Hours after Gov. Tom Corbett signed a new death warrant on Thursday for Michael Travaglia, the “kill for thrill” murderer won yet another temporary stay of the new Sept. 13 execution date.
Corbett signed the warrant ordering that Travaglia, now 53, be put to death by lethal injection for his conviction of first-degree murder and conspiracy for killing Apollo police Officer Leonard Clifford Miller on Jan. 3, 1980.
Shortly after, Travaglia’s new federal public defenders, Anna Ahronheim and Kirk Henderson, were granted a temporary stay of execution to prepare another federal appeal.
“I just want it to end ... one way or another. It happened more than 32 years ago,” said Vandergrift Mayor Lou Purificato, who was the first police officer to arrive on the scene when Miller was shot.
“Don’t get me wrong, I won’t be jumping for joy if they put another man to death, but I do want to see justice served. The law is the law, and these two (Travaglia and co-defendant John Lesko) certainly deserve it,” Purificato said.
Travaglia of Washington Township and Lesko, 53, formerly of Pittsburgh’s Lincoln Place neighborhood, were convicted of Miller’s slaying in 1981 in Westmoreland County. After a federal appeal, Travaglia was given a new sentencing hearing and was sentenced to death a second time.
Miller, 21, was shot and killed on Jan. 3, 1980, after he pursued Travaglia and Lesko’s car from Apollo across a bridge into Oklahoma Borough.
Miller was the last to die in Lesko and Travaglia’s eight-day killing spree, which started on Dec. 27, 1979, and left four people dead.
Lesko and Travaglia were driving home after they tied up William Nicholls of Mt. Lebanon and threw him in an icy lake in Indiana County. The pair decided to lure Miller away from a convenience store they wanted to rob and raced past the officer several times in Nicholls’ sports car.
In addition to the conviction in Miller and Nicholls’ murders, the pair also were convicted of abducting Peter Levato of Pittsburgh and killing him near Loyalhanna Dam. The two killed Marlene Sue Newcomer of Leisenring, in Fayette County, on New Year’s Eve after she gave them a ride.
In April, the U.S. Supreme Court set the stage for Corbett to sign the execution warrant when the nation’s high court refused to hear an appeal of Travaglia’s 2005 death sentence.
Purificato said will never forget discovering Miller, a rookie officer for Apollo, on the ground, dying from two bullet wounds. Two juries found that Travaglia had shot Miller twice at Lesko’s urging.
Purificato also worked with Miller on the Vandergrift force.
“I worked with him Christmas Eve, and (Miller) was just a young kid and really excited about getting hired full-time at Apollo. A few days later, he was gone,” he said.
Previous death warrants for Travaglia were signed by former Govs. Richard Thornburgh in 1985 and Robert P. Casey in 1990.
Corbett signed a death warrant in September for Lesko, who is incarcerated in the State Correctional Institution at Graterford. His death sentence also remains on appeal in federal court.
Travaglia is incarcerated in the State Correctional Institution at Greene County.
“We have capital punishment in Pennsylvania, and this — killing a police officer — is a mitigating factor under the law,” Purificato said. “It’s been time for justice to finally be served.”
Paul Peirce is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-850-2860 or firstname.lastname@example.org