Unsolved: The Murder of William Phillippi

Grave of William Phillippi – nature was crying the day of my visit

The journey to Silbaugh Church and cemetery took me along some narrow roads and through heavy rain storms in the southern portion of Somerset County. After the GPS attempted to take me across a farmer’s field, I found the correct entrance to the church and cemetery, which quickly came into view as I drove up the narrow roadway. The church stood at the top of the hill, framed by the changing leaves that lined the roadway leading to it. The church’s bell tower had seen better days, but the building gave the location a peaceful feeling.

I parked in its shadow and stepped out onto the carpet of leaves and studied the rural cemetery as the sound of water dripping from the trees filled the air. The mixture of old fieldstones and modern memorials remembered the lives of those who were born, lived, and died in the region. I stepped through the opening in the iron fence and entered the sacred grounds. I scanned the marked stones as I searched for the resting place of a man who eternally slumbered in this remote, rural cemetery.

Focused on another stone, I walked past the grave the first time, but after a second pass I discovered the granite marker for the Phillippi family. In the lower left corner of the stone, the name “William” with the dates “1895-1923” informed me I had found the correct grave. Here, in the rural cemetery, in the shadow of the church rests the man whose 1923 murder remains unsolved and forgotten by those outside the immediate region.

The November 22, 1923 edition of The Republic (Meyersdale, Pa) front page headline made the announcement – “William Phillippi Victim of Mysterious Homicide.”

On the morning of November 21, Armour Miller, a teacher at the Tunnel School was on his way to the school at Tunnelton, near Fort Hill, when he noticed a car over the embankment at the western end of the Brooks Railroad Tunnel. Miller did not notice anybody near the car, so he assumed it had been wrecked and abandoned. Before Miller arrived at the school, he stopped at the farm of John Garlitts and reported the vehicle. Garlitts went to see who the vehicle belonged to and if they needed help.

Garlitts arrived at the location and cautiously approached the vehicle. To his horror, Garlitts discovered a body in the backseat and recognized the dead man as William Phillippi. Phillippi was twenty-eight at the time and left behind a wife and two children.

Authorities arrived on scene and discovered Phillippi in the backseat, dead of a gunshot wound. It was discovered he had been shot once in the chest by a .38 caliber handgun. Also recovered at the scene was a man’s cap in the back of the vehicle and another cap where the car left the main road, but neither of these caps belonged Phillippi. Note: most sources state that he was shot once in the chest, however, The Republic states in a November 25, 1923 article that Phillippi was shot three times – in the chest, arm and side. This is the only time I found that mentions Phillippi being shot multiple times..

Phillippi had last been seen alive on the evening of November 20, at roughly nine in the evening. He had spent the day with Lee Allen, of Duquesne, who had been staying with the Phillippi family while hunting in the region. Allen and Phillippi had arrived at the home of W. W. Warner and – for reasons unclear – Allen decided to spend the night at the Warner home.

Phillippi left Warner’s house and started for home. He returned a short time later and demanded that Allen return to the Phillippi home. Phillippi claimed two armed men had attempted to stop him near the home of John Resh. Phillippi recognized one of the men as “Sam.”

Allen refused to get into the vehicle with Phillippi.

Warner testified that the last time he saw Phillippi, William was loading his .38 handgun before cranking his car before driving away. This was the last time Phillippi was seen alive.

His murder supposedly happened during an attempted robbery due to Phillippi’s claim two men had tried to stop him. To support this theory, many claimed to have seen Phillippi with a wad of money a couple days before the murder and no money was discovered at the scene.

Though this theory was immediately put forth, it quickly disappeared as another theory was splashed across the newspapers – William Phillippi was believed a victim of regional bootleggers. During the coroner’s inquest, the subject of moonshine operations in the region was introduced and it was believed that these illegal operations were involved with Phillippi’s death.

Despite the belief that Phillippi was murdered due to possible involvement in bootlegging, the coroner’s jury ignored these rumors. According to the coroner’s jury, Phillippi had died from a shot from a revolver by party or parties unknown.

Note: One thing I did not uncover in the newspaper articles was:  Was Phillippi killed by his own gun? It was testified that he owned a .38 revolver and it was this caliber of revolver that took his life. But at no point did I discover that Phillippi’s revolver had been recovered from the scene of the murder.

Within a couple days of the murder, authorities determined that Phillippi had been murdered at the home of John Resh by two Italian laborers living there. These two men were known locally as Carmelo “Sam” Mazzeoi and “Russell.” When authorities arrived at the Resh house to arrest the men, they discovered two make-shift stills had been erected and several kegs of illegal alcohol. What authorities did not find were the two men who had already fled the region. Note: it is not known if “Russell” was a first name, last name, or nickname.

The Resh family claimed Phillippi arrived at Resh’s house, got drunk, pulled his revolver, and threatened to shoot the two Italian laborers. “Russell” entered the kitchen, saw Phillippi brandishing the handgun and shot him. They placed Phillippi’s body in the vehicle and forced Dan Resh to drive Phillippi’s vehicle, while the remainder of the Resh family was forced into a second car. Both vehicles were driven to Confluence where they met with another Italain laborer. Then all three vehicles drove back to Brooks Tunnel. The Resh family were forced out of the vehicle and forced to push Phillippi’s car over the embankment. The Resh family was held hostage until Wednesday evening, when they were freed to go home.

Upon learning the story, authorities arrested both John and Dan Resh. They were charged with being an accessory to Phillippi’s murder. At a habeas corpus hearing in December 1923, the Resh Brothers were set free due to the Commonwealth not being able to produce significant evidence against them. Note: John was also involved in another tragedy that happened in the region. While living in Meyersdale, his house mysteriously caught fire, killing several children and his wife’s younger sister. John’s wife escaped by jumping out a window.

At the same time as the Resh brothers were arrested, Santo “Sam” Tuscano, an Italian laborer living in Meyersdale, was also implicated in Phillippi’s murder – he too promptly fled the region. Tuscano was arrested in Detroit in 1928. He was returned to Pennsylvania, and tried for the murder of William Phillippi in December of 1928. He was found innocent of the murder and would be tried in the spring of 1929 for accessory to murder and was found guilty.

The two accused Italian laborers, Carmelo “Sam” Mazzeoi and “Russell” vanished from the region and were never seen again.

In a January 4, 1934 newspaper article, The Republic reported that two men from Reading, Veto and Contanzo Zeleno, had been arrested and brought to Somerset County to be questioned by local authorities. The brothers had been living in Confluence at the time and had been associated with making and distributing illegal alcohol. Both were questioned about Phillippi’s murder and denied any involvement in the case.

As I stood there, I knew solving the murder of William Phillippi was almost impossible as nearly one hundred years have passed since those tragic events. Was Phillippi murdered by two Italian bootleggers living at the Resh house or were the Resh brothers more involved in the murder than they claimed? Did Phillippi owe the bootleggers money for illegal alcohol and that was why they attempted to stop him on his way home? The truth is the answers have vanished into the mists of time.

I finished remembering the life of the man whose death remains a mystery – one that may never be solved. I finished paying my respects and remembering the unsolved murder victim, walked back to the vehicle, leaving him to rest in the shadow of the old church.

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