He was their rock. Years later, his unsolved murder still burns. | Maria Panaritis
He survived a brutal childhood in Port Richmond to become a happy suburban Philadelphia dad. Then he attended a wedding in Washington near a Catholic monastery. And his Horatio Alger story came to an abrupt end.
They threw George a 55th birthday bash just for the hell of it. For some reason — and there were a million reasons why people loved George Longshore — his daughters had a feeling, in that non-milestone year, that Dad deserved the roast to end all roasts. So Alicia and Janelle booked the bar at the Bent Elbo in Flourtown for September 2001 and watched friends and family pour in.
George had seen big tragedy as a kid in Port Richmond but now was coasting: a home and family in Elkins Park, an executive’s slot at a health-care firm in Newtown Square, and a reputation as that rare corporate bigwig who loathed firing people.
But to his younger brothers and sisters — Terry, Michael, Maryann, and Chalie (that’s how they say it in Port Richmond) — George was so much more. He was the guy who had stepped up as a teenager. Who had kept them all out of the orphanage. Who could survive anything.
There were jokes that night in the bar about George’s pranks as a La Salle undergrad and tears over the 9/11 terrorist strikes. But it was when he opened a gift from Maryann, just 2 when their mom died of cancer, that George got emotional. It was a donation in his name to the American Red Cross, whose volunteers were amid the rubble in Lower Manhattan that contained more than 2,000 departed souls.
“He came over"— Maryann remembers as if it happened just yesterday — “and put his hands on my shoulders because he was overwhelmed.” This was the kids’ unspoken gesture of grief. One first used by George when they lost their folks.
On Nov. 13, 2004, in Washington, D.C., in a neighborhood so full of monasteries, convents, and churches that some call it “Little Rome,” something happened that made that party three years earlier seem like divine intervention.
A band of robbers beat George’s wife, Joanne, their daughter Janelle, and her newlywed husband, Joe Kilinski, and sank a bullet into George outside a wedding reception in a hall owned by Catholic monks. The killing, 15 years ago this month, has gone unsolved while two of George’s brothers and his older daughter, Alicia, have died.
The family feel forgotten by the criminal justice system in the nation’s capital. As though George’s life meant nothing. They openly speculate whether the killers — wherever they may be — were spared prosecution because they perhaps proved useful as informants against bigger fish in other crimes. Police won’t say for sure. They say only that the case is not closed and in the hands of one of their best detectives.
With daughter Alicia now gone, it is sister Maryann Colletta, age 65, pushing for justice. One orphan looking out for the other.
Tough times, tough place
Port Richmond in the 1950s was not for the weak. It was a place that tested you. On the playground, on street corners, inside riverfront factories, within rowhouses full of blue-collar families.
From the corner of Aramingo Avenue and Clearfield Street where they lived, the Longshore kids could see a 42,000-ton Reading Co. grain elevator. They called it the Grain-O. A landmark along the Delaware River.
Charles Longshore and Mildred Swiderska met at a nearby munitions factory. Charles adopted Mildred’s son, Matt, and they married. After Charles returned from World War II with shrapnel in a leg from the Battle of the Bulge, George came along, then the four other children, and in 1956 a bombshell: Mildred’s death.
Matt was grown and already out of the house. That left dimple-cheeked George, 9, the oldest at home.
Their grandmother, Mary, moved in, and secured help from Aunt Cass, who lived on the block. Grandmom slept on the couch, the girls in one bedroom, the twin boys in the second, and George with dad in the third.
It was in that last shared room eight years later that George woke up one morning to see his father dead.
“I still remember George trying to do CPR on Dad,” recalls his sister Terry.
George, 17, went downstairs to tell Mike, just 13.
“He put his hands on my shoulder" — I could hear Mike crying as he relived the moment over the phone a few weeks ago — “and said, ‘Dad passed away today.’ ” Angry, Mike shoved George and ran.
“I thought he was laughing. But he wasn’t,” Mike now realizes. "He was crying. I had never heard him cry before.”
Pamphlets for St. Vincent’s orphanage soon were floating around the house. But somehow — no one knows exactly how — George and Aunt Cass persuaded a judge to keep the kids together. Their plan:
George, a student at North Catholic High School, would be in charge.
He held down a factory job, went to classes, and made sure everyone kept going to church. It wasn’t until after his murder that his brothers and sisters learned he had done one other thing, too: George had purchased life insurance in case he, too, went the way of Mom and Dad.
A man of compassion
Before leaving his Newtown Square office for Washington that week in November 2004, George, vice president of human resources, had begun to pester coworkers at Catholic Health East with his annual obsession: reenacting hilarious scenes from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.
