I’ll tell you something, nothing kick-starts widespread killer-on-the-loose panic quicker than finding a severed head in a suburban shopping plaza dumpster. Well, I guess I hail from a pretty exciting enclave of morbid death and destruction, despite the disinterest that largely characterised my formative years, because that’s exactly the scenario that played out in and around the city of Pittsburgh as I neared the end of high school and plotted my collegiate adventures in the great beyond. As it turns out, I’d only venture about an hour north for my freshman year. Hardly into the great wide open, but it still felt light years removed from where I’d been raised. By the time I moved into the dorms, the rampant paranoia of a vicious killer prowling the city had passed, even though said killer had yet to be found, and things had gotten pretty much back to normal – normal being a pervasive onslaught of artery-clogging cuisine, bad domestic beers, second-hand smoke thick as pea soup everywhere you went, and of course, fuckin’ Steelers mania. I avoided all of the above whenever possible and focused instead on spending time with nubile dance majors and obsessed film geeks, diving headlong into film history and production studies, and plotting the imminent world takeover we all tend to spend too much time weighing when we’re 18 and the world’s legs are spread wide before us.
“The cut job was rough, hardly executed with Jack the Ripper-like precision and crude enough to leave no teeth or lower jaw.”
But 22-year old Anthony Michalowski knew nothing of college, nor nubile co-eds, nor big future plans. Reports suggest the kid was just scraping by, a dropout and drifter from the wrong side of the tracks with little-to-no hope of ever finding the right side. Shortly after Christmas in 1988, his severed head was found by a railroad worker searching for cardboard in a shopping centre’s trash bins. The railroad worker called the cops, the cops scratched the heads still attached to their shoulders, and an investigation into the body-less head was launched. The cut job was apparently rough, hardly executed with Jack the Ripper-like precision and crude enough to leave no teeth or lower jaw. To say this posed a problem for police is an understatement. And to put that in perspective, let’s flash forward another two decades to see that the same police department spent eight hours investigating a grisly hotel murder with body parts that turned out to be made of latex, corn syrup, and red dye. It was a vacated film set kept intact by the building’s owners for novelty sake. The film was our own New Terminal Hotel and the confusion gave it another nice boost in the public consciousness. International news wires got a kick out of the story and helped spike DVD sales again, a year after initial release. But, I digress. Perhaps some veteran detectives on the case had flashbacks to the severed head that had haunted them since their rookie days and didn’t want to take any chances. Kinda like Brody in Jaws 2, shouting the sage gem, “I’m not gonna go through that hell again!” Nobody died for real on our movie set, but back in ’88, the gore wasn’t staged for cameras and young Michalowski wasn’t so lucky. With no fingerprints, blood spatter, dental records, or even a body, the trail of a killer was cold from the start.
“Killed, dismembered and spread all over town”
Cold, that is, until Detective Molly Zelena made a huge break in the case. Molly wasn’t just another clock-punching, doughnut-chomping, pension-stalking beat cop. She hadn’t even graduated the academy for that matter. Molly was a pet labrador retriever who lived across town. When a curious aroma caught her attention one day, she went next door to investigate and unwittingly solved the mystery of the head’s identity. A disembowelled lung and pile of human teeth had been casually discarded under a tree in a neighbour’s front yard. Voila. The teeth matched the head downtown and the cops had a name for that skull in their freezer. A local boy had been killed, dismembered, and spread all over town. The area braced for a maelstrom of violence and bloodshed, making extra sure to lock windows and doors at night, as wild theories on the killer’s identity abounded. I remember reading the paper and following the sordid drama of the Mon Valley Murder. Hell, the place was so lacking in stimulation it was almost fun having a killer on the loose. As a testament to the area’s backwoods flavour, citizens began discovering innards and butchered remains in every neighbourhood, on every street corner, in every trash bin. Police lines rang off the hook with hysterical citizens convinced they’d seen their best friend’s liver dangling from a tree branch out back. Alas, hunting season was underway and the grisly discoveries were mostly unfortunate deer and the like. But, if I may pause for just a moment here… really, people? Ever heard of proper disposal? Know what constitutes a biohazard? Let’s use common sense. Who gave you a license to carry a firearm? Somewhere in the distance, a banjo plays.
