And Not a Creature was Stirring: Yuletide Homicide, Saneck Family Edition

Posted: December 26, 2017 in Uncategorized


 
11:15am, December 25th, 1975. Mr. and Mrs. Clarence Decker strode up the walkway and swung open the door of their widowed daughter’s split-level ranch house in East Vincent Township, Pennsylvania.
The tree was trimmed, the halls were decked and “Silent Night” played softly on the radio.

Moments later Mr. Decker bolted outside, sprinting for a neighbor’s house. “They’re all dead in here,” he screamed. “They’re all dead!”

Upon arriving at the scene Pennsylvania State Police investigators discovered Judith Saneck, age 34, sprawled on the living room floor next to a pile of unopened Christmas gifts;
her boyfriend of one month, Nicholas Foresta, age 48, lay face-up at her side,
a .38 caliber revolver clutched in his right hand.
The bodies of Mrs. Saneck’s three children—Michael, age 12, Joleen, 9, and Joselyn, 7—were found in their respective beds. Every occupant of the house had been shot once in the head.

The Sanecks

“The house was neat as a pin. It appeared to be a typical Christmas eve—the kids were in bed waiting for Santa Claus.” Pennsylvania State Police Detective Henry Wells, Philadelphia Inquirer, December 27th, 1975

Investigators deemed the crime a murder-suicide immediately.
The ambulance crew removed the bodies without delay; no photos were taken and no efforts expended to preserve the sanctity of the crime scene.
Even in the immediate aftermath of the bodies’ discovery, however, a murder-suicide ruling was problematic at best;
only one vehicle—a “luxury car” belonging to Nicholas Foresta—was parked outside the Saneck residence on Hoffecker Road. Judith Saneck’s white Plymouth Satellite was missing.

“That’s the way it looks (murder-suicide); now we have to prove it.” Pennsylvania State Trooper Edward Gallen (street name: Officer Confirmation Bias), Camden News, December 26th, 1975

Problems with the murder-suicide theory failed to abate: the Saneck-Foresta autopsies, performed by Dr. Halbert Fillinger of the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office,
did little to bolster law enforcement’s chosen narrative.
Dr. Fillinger determined Nicholas and the Sanecks had all died at roughly the same time,
between midnight and 2am on December 25th;
none of the bodies bore any defensive injuries and all five victims had a single cranial bullet wound.
The Saneck’s injuries were clearly homicidal in nature, but Nicholas Foresta’s cause of death was less clear-cut.
He’d been shot once in the right posterior occipital region of his skull—the back of his head, in layman’s terms—with the bullet exiting over his left eye.
An unlikely, but still theoretically possible, suicide injury—although the force of the bullet should’ve pushed him face-forward and lividity indicated he’d been positioned on his back.
Much to the dismay of Chester County authorities, Dr. Fillinger listed Nicholas Foresta’s cause of death as “undetermined.”

“Hal’s a capable guy but Dr. Fillinger’s involvement was to perform the autopsy; he’s a medical doctor not a policeman.” Chester County District Attorney William Lamb, apparently unaware forensic pathologists are trained to utilize medical evidence in criminal investigations. Philadelphia Inquirer, February 4th, 1977

The mystery of Judith’s missing Plymouth Satellite was solved within twenty-four hours; the car was found in a mall parking lot in the nearby town of Devon, approximately seven miles from the Saneck residence.
The car was determined to be in perfect working condition but one inexplicable item—a large tree branch denuded of bark—was discovered inside.
As is the case with many of the anomalies still to come, the precise role the tree limb played in the Saneck-Foresta murders remains unresolved.

Judith Saneck had only recently reentered the dating scene—eight years earlier her husband Joe succumbed to leukemia, leaving her with two small children and pregnant with a third.
Judith had last been definitively seen on the afternoon of December 23rd when she’d stopped by a neighbor’s home to borrow cinnamon for a holiday cookie recipe—during the conversation she mentioned buying electric hairdryers for her children as Christmas gifts.
Judith’s demeanor, according to her neighbor, appeared normal.

The Ziegler family

[Odd coincidence: the Saneck murders weren’t the only Christmas family slaying that year; the Ziegler family murders—still chugging along in the Florida court system four decades later—occurred on December 24th, 1975.]

Like Judith Saneck, Nicholas Foresta had three children with a deceased spouse;
he had remarried shortly after the death of his first wife, however, and was recently separated from his second.
He resided with his two youngest sons in the nearby borough of Phoenixville,
where he was a longtime employee of the town’s eponymously named steel mill.
Nicholas’s background lacked any red flags signaling an imminent murder-suicide; he had no history of domestic violence and he and Judith were dating only casually.

“Nobody believes he was responsible for this; he had no health problems, no money problems. He loved children. He never owned a gun and I don’t think he knew how to shoot one.” Nicholas’s brother David Foresta, Philadelphia Inquirer, December 27th, 1975

A canvas of Devon mall employees unearthed an Open Hearth waitress who recalled serving a couple resembling the Saneck-Forestas on the evening of December 23rd.
Nicholas and Judith had probably argued over dinner, investigators speculated, and subsequently opted to abandon her car in the parking lot and drive home together.
The next day, investigators believed, still angry after twenty-four hours of holiday togetherness, Nicholas retrieved a .38 caliber revolver—purchased by Judith for home protection six months earlier—and proceeded to shoot each and every Saneck, then himself.
A classic case of murder suicide, Chester County authorities insisted; case closed.

