WILKES-BARRE — It was April 6, 1957, and Sandra Serhan was on a sleepover at her grandmother’s house at the corner of Loomis and Stanton Streets.
These were times that Sandra, who was 5, always looked forward to. Her grandmother, Rita Serhan, had a market in the front of the building and her residence was in the back. Sandra has vivid memories of her grandmother and all the good times she had back then.
That night, Sandra had slept on a day bed in the kitchen. The following day, the house would become a crime scene.
Sixty-two years ago today, on April 7, 1957, Rita Serhan died when someone attacked her with a hatchet inside her home. She was 64.
For Sandra, the slaying is still tinged with pain — because she had been in the house just hours before, and because her grandmother’s murder remains unsolved.
“I could have been in this story as a part of this crime,” Sandra said. “The effects of this remain with me. I was at her wake at Mamary’s Funeral home. I saw her head — that huge gash was not from a fall.”
Sandra wanted to tell the story because she still has hope that the case will be solved, although after 62 years, the likelihood of that happening is slim, if not impossible.
Luzerne County District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis said she was not even aware of this cold case. She said the issues the detectives would have on a case this old are many — witnesses may be dead, reports were all hand-written or typed, and even if the case files can be found, there’s not much that can be done.
Unless, as Sandra hopes and prays, there might still be people around who can shed some new light on this long ago, almost forgotten case.
“There are a lot of complications that would make it difficult to proceed,” Salavantis said. “There is no statute of limitations for homicides, so, if some new information was available, we would look into it. But this is the oldest cold case I’ve ever heard of.”
A few newspaper accounts were found from the days and weeks following the murder. The Wilkes-Barre Record and Sunday Independent each carried several stories.
In one account Coroner Dr. Stanley Stapinski said that a hatchet was used to murder Rita Serhan.
Sandra said her grandmother kept a hatchet in her home — she used it to prop the door open between her store and her residence.
A Wilkes-Barre Record report said “Mrs. Serhan was attacked and killed in a bedroom situated at the rear of her store — material ripped from the front of her dress was used to choke her. Death was due to a fractured skull caused by a hatchet-wielding murderer. The floor of the bedroom was smeared with blood.”
The report goes on to say that “a tireless search for the hatchet or other instrument used in the attack has been to no avail, but the pieces of blood-covered paper, probably used by the intruder to wipe off fingerprints and clean his hands of blood, may prove to be a vital link in welding a chain of clues leading to an early arrest.”
The story reports that Captain Joseph Murray of the detective division had met with Chief J. Russell Taylor and they decided to remain on a seven-day duty schedule to ensure that no leads were to be neglected in the search for the brutal killer.
Sandra still has doubts about how the case was handled.
“A rookie cop bragged about being at the murder scene,” Sandra said. “They let everyone in the store as soon as she was found. People were taking groceries — mostly bread. They found skin under her fingernails that was never sent to the lab.”
And seeing her grandmother’s body in the funeral home still hauts her.
“I saw the back right side of her head with a huge gash in it. Her left wrist was still in a cast from a fall while she was delivering the Syrian bread she baked,” Sandra said.
Fear grips neighborhood
Newspapers reported that fear ran throughout the Rolling Mill Hill neighborhood in the days and weeks following Rita’s murder. For the first time in many years, people were locking their doors and women were afraid to go outside during evening hours.
Neighbors were somewhat reluctant to say much about Rita, but most said they liked her.
“They are keeping the bloody slaying alive because what had been a fine little community within a big city has been shaken to its roots which go back many generations in that same section,” one paper reported.
The paper also reported that prior to Serhan’s murder, there was an air of confidence in the neighborhood and doors were always unlocked because “there was no reason to lock them.”
Until April 7, 1957.
Before that fateful day, the neighbors all knew each other and trusted each other, sharing troubles and always being there for each other.
“Now they must be cautious because the way of life has been shattered by a brutal slaying,” the paper reported.
One resident said, “We want to catch him badly. We’re not going to forget or relax until this is solved.”
But there also were concerns raised about Rita’s store — that she allowed “gangs” to hang out and play low-stakes pinball card machines that helped her earn a modest income.
Sentiment in the neighborhood was that the killer or killers knew Rita, or she never would have let them in her store. The neighbors didn’t think robbery was the motive. But, they also noted that Rita let it be known that she kept money in her back room.
On the night of the murder, none of the neighbors remembered hearing anything unusual.
Sandra said Walter Winchell, a nationally known radio host and the voice of the television series “The Untouchables,” aired a segment about Rita’s murder, telling listeners that “if you want to commit a murder and get away with it, come to Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.”
A story that appeared in the Jim Thorpe Times News on May 14, 1957, said this:
“Two persons were given lie detector tests, yesterday, but both were absolved of any connection in the 6-week-old murder of 54-year-old Mrs. Rita T. Serhan, Wilkes-Barre store owner. Authorities said the woman’s husband, Moses, was given an extensive test yesterday, but they showed he was not connected with the murder. The other man, who police said at one time threatened Mrs. Serhan, also underwent the test, but like the victim’s husband, showed he had no connection with the murder.”
The Serhans had been separated, their grandaughter explained.
“My grandfather mourned her death until his last breath,” Sandra said. “He felt guilty for not being there with her.”
‘Please come forward’
Rita Serhan, who was born in Syria in 1893, is buried in Saint Mary’s Syrian Orthodox Cemetery in Wilkes-Barre.
Last week, Sandra met a Times Leader reporter and photographer at her grandmother’s gravesite. She talked about all that could have been had Rita lived. We then went to the building where the murder occurred. The building is still there, as are Sandra’s vivid memories of April 7, 1957.
“My uncle, Ed Serhan, her son, found her lying in a pool of blood with a hatchet buried in her skull and her dress wrapped around her neck and lacerations on her body,” Sandra said. “The door of the store was ajar with no signs of forced entry. The 60-some odd dollars was missing from the register.”
Sandra recalls that District Attorney Albert Ashton did try to solve the case, but it eventually went cold and remains so.
“Having to stand by her casket and ask why her head was like that was upsetting,” Sandra said. “But all my life I have wondered why someone would want to do such extensive harm to a woman who ran her grocery store and baked Syrian bread.”
Sandra said she is trying once again to draw attention to her grandmother’s case, in hopes someone will remember something and come forward.
“If they do, I will be amazed,” Sandra said.
“This is a story of tragedy. But in spite of it, we survived, but still wonder who did this horrid crime,” she added. “If anybody knows anything about this case, please come forward.”
Reach Bill O’Boyle at 570-991-6118 or on Twitter @TLBillOBoyle.