Dope Money and Prejudice
Back at the precinct, finally with a name to pursue (good dog, here’s a treat… no, not thatone, try the Milkbones… good girl, Molly, good girl!), detectives delved into Michalowski’s grim background. A rap sheet, lengthy disappearances, habitual drug use, the kid was a rumoured ne’er-do-well and alleged male prostitute in the city’s seedy Liberty Avenue district. Liberty’s not so seedy these days, especially considering some of the places
I’ve seen in my time, but in the late ‘80s it was Pittsburgh’s epicentre for lost souls, crushed dreams, and hard times. Once it was revealed that Michalowski was reputed to have swung his dick around the boulevard for dope money now and then, the ambulance-chasing locals quickly backed off their popular “we could be next” rhetoric. After all, working class Pittsburghers couldn’t possibly be queer, especially in the ‘80s. Trust me, I was damn near disowned for growing long hair at 13. Some of the area’s dimmer bulbs adopted the stance that the kid “got what he deserved” for going down the path he chose. Mostly though, common decency prevailed and public opinion regarded the murder as an all-around gruesome tragedy… and the fact that a cold-blooded killer still walked among us was lost on no one. With no leads to go on, a local television station hosted a live call-in show to solicit anonymous information from the public, in hopes of uncovering a killer or killers. I remember watching, rapt by the ludicrousness of it all, but also wondering in the back of my mind if any of the nut-jobs I knew – and I knew a few – could’ve possibly been responsible. In situations like that, you’ll tell yourself nahhh… but what if? Years passed and America’s collective ADD took hold. People just stopped talking about it, news stations stopped covering it, the country got a new president, kids grew up and moved on, old folks passed away, but the mystery of who decapitated Anthony Michalowski lingered.
Then one day, bam. It was all over, just like that. Sort of. Police had finally zeroed-in on a lead suspect named Robert Wayne Marshall and thrown out the dragnet to bring him in for questioning. Marshall had put himself under the microscope in 1992, as the prime suspect in the murder and dismemberment of yet another guy. Hey, wanna come raise your kids in quaint Pittsburgh? I didn’t think so. There are actually many nice things about the city – they’re just not displayed in this particular column. Long story short, before the cops could get their mitts on Marshall and grill him on whether he was chopping and grilling young men, he committed suicide in an empty warehouse in the city’s Strip District by overdosing on pills and slashing his wrists and throat. Talk about overkill. Sounds like somebody wanted to get out, and fast. By that time, I was basking in the California sun, but I always recalled the old chaos of the kid’s head in the dumpster back home and knew an ending would be tacked on someday, as anti-climactic as it was. Sometimes that’s how it goes.
Before I left the area, I’d become privy to a peculiar pastime of some old friends a couple years behind me in school. We’re talking 16-17 year olds with new drivers licenses and part-time jobs that put a little scratch in their pockets for weekend fun. They’d gotten into going downtown and picking up hookers off Liberty Avenue, then driving to the riverfront for $20 blowjobs. Wholesome teenage fun, right? When I was 16, I plotted getting a girlfriend and knew these guys as little kids in the neighbourhood. Their interest in the ladies of the night, however, quickly graduated from getting their rocks off to getting their rocks off for free, when they began applying knowledge of how to properly lock on a sleeper hold (a gift from someone’s policeman dad) to choking out prostitutes once services were rendered, and taking back their money. Lovely, eh? These guys bragged freely of their extracurricular activities to anyone who’d listen, oblivious to any possible moral or legal repercussions. I don’t think they even knew how fucked up it all was, and that made it even more fucked up. It excited them when an attack worked as planned, almost like playing a video game. Only the stakes were way higher. And the people were real. Maybe that’s how Robert Wayne Marshall got started, too. Or whomever it was that killed and beheaded Anthony Michalowski back in 1988. They never did find out for sure.