Stalking A Killer - From 1954 Two Curious Phoenixville Natives Believe They May Have Cracked The Decades-old Case. Much To Their Surprise.

Posted: June 18, 1990

Dan Buttaro and Joe Winnick were just children when a 22-year-old secretary in their home town of Phoenixville was snatched off the streets and fatally stabbed 36 years ago.

Still, they can remember the fear that pulsed through this former steel town, sowing suspicion and distrust. The murderer - police and residents believed - was living among them.

But six police investigations into the slaying of green-eyed Marguerite Keota failed to find her killer or to quell the uneasiness in town.

Spurred in part by their childhood recollections, Buttaro and Winnick last year decided to take their own look at that distant murder that so preoccupied Phoenixville.

At first, Buttaro, a free-lance writer, thought the case was just good material for a book. Winnick, a veteran Tredyffrin police detective, merely was curious about the case's loose ends. Neither expected to solve it.

But that is what they may have done.

"I never believed that we would be able to solve this crime, but one thing has led to another and now I think we know who and why," said Buttaro. They said they could be ready to name a suspect within a few weeks but had some final checks to make first.

It was Buttaro who first started researching the case in May 1989 after reading a newspaper article about the 35th anniversary of Keota's murder.

Buttaro, 45, who now lives in Hobe Sound, Fla., said he became fascinated with the way the article had neatly outlined the facts in the case, facts he knew were murkier than reported. So, deciding to look into it, he came home to Phoenixville last summer for an extended visit.

After quickly turning up several bits of information, Buttaro said, he realized that he needed an experienced investigator to help him put the information into perspective. Winnick came to mind.

"I had served with him on the police department and knew he had a good reputation for detail, so I went over one day and banged on his door," Buttaro said.

Winnick, 51, a methodical thinker with a deliberate air, was at first cool both to the idea and to Buttaro, a gregarious, get-it-done-now type. But soon, they said, the case pulled them together and they became a team.

Winnick laid out the strategy and decided what was needed. Buttaro thought of ways to get it.

The pair spent several summer nights last year sitting around Winnick's dining room table, sifting through taped conversations, handwritten notes, documents and statements from sources. Soon, they became obsessed with solving the crime, they said.

"We'd be on the telephone into the early morning hours, going through this lead and that lead, until finally the pieces started fitting together," Buttaro said.

"It was no treasure chest we found," said Winnick. "Everything we did, someone else could have done."

Because of the relative ease of digging up information, both men wonder whether previous investigators were hindered by someone who did not want the murderer found. Like previous investigators, they believe that the murderer was a well-known and respected Phoenixville man.

They said at least one of the previous investigators, whom they refused to identify, deliberately allowed suspicion to settle on three people in Phoenixville, two of whom were vaguely identified in news accounts and town gossip as a policeman and a doctor.

But Buttaro and Winnick said they quickly were able to uncover evidence that eliminated the two men as Keota's killer.

*

Keota's violent death so shocked Phoenixville residents that many still remember what they were doing when news came that her body had been found.

Buttaro said he was in a five-and-dime store in downtown Phoenixville. Winnick said he was at a stop on a bread truck.

Just after midnight on March 3, 1954, Keota was walking home from pre- Lenten dances when she was grabbed by a man as she crossed Burns' Alley on Washington Avenue en route to her home two blocks away on Buchanan Street, according to police accounts.

Three days later, her body was found at the bottom of an outhouse near the abandoned Old Pickering School, two miles south of Phoenixville in Schuylkill Township.

According to police reports, Keota was dressed in the brown skirt and white blouse that she had worn to dances at the former Valley Forge Army Hospital and at the Polish-American Citizens' Club in Phoenixville.

Her body was in about two feet of icy water, with her legs sticking up, according to news accounts. Her brown handbag and brown short coat lay on top of her. A wristwatch on her left arm had stopped at 1:25, the time on that previous Wednesday morning that authorities believed she had been thrown into the six-foot-deep privy.

An autopsy showed that Keota had water and debris in her lungs, indicating that she was still alive after being stabbed three times in the chest and thrown into the hole, according to Dr. Manuel Bergnes, who performed the autopsy and now practices in Norristown.

Winnick said they looked at every possible person with the ability to murder Keota and matched them with the facts. Eventually, Winnick and Buttaro were able to eliminate the two most rumored suspects in the case, the policeman and the doctor.

