February 1949: The tragic case of Margaret Bankowski
Sophia Bankowski endured countless cruelties once her 15-year-old daughter Margaret walked out of the family’s Ambridge home to visit friends on a foggy January afternoon in 1949. Margaret wanted to show off her birthday present — a portable radio. She never returned.
The worst of the cruelties began several days later, when a steelworker walking his dogs along an isolated lane in Hopewell Township noticed something odd in a nearby briar patch. It appeared to be an arm sticking out of the snow. As he moved closer, the steelworker discovered the body of a girl. She was lying face up. Her skull was bashed in. One of her ears was nearly severed.
Authorities identified the body as that of Margaret.
News of the murder was devastating for Sophia and proved emotionally trying for many in Ambridge. Margaret was a freshman at Ambridge High School. She wore bobby socks, saddle shoes and what were then called “pedal pushers.” Today we call them blue jeans.
An estimated 20,000 people filed through the funeral home to pay their respects to Margaret and her grieving family. Classmates served as pallbearers. One collapsed as the casket was lowered into a cold grave at Economy Cemetery
Police arrested more than 50 suspects, then released them all. The investigation dragged on and on. It appeared Margaret would have no justice.
Then, four years later, authorities made a shocking announcement — they’d arrested a 41-year-old housewife named Katherine Smutko and charged her with the murder.
Spectators jammed into a Beaver County courtroom for what promised to be a spectacular trial. On the fourth day, Sophia took the stand. Pale and thin, she burst into tears when shown pictures of her daughter’s body.
Margaret bore a close resemblance to her mother. Both were slender and sported the same short haircut. They could even wear each other’s clothes, though Margaret thought her mother’s were too old fashioned. Margaret “even walked pigeon-toed, like I do,” Sophia said.
Such testimony was key for prosecutors, who were making the case that Margaret’s murder was a case of mistaken identity. Smutko, they argued, had intended to kill Sophia.
Why? Because, at the time of the murder, Smutko and Sophia’s husband Zigmund were engaged in an illicit affair. Smutko, prosecutors claimed, wanted Sophia out of the way.
At one point during her testimony, Sophia was asked to try on Margaret’s heavy, blood-stained coat.
“That’s a cruel thing to do,” objected the defense attorney.
“There are a lot more cruel things about this case,” replied the prosecutor.
The jacket fit, and so the cruelties continued.
Sophia listened stoically to details of the affair — on the stand, Zigmund referred to it as “dating.”
(Interestingly, Smutko’s husband Nicholas sat through the proceedings with his hearing aids unplugged.)
After two weeks of testimony, Judge Robert E. McCreary delivered what he called “the most important decision of my life.” He granted a motion clearing Smutko of the slaying.
“This is not a case of circumstantial evidence, but inference upon inference,” he said. The case against Smutko was so flimsy, he ruled, it should not go to a jury. His decision left no room for an appeal.
McCreary ordered Smutko and Zigmund Bankowski held on adultery charges. A grand jury, however, failed to indict the two. The murder, the Post-Gazette predicted accurately, would most likely remain unsolved.
Sophia Bankowski died July 1997 in Ashville, NY, where she resided with her son Phillip and his family. She was 88. Zigmund died in 1996.
Top photo: Jurors visit an Ambridge embankment prosecutors hinted might be the murder site. (Pittsburgh Press photo)