, whom when encountered along the sidewalk women and children and even some men gave wide berth.
     McCloskey, the Wheeling Steel chief of police and a World War I veteran, had good reason to fear the full moon; after all, one employee had been shot and killed, another wounded, under two preceding full moons at Wheeling Steel, and his Irish instinct made him feel uneasy about the night--the same inner sense that made the Irish such good cops and priests.
     Stressful events often brought a relapse of malaria that McCloskey had suffered as a soldier during the construction of the Panama Canal.  He had already broken into a cold sweat in bed when the phone rang shortly before midnight.  Two more mill workers lay dead, the third and fourth victims of what the press hailed as the "Phantom Killer."
      The series of slayings began under the full moon on January 20, 1934 when Fred Melsheimer, on his way from the cafeteria to start the midnight shift at the rail yard, was shot multiple times from a .38 caliber revolver, dying shortly thereafter, the coroner determining from shock and hemmoraging.
     Authorities had few motives with which to work regarding Melsheimer's slaying other than he had recently relocated to Steubenville from Chicago and perhaps he was hit for a previous transgression with the Chicago mob.  Otherwise, the train conductor had proven to have been a model citizen and had served his country during the first World War.
      There were few leads.
       "The man who killed Melsheimer," the Steubenville Herald-Star reported, "approached him as the latter was walking between the cafeteria and the mill office when about 25 feet away he opened fire and continued to walk toward Melsheimer, firing as he went.  He then turned, ran to the fence separating the mill yard from Mingo Boulevard, mounted the fence and disappeared in the darkness.  He was clad in overalls."
      The killer escaped by vaulting over a chain-linked fence, and just vanished, the exit seeming almost superhuman, and, with the full moon bathing the death scene, preternatural.
      With little information other than conjecture and theories to follow,  McCloskey, Jefferson County Sheriff Ray Long,  and Steubenville Police Chief Ross Cunningham  had little to follow or to conclude, other than the mill murder was an isolated incident.
     That sentiment, however, changed two full moons later when on March 24, shortly after the midnight shift began, the Phantom Slayer riddled another rail yard employee, James Barnett, with six bullets, and then kicked him in the face.
     Again the phantom vanished into the smokey moonlit night.
      Barnett, however, somehow survived the assault, paralyzed from the waist down.
      Authorities stepped up their investigation while McCloskey and the mill increased security.  Mill workers no longer worked solo--on any shift--but with groups and suspicious of everyone.
      Barnett gave police a sketchy description, stating "the Phantom was a tall man, wore a slicker and a uniform cap, resembling the type of cap worn by the mill police."
      McCloskey watched with interest the man they called Dasco, who lived on the next block up Lincoln Avenue.  The chief of police knew little of the Italian immigrant other than he had won his U.S. citizenship by serving with the Army in World War I and that he was a very hard laborer.  Dasco spoke broken English, the cop attributing his reclusiveness partly to the speech barrier.
     Still McCloskey had hear rumors of Dasco's uncanny strength and agility, such as hanging like a flag full sail from a pole and performing one-handed chin-ups.
      Common sense told McCloskey these tales of the five-foot five-inch, 47-year-old Italian immigrant were no more than fabrications often tagged to the mysterious.
      His Irish instinct told him otherwise.
      McCloskey's unease at the full moon proved correctly because soon after the onset of the July 1 midnight shift, the Phantom grew bolder and shot to death two open hearth workers, Ray Kochendarfer, 36, and William Messer, 42, both of Steubenville.
      This time, several witnesses watched the assassin flee, a third victim that night spared by an empty chamber.  The consensus discribed him as short and stocky with an odd, waddling gait, and abnormally long arms for his height.
      Another inference investigators concluded was that all four shootings occured between 11:35 and 11:40 when the mill was exchanging shifts.
       But each time the Phantom disappeared into the darkness.
        Dasco was now a suspect, but no motive or conclusive evidence existed for his arrest.  He had been clocked in the mill during those shifts.  McCloskey insisted the mill police keep a scrutinous eye upon Dasco.
       Meanwhile, the mill and Jefferson county commissioners offered a reward of 7,500 dollars leading to the arrest of the serial killer--quite a sum of money when the average salary was near 20 dollars a week.   The award and national attention drew a slew of private detectives to Steubenville.
      Opinions and theories varied widely regarding the killer's nature, some pundits attributing it to moon madness, many others maintaining German hatred was the motive because everyone slain was of Teutonic descent.
      Another oddity about Dasco, McCloskey noted, was that the Italian immigrant lived smack dab in the middle of the Irish-Scotch district of Steubenville.  What was he hiding?
      Four weeks later, under another full moon, mill policeman, Lieutenant C.H. Baily, of Steubenville, watched Dasco clock in at 11 p.m. and then trailed the suspect to the cafeteria where he bought a small pie.  At this point, Dasco knew he was being followed and in his distinctive apelike gait zigzagged through several departments of the new process mill, attempting to distance his pursuit from the mill entrance gate.
       Faster and faster the diminuitive Dasco moved around and around machinery, stacks of finished steel, down an alley, across the annealing floor, the entrance gate now in site.  Dasco was now nearing the safety office where mill policeman John Fonnow, of Clark Street, Toronto, was stationed.  Baily drew his gun, ordering Dasco to halt.  Then Fonnow subdued him.
      McCloskey and his staff soon arrived.  An ensuing body search revealed that Dasco had cut out one of the pockets of his extra baggy pants, inside glinting the hard steel of a holstered .38 caliber pistol.
       Dasco's trial opened October 22.  Cross examined by prosecutor Ray Hooper about his possession of the revolver, Dasco replied, "I buy the gun for protection.  Everybody in the mill afraid."  He went on denying he had ever fired the revolver.
     "If you didn't fire it, how did you know that it would even shoot?" Hooper asked.
    "I no know," Dasco replied, "but maybe it make big noise and scare people away."
     Although no motive for murder was produced, the trail lasted only six days, the jury ruling guilty.
     On that night a full moon rose once again.