In 1953, a roving sniper was on the loose terrorizing communities, shooting people to death at random. All the shots allegedly were fired from the same weapon. Detectives frantically pursued the killer, questioned suspects, analyzed clues, and followed countless leads.
The story dominated the national media, which called the shootings “an unprecedented wave of fear.” The story sounds a lot like the DC sniper story, but it happened about 56 years ago in Pennsylvania.
On July 25, 1953, trucker Lester Woodward, 30, was fatally shot while sleeping in his truck’s cab near the Irwin Interchange of the Pennsylvania Turnpike in Western Pennsylvania.
Three days later and 30 miles farther east on the turnpike, near Donegal, trucker Harry Pitts, 28, was slain by the same “phantom killer.”
Three days after that, trucker John Shepherd, 36, was shot and wounded as he slept in his truck’s cab near Lisbon, OH – 18 miles from the western end of the turnpike.
Truck driver and OOIDA Life Member John Taylor, of Cross Junction, VA, vividly remembered those events. He told me about it during the 2002 Beltway shooting spree prior to the arrests of John Allen Muhammed and Lee Boyd Malvo. I wrote it up for Land Line in November 2002.
“It was a scary time,” said Taylor. In the summer of 1953, he said he was running the Pennsylvania Turnpike hauling apples out of Winchester, VA, into Pittsburgh. “Everybody was concerned. Most truckers, including myself, were carrying a firearm for protection.”
Drivers began bunching at service plazas and taking turns sleeping and standing guard. “The police discouraged us from sleeping along the turnpike so a lot of us began parking at Howard Johnsons,” said Taylor.
Suspects were questioned in Ohio, Michigan and Indiana, as well as a gang from St. Louis.
A week after the third shooting, a 24-year-old farmhand from Fayette County, PA, was arrested on a minor assault charge in Uniontown, PA. John Wesley Wable told police he was the “Turnpike Phantom,” but they dismissed him as a “screwball” and let him go.
A week later, however, the wounded trucker’s stolen pocket watch turned up in a Cleveland pawnshop. Police traced it to a nearby rooming house where they found the .32-caliber German pistol used in the three shootings – and a woman who said she was Wabel’s girlfriend.
After a nationwide manhunt, Wable was arrested Oct. 13 near Albuquerque, NM.
Wable later was convicted in the shootings. He was executed by electrocution on Sept. 26, 1955.
“The police never said why he did it,” Taylor recalled, “but it must have been because the turnpike was in his area, and it just was easy access for him.”