Slay for Pay

When U.S. Secret Service Agent Stanley Phillips infiltrated the Petrillo gang of Philadelphia as part of an investigation into counterfeit currency, he had no idea that his probe would uncover one of the largest slay-for-pay operations in United States history.
Phillips, in his guise as a small-time thug from Newark who was fresh out of Rahway prison, met Herman Petrillo, a “spaghetti salesman” and one of the leaders of the gang in the fall of 1938 and attempted to convice Herman to pass him a couple of bogus $20 bills. What he got instead was an offer to earn his way into the Petrillo crew by taking a contract to kill 38-year-old Ferdinand Alfonsi.
It seems that Alfonsi’s wife, Stella, 29, had taken out a $2,000 insurance policy on her husband and had promised the Petrillos a cut of the proceeds if they would do the dirty work. For Herman Petrillo and his cousin Paul, this was business as usual. The investigation into this conspiracy uncovered evidence that the Petrillos had for years been working this murder-for-hire business and were using Paul’s reputation as a necromancer to convince superstitious women that they had a “witch’s brew,” a chemical mixture that when administered over time would result in the death of the person taking the potion.
It turned out that the charm was simply arsenic.
“Scores and scores of…unfortunates were put to death by this group of assassins,” Judge Harry S. McDevitt would say later.
Paul Petrillo was known in his neighborhood as a “seer” and witch who would, for a fee, tell fortunes, put the Evil Eye on enemies, and create love potions. For $300 or a cut of the insurance money, he would also create his fatal witch’s brew.
“Petrillo could talk with Old Nick himself,” one witness at Paul’s murder trial testified.
Herman Petrillo tried to get Phillips to accept a $500 payment to knock Alfonsi over the head with a lead pipe, and push his body down the stairs to make his death look accidental. Phillips realized this was the end of his federal investigation because murder for hire always trumps counterfeiting and took the contract with the understanding that he could use another method.
Stella, however, grew tired of waiting and decided to use Paul’s death charm on her husband. When Phillips learned of this, he rushed to Alfonsi’s home only to find the man writhing in pain on the floor.
Police took Alfonsi to the hospital and arrested Herman Petrillo and Stella Alfonsi on attempted murder and conspiracy charges. They brought Stella to the hospital, where the terminally ill Ferdinand pointed a shaking finger at his wife and accused her of killing him.
It took Ferdinand Alfonsi a month to die, and his autopsy revealed enough arsenic to kill a dozen men.
The Alfonsi murder would have gone down in history as simply another insurance-related slaying if the mortician who was preparing Ferdinand’s body for burial hadn’t noticed that his corpse was similar to another two bodies she had embalmed for burial. Josephine Errichete reported her suspicions to police who got a court order to dig up the bodies of Charles Ingrao, 45, and his step-son, 18-year-old Philip.
Charles was the common-law husband of Carina Favato, a neighbor of the Alfonsis. Carina was a strong believer in black magic and witchcraft, who believed that a neighborhood woman had once put a curse on her family home.
“One night I woke up and saw (Bridget Caprana) by the side of my bed,” Carina would later testify. “Her hair was down and seven things that looked like men with horns were marching around my bed.”
Carina’s mother had paid Caprana $2,000 to create a potion to cure an ailing son and her husband, but the mixture was unsuccessful. Mrs. De Lucca, Carina’s mother, threatened Caprana.
“A death spell on your home!” Caprana replied. “Evil spirits will enter your bodies. You will die, one by one.”
By a fluke of circumstance, Caprana’s “curse” came true. Another son died soon after, and then two boarders in the De Lucca home.
(But I digress.)
Carina De Lucca Favato married Charles Ingrao, a widower with two sons. She soon took out large insurance policies on her new family — $8,000 on Charles, $6,700 on Philip Ingrao, and $5,000 on Philip’s 16-year-old brother. Charles died in 1935 and Carina collected her policy. Three years later Philip died and again the company paid off.
Autopsies of the two men revealed more arsenic. Carina was arrested and charged with two counts of murder. She confessed to the murders of Charles and Philip and then admitted to poisoning Guiseppe di Martino, a neighbor whom she cared for while he was ill.
The investigation would eventually reveal that the ring operated not only in Pennsylvania, but in Delaware, New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. There were also indications that Paul Petrillo operated a mail-order business on the West Coast.
Authorities began unraveling the case and eventually spoke to a Sing Sing convict named John Cacopardo, who was serving a 30-year stretch for the murder of his girlfriend. After he was offered a murder contract by the Petrillos, Cacopardo wrote to his girlfriend in New York, who was also once the lover of Paul Petrillo, who went to Brooklyn to silence the girl. Cacopardo went to head off Petrillo, and a fight ensued. The girlfriend was killed by Cacopardo’s revolver and Petrillo served as the chief witness against him.
Before and at his trial Cacopardo tried to convince his attorneys that the Petrillo gang was running the murder for hire plot, but could not get them to believe him.
Insurance investigators would eventually uncover payments of between $50,000 and $100,000 that they believed were linked to the ring.
By the time the investigation was concluded — and authorities always said there was more they uncovered but could not prove — six people, including the Petrillo cousins and Stella Alfonsi, were convicted of murder, and 13 others, including Carina Favato, would plead guilty to crimes connected to the ring. Seven men and three women were sentenced to life in prison (Favato and Alfonsi among them).
The number of victims, most of them men, was estimated to be approach 100. One of the victims was found to have hemlock in his body, rather than arsenic. Other methods of killing included drowning, the use of the lead pipe, and fake auto accidents.
Both of the Petrillos, whom authorities said were the brains behind the ring, received death sentences. After his conviction, Paul Petrillo said he was “the unwitting tool of a man well-versed in witchcraft.” He did not specify if that man was his cousin.
Paul Petrillo died in the electric chair in April 1941 and his cousin followed him six months later.
Herman Petrillo, who made a lunge for the forewoman of his jury when he was sentenced to death, died like a coward.
When his rubbery legs failed him, guards had to drag the weeping man to the death chamber, force him into the chair and forcibly bend his arms in order to strap him in. He made several attempts to stand up and had to be held in place while other guards fastened the straps.
“Gentlemen, you don’t want to see an innocent man die!” he cried. “Give me a chance to prove my innocence. I want to see the governor.”