Mary Trudich had no enemies.
An innkeeper, she was the perfect hostess.
In fact, people around South Tamaqua say her heart was as big as the mountain behind her warm roadside cafe.
If you were hungry, she fed you. If you were in a jam and needed a few dollars, she'd reach into her apron pocket to help you out.
"She'd give you the shirt off her back," says nephew John 'Sonny' Trudich, Jr., of the Owl Creek section of Tamaqua.
Mary never had children. But in many ways, the gracious 56-year-old widow was seen as a motherly type.
"She was a nice person, very calm," says Clyde Robertshaw, 76, Owl Creek.
People might disagree and even argue about what took place inside River Run Inn one December afternoon. But there's one point on which everyone agrees: Mary Trudich didn't deserve to be victim of the area's most brutal murder.
Overcame early heartbreak
Mary was a Lansford native, daughter of John and Mary Manzak Chizmar.
She married William 'Butch' Trudich and the couple set up housekeeping. According to Schuylkill County records, the two purchased an 11-acre property in West Penn Township on November 16, 1933. There, six years later, Mary and William ventured into the tavern business, opening their River Run Inn along the main highway three miles south of Tamaqua.
The cozy, two-story frame building featured a bar and tables in front and three small rooms to the rear. The second floor had four rooms, ample living quarters for the pair. Mary was a clean, tidy person and the inn, a showpiece of her housekeeping skills. To the rear of the building, William operated an automobile salvage business.
For four years, things went well. Then came the unexpected.
Sadly, William developed an illness and passed away, leaving Mary a young widow and sole proprietor of the operation. She dealt with the loss by putting her energy into the inn. Moving forward, she welcomed her brothers to live with her, George, then 28, and Michael Chizmar Shoemaker, then 32.
A cafe-tavern, River Run Inn was visited by many families among countless travelers along busy Route 309. Those who remember the place say it was a very respectable establishment.
"I'd go in there with my father," says John Trudich.
Robertshaw describes it as well cared for.
"I was in junior high school when I went in with my father and had a soda. It was nice and clean. It had a tile floor, but not real tiles, and it had bar stools with red seats," explains Robertshaw.
Over the next 22 years, things went well for Mary and her siblings, and River Run Inn established itself as a popular, friendly stop. Mary hung a special sign on the wall behind the bar. The sign reflected her approach to friendship, visitors and alcohol: 'Act friendly, drink moderately, depart quietly, and ... call again.'
Mary ran a tight ship and visitors always were well behaved. But then came one unsuspecting day just two weeks before Christmas 1961. That's when it happened. And South Tamaqua would never be the same again.
The rainy afternoon of Tuesday, December 12, was a typical day at River Run Inn.
Michael needed to go into Tamaqua to sign up at the State Employment Office, and had convinced brother George to go along. George wasn't feeling well but Michael and Mary figured the fresh air would do him good. The two men left at 1:30 p.m.
Thomas Hoppes, who lived five minutes away in Clamtown, had stopped in the bar with his wife and daughter. About 2 p.m., the Hoppes family said goodbye to Mary and left for their short ride home, leaving Mary by herself. At the time, Mary was browsing through recipes, intent on baking Christmas cookies. Chocolate chip would be perfect, she told the visitors as they left. About 50 minutes later, George and Michael returned from Tamaqua. They entered the south side of the building and noticed a light on in the men's room. Unusual, they thought. Also, the jukebox was playing.
They called out several times for their sister but heard no response. Upon investigating, the brothers were shocked to find Mary on the floor in a pool of blood. She was positioned on her back in a narrow space at the north wall of the building. Mary was almost wedged between the end of the bar and a Coca-Cola machine.
Her red-and-white checkered apron was bunched up around her neck. Mary was dead, murdered in most violent fashion.
Sheer brutality stuns
According to police investigators, Mary had been savagely bludgeoned, the exact weapon unknown.
Dr. Francis Ditchey examined the body and said Mary's jaw was broken in several places, the bone protruding. Her face, lips and chin were swollen, and scratches were visible on her neck, cheek and behind her right ear. Bruises on both sides of her face attested to the force of two severe blows which shattered the jaw.
"One of the blows broke Mrs. Trudich's jaw in several places and this may have caused her to suffocate," said Dr. Ditchey. Later, pathologist Dr. Emmett Hobbs at Pottsville Hospital said Mary suffered "severe hemorrhages of the soft tissue of the neck." The assailant also broke two of Mary's ribs. Mary died by choking on her blood and vomit.
Blood splatters were seen on the bar rail and on the side of the bar paneling. Several beer bottles were scattered on the floor, and the floor beneath the cash register was curiously wet, as if something had spilled.
"There was blood all over," says R. Thomas Berner, Bellefonte. Berner, retired journalism professor, was a young reporter launching his career at the Tamaqua Evening Courier at the time of the murder. He and newsman Gordon Pfeil rushed to the scene. The startling, gory image seared a lasting impression in Berner's mind. He was never able to shake it.
"I still see it every time I pass that place," says Berner, who may be the sole remaining witness to the murder scene.
Turns out, the murderer did something unusual, making investigators wonder - did he have second thoughts after his wild, inhumane outburst?
"He put her head on a footrest, like an act of sympathy or remorse," says Larry Neff, West Penn Township. Neff has served as deputy coroner for over 30 years and forensic photographer for almost 40. His close association with the chief investigator, now deceased, has given Neff unique perspective on the tragedy and insight into how the case unfolded.
Police revealed that the killer apparently emptied the cash register of $150 to $200, grabbed three cartons of cigarettes and one or two bottles of whiskey, and then fled.
Three days later, early Friday morning, memorial services took place at Gulla Funeral Home, Coaldale. There was no viewing for Mary. She was buried at St. John's Greek Rite Catholic Cemetery, Summit Hill.
By then, a massive manhunt was under way - a search so intensive that state police would set up a substation in Tamaqua to house a ten-person investigative team, along with other investigators and specialists statewide.
A horribly cruel murder had taken place in a peaceful, picturesque community. A hard killer was on the loose. Local residents were frightened, and people wanted answers.
Next Friday: Shocking theory fuels mystery