The Phoenixville policeman, who had chanced upon Keota and a girlfriend walking home from the Polish dance shortly before the murder, did not have time to get into the alleyway where Keota was abducted, according to Buttaro.

Using computer-aided calculations, Buttaro said he determined that the policeman would have had just four minutes to put up his dog, get his car out of the garage and drive the couple of blocks to the alleyway. By that time, Keota would have walked beyond the alley, Buttaro said.

"Just before he died a few years ago, he told another man that he didn't do it," said Winnick of the policeman who never was identified by the police or in news accounts. "It was still on his mind after all these years."

The pair eliminated the doctor after they found that rumored bloodstains on the back seat of his car could not have been Keota's. According to the autopsy, Keota bled internally from blood vessels in a lung and it was unlikely that blood would have stained the car.

Phoenixville Sgt. Bernard McCann, now retired, who was at the scene when Keota's body was found, also told Buttaro recently that there was no blood on the woman's clothing. It was not discovered that she had been stabbed until the autopsy, McCann told Buttaro.

"Rumors were allowed to run rampant through the town," said Buttaro, who now plans to write a book about the case. "These men - and everybody in this small town knew who they were - lived under a cloud of suspicion. Why?"

Winnick said previous investigators had led the community to believe that Keota was abducted by someone she did not know. But Winnick said that he and Buttaro believed that Keota knew her killer. They also no longer believe that there was a struggle in the alley before Keota was carried away, as mentioned in previous police and news accounts.

According to information from state police reports obtained by Buttaro, a woman who worked with Keota at the B.F. Goodrich Co. in Montgomery County had walked part way home with Keota that night from the Polish club.

The woman, Julie Potoczniak Kilyk, who now lives in Pittsburgh, told authorities that Keota said when they parted, "If you don't see me tomorrow at work, look for me in Burns' Alley." Keota would have had to cross Burns'

Alley, officially Gold Street, to get to her home.

According to Winnick and Buttaro's version of that night, Keota had agreed to meet someone near the alley, possibly a prominent man with whom she was involved romantically.

Keota and the man talked for a while in an alleyway on Washington Avenue and, perhaps, a quarrel began. When Keota tried to leave, the man grabbed her by the throat to silence her. But she was not knocked unconscious, they insist, in contradiction to previous reports.

"The information we got from Dr. Bergnes was that there were no bruises on her body, except a slight mark on her throat where he choked her in the

alley," Buttaro said. "If Keota had been in fear of her life, there probably would have been more evidence of a struggle when her body was found."

Buttaro and Winnick believe that Keota allowed herself to be carried away by the man to his car, whom she still did not fear at this point. As evidence, they point out that a witness told police that the man, after carrying a woman to his car, drove back to the alley, stopped his car in the middle of the street and retrieved something.

"If this man had just abducted a stranger, does it make sense for him to hang around?" asked Winnick. "No. He would be getting out of there before people could see him." They are not sure what prompted the man to kill Keota, but theorize that it probably had something to do with hiding his identity.

Winnick and Buttaro said they wondered why several leads were not followed up immediately. Also, they question why Phoenixville Police Chief Fred K. MacInnis was put in charge of the investigation, with his limited staff, when the murder occurred in the jurisdiction of the state police.

MacInnis, who is retired and still lives in Phoenixville, said during a recent interview that he did not remember how he got the case. But he defended his performance 36 years ago.

"I was a good cop, anybody that knew me as a policeman, knew that," said MacInnis, 82, who lives in the Phoenixville Manor retirement home.

Winnick and Buttaro said other unexplained inconsistencies also exist.

For example, in 1954, while an investigation was under way by Phoenixville and state police, then-deputy coroner Cooper T. Bishop Jr. and MacInnis stated publicly that an inquest for Keota, a public hearing held to determine the circumstances of death, was planned.

On March 31, 1954, Bishop filed a coroner's bill that listed the inquest as ''pending." Then, on April 14, 1954, Bishop filed another coroner's document that said an inquest was unnecessary because "there was no lawful violence nor suspicious circumstances attending the death of said decedent."

Was that an honest mistake by Bishop, who is now dead, or something else? asked Buttaro and Winnick. In a few weeks, they say, they should know for sure.

Then, they believe, they will have put the Keota murder to rest.

|
|
|
|
|