Stanley B. Hoss was one of western Pennsylvania’s most notorious criminals, but if you are under the age of 50 there’s a pretty good chance you never heard of him.
In “Born to Lose,” former Pennsylvania Department of Corrections employee James G. Hollock describes in frightening detail the incredible story of the man who terrorized Pittsburgh and the surrounding communities and the Jews who played high-profile roles in his trial.
Hoss led a troubled life from the get-go. He stole cars and broke into homes. In the interim, he managed to marry his wife Diane (pseudonym) and have four children with her, and had an additional two children with his mistress, Jodine Fawkes (also a pseudonym).
Hoss is portrayed as highly intelligent and charming, both of which he used to his advantage. Underneath the facade, however, lay a sociopath. Whether Hoss hated policemen or black people more is a toss-up.
The book opens with a chilling scene describing the kidnapping and rape of a young woman, Kathy DeFino (pseudonym), in the late ’60s. Hoss was sentenced to the now defunct Allegheny County Workhouse for this crime, from where he and another inmate successfully escaped.
In a scene that is as dramatic as any cops and robbers movie, Hollock chillingly describes Hoss’ murder of a young Verona police officer, Joe Zanella, in Oakmont, September 1969. Hoss was on the run, having broken out of the county workhouse, and Zanella had the misfortune to spot him while driving and pulled him over. Although he called for backup, radio communications were inadequate and by the time other officers arrived on the scene, it was too late for Zanella.
With burglary, car theft, armed robbery, rape and now murder already on his rap sheet, Hoss, while fleeing from the Pittsburgh police following Zanella’s murder, kidnapped Linda Mae Peugeot and her 2-year-old daughter, Lori Mae, from a shopping center in western Maryland. Sightings of Linda Mae and her daughter were reported; Hoss claimed to have killed them independently, though he was never forthright about what he did with the bodies.
Hoss led the police on a nationwide manhunt before a dramatic capture outside a restaurant in Waterloo, Iowa. Linda Mae and Lori Mae were not with him, and despite reports of sightings with Hoss, the two were never seen again.
Western Pennsylvanians will recognize many familiar places and names throughout the book, including Robert Duggan, Dick Thornburgh, Milton Shapp (Pennsylvania’s first Jewish governor), and Cyril Wecht, who testified at Hoss’ two trials.
A major, recognizable key player was Pittsburgh attorney Edgar Snyder. This may come as a surprise to most Pittsburghers, who know Snyder as a personal injury attorney; Jewish Pittsburghers also know Snyder from his philanthropic work in the Jewish community and with Israel.
At the time, though, Snyder was only a few years out of law school and employed by the newly established Allegheny County Public Defender’s office as the first assistant public defender. He became half of Hoss’ defense team in the trial for Zanelli’s murder, along with public defender Fred Baxter.
“Everything about this has stuck in my mind,” Snyder told the Chronicle. “I remember small incidents and facts that took place 40-some years ago that were like yesterday. … It was unbelievably exciting and frightening.”
Snyder recalled his first meeting with Hoss in jail; he requested a guard be present as he was fearful Hoss could make him his next victim.
“He wasn’t charming to me, but it is fascinating that there are people who are charmed by people who are murderers,” Snyder said. “That is a charm that would be lost on me. He was a psychopath; I felt it. We were dealing with someone who was amoral. He wasn’t the typical criminal.”
During the trial, while driving home one evening, a bullet ricocheted off the hood of Snyder’s car and fractured his windshield. Police never linked the incident to the trial, but it was nonetheless a frightening experience.
While Snyder left the Public Defender’s office soon after Hoss’ trial, he continued representing Hoss in his appeal, work that he completed pro bono.
In prison at Western Penitentiary (closed in 2005 and reopened as State Correctional Institution of Pittsburgh in 2007), Hoss was no model prisoner. In fact, the evil that lay within seemed to know no boundaries. In one of the most graphic portions of the book, Hollock describes how Hoss conspired with two other prisoners in the brutal slaying of a well-liked corrections officer, Walter Peterson. Peterson, who was kind to Hoss, had the misfortune of being black — an unforgivable trait as far as the infamous inmate was concerned.
Another trial ensued, and Hoss was given a lesser sentence than the two other co-conspirators. All along, he managed to evade the death penalty, based on Snyder’s efforts in the Zanella trial and because of the volatile time in U.S. history.
In 1978, Hoss was found hanging in his jail cell. Some people, including Snyder, doubted it was a suicide.
“I don’t believe for one minute it was a suicide,” the attorney said. “There was no one less likely than Hoss who would have taken his own life.”
Snyder, who practiced criminal law for 17 years, said he never came across anyone like Hoss, “who really and truly didn’t care what he did.”
The subject matter makes for a graphic and disturbing read. Hollock’s meticulous attention to detail, his building up of suspense, his painstaking review of court records, his reprinting of riveting letters from Hoss to his wife, and his interviews with hundreds of key witnesses and other participants, are all elements that make this a book as fascinating as any murder mystery novel.
(Hilary Daninhirsch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)