HANOVER TWP. — Nearly a century ago near the current Hanover Area High School’s baseball field, a 21-year-old waiter at a Greek restaurant was fatally shot.
Peter Vrountas, 21 of Wilkes-Barre, was sitting with 18-year-old Winifred Conahan, of Ashley, next to a creek in the former Sans Souci Park on July 1, 1919, when a man sprang from bushes grabbing the woman’s arm.
Vrountas struggled to free Conahan when he was shot in the chest.
Early in the investigation, according to the Times Leader Evening News and Wilkes-Barre Record newspapers, detectives and township police worked several theories.
Detectives looked at Conahan’s father, John Conahan, as the gunman, believing his daughter was being courted by a Greek he disavowed.
Another possibility was Winifred Conahan shot Vrountas, upset that he refused to propose to marry her, and the last theory detectives investigated was a lover’s triangle.
Vrountas was a waiter at Presto Lunch on Public Square, Wilkes-Barre, near a seafood restaurant where Conahan was employed.
The two restaurants were quit busy with customers with the seafood place being patronized by soldiers from the 109th Field Artillery.
Earlier that day on July 1, 1919, a soldier who had affections for Winifred Conahan was involved in an argument with Vrountas inside the Greek restaurant.
The three theories were quickly ruled out.
Detectives had two clues that led to the suspect: Winifred Conahan claimed the gunman was older and had a “gruff voice,” according to a story in the Wilkes-Barre Record on July 3, 1919.
Harry Jacobs, 42, was known to frequent the park and swim in the creek. Having spent time in prison for firearm and theft crimes, detectives focused their sights on Jacobs, a resident of a boarding house in Lee Park.
Jacobs initially denied being the gunman or even at the scene. He claimed he left his residence and took a trolley car to Public Square, where he got onto another trolley for Nanticoke intending to visit a friend.
Detectives didn’t believe his story.
Jacobs matched the description of the suspect by the park’s watchman, who stood on a nearby bridge at the time of the shooting and saw the gunman run away.
Detectives found a revolver and a blood-soaked shirt in a foot locker in Jacobs’ room at the boarding house.
At a time when there was not DNA, Jacobs was arrested and charged with murder when Winifred Conahan was able to identify Jacobs’ “gruff voice.” Jacobs had no teeth resulting in him having a distinct voice, the Times Leader Evening News reported on July 3, 1919.
Four months after his arrest, Jacobs was found guilty of second-degree murder after a trial at the Luzerne County Courthouse in November 1919. Testifying on his own behalf, Jacobs claimed he was mentally impaired due to a snake bite.
A judge sentenced Jacobs to 18 years in prison, and he was sent to the Fairview State Hospital for the criminally insane, where he escaped twice in 1920 and 1921, both times on a horse. After he was caught after the second escape, he was transferred to the infamous Eastern Penitentiary in Philadelphia to serve the remainder of his sentence.
Sans Souci Park closed in 1970, and the land was used as a landfill following the 1972 Agnes flood. The Hanover Area School District purchased 10 acres of the former park in the mid-1970s, and constructed a high school that opened in 1979. The creek that flowed through the park remains intact, separating the high school and athletic fields.
Winifred Conahan moved to New York City where she married and had three children. She died in September 1977 – as the high school was being built – and buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery, Hanover Township.