His daughter Janelle was set to be a bridesmaid for her best friend from Catholic University. Mom and Dad were invited, too.
Family and faith were cornerstones in George’s life, as was an empathy about how important income was to keeping families strong. He viewed workers as more than dispensable names on a payroll sheet, his close friend and fellow company executive Peter Giammalvo told me.
“You know how HR policies can be: Sometimes the policy is very naked — ‘Here’s what we do,’ ” Peter said. “George always had a very different translation of the policy: What can we do for the good of this individual and for his family?”
On Saturday, Nov. 13, after arriving in a neighborhood near headquarters for the nation’s Catholic bishops in Northeast Washington, George, Joanne, their daughter, and her husband drove to St. Francis Hall at 14th and Quincy Streets.
It was dark. George parked curbside, between the banquet hall and a dome of the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America across the street. George tore it up on the dance floor inside. Around 10:50 p.m., the foursome headed back to his Volvo.
Out of nowhere, two — maybe three — attackers appeared. They pistol-whipped Janelle, Joe, and Joanne. George, fourth in line on the sidewalk, tossed his wallet to appease them. Neighbor Gail Murdock, getting ready for bed, heard Bang! Bang! Then, another unforgettable sound.
“It was just these heartrending screams,” Murdock told me.
George’s wife ran to the hall for help. Janelle crouched beside her bleeding father. George, 58, died at a nearby hospital. Bride and groom canceled the honeymoon. And the next day, as television news satellite trucks decamped at the scene before then abandoning the story, phones in Philadelphia began to ring with the news.
The case turns cold
The family couldn’t identify a suspect in a photo spread. Detectives canvassed the neighborhood. They visited the Longshores in suburban Philadelphia and issued a $25,000 reward that remains active to this day. But no arrests.
Alicia Flannery, George’s older daughter, led in prodding police after the case turned cold. In May of last year, though, she died. She’d failed to recover from a fall during an Eagles-Patriots Super Bowl party in Hatfield. She was 42 with two young boys. In her absence, Maryann contacted me recently about George’s homicide. Might an anniversary story shake loose some tips?
In Alicia’s old emails I counted at least nine detectives and supervisors who had touched the investigation. I managed to secure a brief interview with only one, former Police Cmdr. George Kucik.
“It was a unique case,” Kucik, who left the force four years ago, told me. “Not a run-of-the-mill case where one gangbanger gets killed by another. This is a guy leaving a wedding.”
Kucik said little more for fear of tarnishing the investigation. Acting Homicide Capt. Anthony Haythe cited the same concern when we spoke on the anniversary of the killing. The probe is active, Haythe said, and being handled by Detective Kenneth Todd Williams, with whom I was denied an interview.
The family is disgusted.
In 2014, police told Alicia they had identified a possible suspect and associate through some sort of grand jury testimony — men in jail, according to Alicia’s email records. But they refused to say much more.
Mike Longshore, a Philadelphia police dispatcher in the 1970s, said he could never “get a straight answer” from cops when asking about those inmates.
“I just found it hard to believe,” Mike said, "that whatever these guys were in jail for, that they weren’t charged with this.”
I told Haythe that the family believe police have been lying to them. That they wonder if the bad guys were cut a secret deal. His answer:
“There have been interviews conducted, by detectives, of individuals across the United States. I will put it like that. But no information has led to an arrest at this moment. … Whether they were potential suspects or witnesses is not something that I’m going to get into.”
Cold cases, he insisted, do get solved even decades later.
It’s a matter of finding the right person to finally spill what they know, or may have heard, on the street or in prison.
A tree of life
A few weeks ago, I watched Maryann approach the lone, tall tree on the sidewalk where her brother died.
From her house in Fox Chase, she had brought roses, clear packing tape, scissors, and laminated photos of the grandchildren George never got to meet. (George’s wife, Joanne, did not join us, nor did Janelle, now 41, though she and I spoke at her home in South Jersey.)
“You can’t look at this site without picturing him there with my niece holding him,” Maryann said. She had been here only once before to visit a memorial for George at the monastery.
Acorns were making crackling sounds as they fell. A monk, Father Larry Dunham, greeted us in his brown cassock and ushered us onto monastery grounds. He led us to another tree — this time, a young magnolia.
Maryann pierced the soil with a cone-shaped vase. She taped photos of George’s daughters and grandchildren onto a stone slab.
“You would have loved him,” she said as Father Larry looked on.
The smiling faces she left behind now rest atop engraved words: “A life well lived. George Longshore.”