A kind-hearted widow is brutally murdered in the quiet village of South Tamaqua.

The killing is so savage that people are shaken to the core. But so far, the culprit hasn't been identified and answers have been hard to come by.

Sgt. George Durilla, deceased, headed the Pennsylvania State Police probe and kept in touch with the victim's family. A Tamaqua resident, Durilla was diligent in pursuing the case, even if leads were few.

"He'd say they're still working on it. It was always the same. There just wasn't anything they could tell us," says John 'Sonny' Trudich, Jr., 79, nephew of homicide victim Mary Trudich. Mary was bludgeoned on the afternoon of December 12, 1961, while tending to duties inside her tidy, rural cafe-tavern along Route 309. She had been alone less than an hour when her battered body was discovered by her two brothers.

If crucial information is lacking in the case, it isn't for lack of effort. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania left no stone unturned in trying to solve the murder. Police wanted to reassure worried residents so that they might sleep well at night.

But the killer couldn't be found. And he may have been lurking in the neighborhood.

"I was only 11 years old," says nearby resident Jean Romig Holmberg. "We were only one mile from the murder scene. It was a very scary time." Like other parents, Jean's father locked all of the doors and windows to protect his family.

Many investigators

In addition to Durilla, then a corporal, investigators came from Tamaqua borough and the townships of Rahn and West Penn. The case drew an almost-unprecedented array of experts: Pennsylvania State Police Troopers Rudy Balas, Stanley Zellin, Stanley Povalitis, Metro Karlitskie, Albert Yanushonis, Cpl. James Marks of the Mahanoy City barracks, Schuylkill County Detective William Keuch, Deputy Coroner Harvey Hill, Sr., Detective Leroy Lilly and Trooper Walter Zolna of PSP Troop C, Reading; also a police photographer and a fingerprint expert.

One early report says Durilla was assisted at the scene by John Allesch of Hooper Detective Agency. He was a former Rahn Township police chief.

The investigation apparently posed complications. Eventually, Lt. Norman McFadden of the State Police Detective Division, Harrisburg, was assigned to the case, a move which also brought in Capt. George Sauer, division commander, and Capt. Reagle Parsons, Troop C commander.

State police went so far as setting up a temporary Tamaqua substation at the Boyle Trucking firm on South Greenwood Street, a building now owned by Tom's Auto and Marine.

Manhunt intensifies

Police started from scratch. They didn't know if the murderer hid in the neighborhood waiting for Mary to be alone, or if it was an unplanned crime of opportunity, or if, perhaps, a domestic dispute had erupted in violence.

Initially, police said they were looking for "a husky Negro" who reportedly stopped at the inn on the Friday before the murder. The stranger walked out without paying for his food, something, they said, he also had done earlier in Pottsville. He supposedly told Mary he was heading to Reading. But nothing developed from that vague lead.

The victim's clothes were shipped to Harrisburg for lab analysis while police checked three cars observed at the cafe.

"Police came to our house twice because my father's '59 Plymouth matched," says George Pinkey, Hometown. "My mother was all shook up." But Leonard Pinkey, Sr., wasn't a suspect. Instead, he just happened to own a similar car.

Traffic checks were conducted along the highway.

"They stopped our car," says Al Barnisky, Tamaqua barber. Barnisky was returning from barber school in Allentown with a car pool of other young men studying at an electronics school. "They asked us if we saw anything," Barnisky recalls. But nobody in the Barnisky car had noticed anything unusual.

Then, suddenly, police hit paydirt.

The ongoing traffic checks paid big dividends when a witness surfaced on Tuesday, December 19. Police will not reveal his identity, but information he provided was a treasure trove. He told police he saw a man running from the south entrance of the inn. The witness said he saw the man stumble, then regain his balance as he hurried down the inn's steps about 2:45 p.m. on the day of the murder. The witness said the man ran toward what appeared to be a black Chevrolet sedan parked just 20 to 25 feet away.

The suspect was described as being about 40 years old, 5-feet-8 inches tall, or 5-9, and well-built at about 180 pounds. Police called it their best lead yet. Who was this man?

A shocking theory

In the close-knit Tamaqua area community, the tragedy evokes a surprising and unsettling theory based on observations by the unnamed witness. The most widely circulated and enduring notion is that Mary was savagely attacked and murdered by someone she knew very well.

Local residents say details provided by the witness appear to describe an area man who often visited Mary's cafe. Neighbors say the man owed her money for quite some time. Moreover, the man reportedly both owned and drove a black Chevrolet. But the black Chevy suddenly 'disappeared' immediately after the murder, and was not seen again. The man never publicly was named a suspect by police.

Perhaps most shocking of all, the man in question worked in law enforcement. He is now deceased.

"Mary was always scared to death of him," says a life-long South Tamaqua resident.

Was Mary murdered by someone who took an oath to protect and serve? Was he possibly trying to extort money from Mary in those days before Christmas? The questions are endless.

The prevailing thought among locals is that police knew who committed the crime but were unable gather enough proof, thus the case failed to move forward.

"Way back then police didn't have the equipment and know-how they have today," explains Larry Neff, deputy coroner and forensic photographer. Neff maintained close association with chief investigator Durilla. Neff says Durilla was thorough in every aspect of the job and wanted justice.

"He was sincere and dedicated. He always wanted to do something about the case, there is no doubt about it," says Neff. But investigative tools of 50 years ago were not as sophisticated as those used presently. "Today there is DNA and improvements in fingerprinting techniques. Plus, many crimes are now solved by video," Neff explains.

As for Mary's murder, Durilla went so far as trying to coax a deathbed confession from the man thought responsible. "But he just wouldn't budge," says Neff.

That kind of thoroughness was a trademark of Durilla, says Kathy Kunkel of the TIMES NEWS Tamaqua Bureau.

"George Durilla was a friend of our family's and I remember that he took great pride in doing his best," says Kunkel.

Durilla's daughter, Mary Kay Davis, acknowledges her father's perseverance with the Trudich murder case.

"He talked about it at home," says Davis. "I know it was always on his mind, right up until the end."

The big question

Much has changed since the days of the most heinous crime in South Tamaqua.

River Run Inn no longer exists, partly due to highway expansion. Route 309 is now four lanes, a major artery from the crossroads of an interstate system north of Tamaqua to Philadelphia in the south. The highway ushers motorists past the murder site. Thousands of cars and trucks zoom by each day, but there is no longer a reason to stop.

"The highway came through and they tore off half of the building," says John Trudich. "The brothers continued to live there in half of the place, and then a coal breaker bought it."

Mary's brothers are now gone, and the remaining half of the building was destroyed sometime after 1995. The site is now a private access road leading to South Tamaqua Coal Pockets.

So who killed Mary? A local man? Or someone else? Pennsylvania State Police acknowledge that the case is still open. For that reason, police will not comment on specifics.

Mystery surrounding the vicious homicide seems destined to continue. Time can be an enemy. But time also can be a friend. After half a century, local residents have come to sleep well at night once again. Yet South Tamaqua was forever changed. Innocence lost is never recaptured.

One big question remains on the lips of those old enough to remember. And every so often, that single, burning question flares like a match to ignite an eternal flame: Did a trusted local man get away with murder?

One day the answer may come. One day the case may close.

But justice never will be served for Mary Trudich, the woman with a heart of gold.