“We made a complete neighborhood check and we are still treating it as a murder-suicide.” Chester County District Attorney William Lamb, The Mercury, December 27th, 1975

Not so fast. Over the next few months a steady drumbeat of odd facts and crime scene details leaked to the press;
initially Chester County authorities rebutted the majority of these revelations but faced with additional corroboration would ultimately attest to their veracity.
The following information would eventually be confirmed:

• The gun, empty when found, had a five bullet capacity but seven shots had been fired—five into victims, one into a living room wall and one into the house’s exterior

• Six of these bullets were linked to the crime scene weapon but the caliber and origin of the exterior wall ammunition has never been publicized

• Nicholas Foresta’s fingerprints weren’t found on the murder weapon; the only prints on the gun belonged to a responding officer

• Authorities performed a gunshot residue test on Nicholas’s hands but refused to release the results

• Money—mostly tens and ones—was found scattered in the Saneck yard

• A screen had been removed from a second floor window

• Several spent bullet cartridges were found in a downstairs wastepaper basket

Members of Nicholas Foresta’s family, adamant he lacked both the motivation and wherewithal to commit homicide, were certain these peculiar incidentals indicated he and the Sanecks had been slain by an intruder.
Interestingly, a Hoffecker road neighbor told a Mercury  reporter Judith had complained of a prowler,
and also revealed the Saneck home had once been burgled.
Unhappy with the official inquiry, the Forestas hired a private investigator—ex-police officer Joseph Shepsko—to look into the case.
Although he will later proclaim the timing coincidental,
Chester County District Attorney Lamb responded by petitioning (successfully) for the revocation of Shepsko’s private investigator’s license.

“One shot did exit the house but there was nothing unusual about that.” District Attorney William Lamb goosing the laws of physics, The Sentinel, January 12th 1976

Eventually the media outcry reached a crescendo;
hoping to assuage community concerns about a possible killer in their midst the Chester County District Attorney’s Office staged a press conference.
Debuting a new—although hardly improved—theory of the crime,
District Attorney Lamb amended the Saneck-Forestas times of death by twenty-four hours, pathologist’s findings notwithstanding.
This revision served to work out a kink in the accepted chronology of the Saneck-Forestas’ last days:
Nicholas and Judith had (presumably) visited the Devon Open Hearth restaurant on the night of the 23rd,
yet Dr. Fillinger had fixed their times of death in the wee hours of December 25th.
This left an entire day during which the Sanecks were not seen and Judith inexplicably failed to retrieve her car from the mall (if she had in fact abandoned it there).

DA Lamb block quote

The revised time of death, however, was inconsequential compared to the press conference’s bombshell reveal:
Judith Saneck, District Attorney Lamb now alleged, had engineered the murder of her children as part of a suicide pact.
The supporting evidence proffered for this potentially slanderous claim?
The word of God, specifically a passage Judith had underlined in her Bible: “For I am now ready to be offered and the time of my departure is at hand.” (2 Timothy verse 4)
At some point the grieving widow had also written an (undated) letter to her husband Joe stating she longed to be with him. Hardly a solid foundation for a conspiracy to commit homicide charge, to say the least.

[Quandary: if you form a death pact with your current boyfriend so you can be with your deceased husband what happens to your boyfriend in the afterlife post-suicide? Is he an eternal third wheel?]

Not unexpectedly, the Chester County District Attorney’s press conference failed to quell community furor.
The Evening Phoenix, Nicholas Foresta’s hometown newspaper,
published a scathing six-part exposé on the botched investigation, taking particular umbrage at the unilaterally-revised time of death.
Seven separate witnesses, as the Evening Phoenix reported, had encountered Nicholas Foresta shopping in the company of an unidentified woman on December 24th,
a point at which authorities now deemed him to be deceased.
The newspaper’s staff, incidentally, was able to vouch for the reliability of one of these witnesses: Wayne D. Jones, Nicholas’s close friend, the Evening Phoenix’s advertising manager.

“All evidence was reviewed in the case and without a shadow of a doubt it points to murder-suicide.” District Attorney William Lamb, The Sentinel, January 12th, 1976

Some things are inevitable: snow melts in springtime, time passes and eventually questions about the family massacre on Hoffecker Road were packed away like tree ornaments and tinsel in the waning days of Yule.
Michael, Joleen and Joselyn, three children dead in their beds on Christmas eve, presents unopened, faded into memory.
I don’t know who wielded the gun in the house that night,
and without access to the forensic tests—-the Holy Grails of homicide-—the triggerman’s true identity will likely forever remain a mystery.

In some ways the Saneck-Foresta case may lack a conclusion but it does offer a moral, unpalatable though it may be:
every Christmas story needs a Grinch or Scrooge (or stonewalling district attorney) but not every holiday narrative is entitled to a happy ending.

Sometimes Santa’s sack is full of bullets, and it doesn’t matter if you were good all year.

 (Wise men take note: pulling the trigger at that angle and ending up with a left-brow exit wound would truly be a Christmas miracle.)

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