August 1947: One murder, one body, two identities

Members of the Yocobet family were attending a wake for their murdered 14-year-old daughter when reporters burst in and told them there had been a terrible mistake. The body lying on a cold slab at the Allegheny County Morgue was not their beloved Betty Jane, but a 22-year-old woman named Julia Fesko.

Mr. and Mrs. Yocobet immediately rejoiced and offered prayers of thanks. Suddenly there was hope for their daughter, missing 10 days.

Meanwhile, the Fesko family huddled together in mourning at the morgue and wondered how poor Julia, who went to church every Sunday and “didn’t go out much with boys” ended up with a .32 caliber bullet in her head. Her nude, battered body had been found five feet from a lonely “Lover’s Lane” in Versailles Township.

Julia was a factory girl who lived in McKeesport. After her shift at the Westinghouse Airbrake on Friday night, Aug. 29, 1947, she bought a train ticket to Johnstown so she could visit her sister the next day.

She never showed up in Johnstown and her family became concerned — especially after reading newspaper descriptions of the body found in Versailles Township. It was that of a “chunky” young lady with dark hair, weighing 160 pounds.

Julia’s family arrived at the morgue minutes before the body was to be removed for burial. Members of the Yocobet family had earlier signed statements swearing that the corpse belonged to their daughter, but authorities figured it wouldn’t hurt to allow Julia’s family to take a peek.

Recognizing the disfigured face proved difficult. Then the coroner displayed rings found on the body’s fingers and the family members burst into tears. To make certain of the identity, investigators summoned Julia’s dentist, who recognized his dental work.

Julia’s murder and the subsequent mix-up were front-page news. Detectives scrambled to solve the now high-profile case and, in the next several months, interviewed more than 150 people. They investigated Julia’s private life and were surprised to learn of her “amazing trail of romantic interludes,” reported The Pittsburgh Press. Shockingly, the newspaper wrote in gasping tones, Julia had “at least 10 male friends. Several were married.”

Police questioned several suspects: a truck driver, a Westmoreland County farmer, a few of her co-workers at Westinghouse. Nothing panned out.

In June 1948, detectives got a big break. An Army deserter and car thief named Frank Ringler confessed to to the killing.

Ringler agreed to travel to the crime scene and recreate the murder for a police photographer’s movie camera. A secretary from the district attorney’s office played the role of Julia.

Police gave Ringler a .32 revolver. The suspect then mugged for the camera and put his arm around the secretary. “Apparently enjoying his antics,” a newspaper reported, Ringler then climbed into the back seat with the secretary and described how he pawed his victim, shot her behind the left ear, stripped her and dumped the body.

Near the bizarre re-creation’s end, however, Ringler suddenly recanted. He didn’t kill Julia after all.

Why’d you confess, then? police asked.

“Because I wanted to,” Ringler replied.

He was promptly sent to Western Penitentiary to serve time for armed robbery, auto theft and morals violations.

Months passed, then years. Each Labor Day, Pittsburgh newspapers published short stories reminding readers that the case remained unsolved. Those stories disappeared in the early 1950s.

And what happened to Betty Jane Yocobet? In early October, more than a month after the murder, she wrote to her family that she was alive and happy and living in Hood River, Ore. She planned to marry a merchant seaman named Al — as soon as he returned from a voyage to Rio.

“Mom, I seen all the clippings about me,” she wrote. “I think it is silly of them to think of me as shot.”

Steve Mellon

Top photo: Family members identify the body of Julia Fesko. (Pittsburgh Press photo)