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Killer’s sloppy strike inside Harrisburg grocery nearly gets him caught

PennLive.com logo PennLive.com 2 days ago John Luciew, pennlive.com

The Story So Far: This is part two of five in the Shopkeeper Killer series. Thus far, District Attorney Martin Lock witnessed his shoe-store-owning uncle become the killer’s third victim. But when the all-out investigation produces no new leads, it’s time to go back to beginning of the case and review every last detail. Read part one here.

It was unseasonably mild that Monday morning in mid-January as another Harrisburg work week was gearing up.

For 54-year-old grocery store owner Robert Yablon, this meant an early morning meat delivery at his small business at 1501 Regina St.

Except this morning would be anything but routine.

He arrived at the business as he always did, with a paper bag full of cash – about $250 – so he could make change for his customers. Yablon also carried a wallet in his back pocket stuffed with another $200.

In 1963, grocery stores like Yablon’s operated almost exclusively on cash. Credit cards weren’t in wide use, and things like Apple Pay were science fiction. This made mom-and-pop stores like Yablon’s inviting targets for robbery.

Sometime after 9 a.m. on Jan. 21, 1963, Yablon stood behind his newly stocked meat counter in back. The meat supplier was already on to his next stop.

Then, a lone customer walked in.

Sloppy work

The figure walked toward the back of the grocery store.

Before Yablon could react, the figure raised a German-made .22 revolver to the grocer’s surely shocked face — and without hesitation — shot him in the mouth.

Yablon went down behind the meat counter. But he wasn’t dead.

The figure standing over him fired again, this time at his head.

It was sloppy work: Two shots could attract unwanted attention. Still, the figure didn’t panic.

He reached down, grasped the wallet inside the grocer’s pants pocket, and ripped out the entire seat of the pants to take it. He cleaned out the cash register, too.

The only thing the figure left behind were coins spilled on the store’s floor.

Then he was gone. There were no witnesses.

Or were there?

Despite taking two shots to the head, Robert Yablon was still alive.

The vigil

In 1960s Harrisburg, neighborhood stores like Yablon’s were thriving across the city, then home to more than 70,000 residents.

“A lot of places in town were corner grocery stores. There were a lot of them around,” recalled Herschel Lock, 74, whose father, Martin, served as the Dauphin County district attorney at the time.

“There were a lot of small shops, too,” he added. “That’s just the way it was.”

Yablon had operated his store in a residential section of the city for four years before that unknown figure walked in.

Despite neighbors all around, police could find no one who saw anyone going in or out of the store between 9 and 9:30 a.m., when the shooting occurred.

No one heard the two shots, either.

A customer, never identified by name in newspaper accounts, made the gruesome discovery. A bloody Yablon was stretched out on the floor behind the meat counter.

The customer went immediately to the store’s telephone. Instead of calling police, the customer dialed a number tacked to the wall next to the phone.

Yablon’s friend, Mrs. Charles L. Fogelsonger, 30, answered the call. She lived on Regina Street and dashed to the store.

She ran right to Yablon, leaned over and touched him. That’s when she discovered he was still alive.

Immediately, she called for an ambulance.

With that, the vigil began.

Yablon’s wife, his son, his daughter-in-law – along with Harrisburg detectives – waited around the clock at Polyclinic Hospital. All in hopes the wounded, unconscious grocer would wake up.

Perhaps then, Robert Yablon could identify his mysterious shooter.

Brewing storms

The shooting of Robert Yablon wasn’t just an assault on a single store owner. It was an attack on Harrisburg business, itself.

It’s difficult to overstate how different the capital city was in early 1963. Harrisburg boasted department stores, furniture stores, and mom-and-pop stores. The number of its shoe stores, in particular, were legion. And not just downtown. Businesses boomed across the entire sweep of the city.

“In 1963, all of the retail was still there,” said David J. Morrison, executive director of Historic Harrisburg Association, Inc., a grassroots city preservation group.

“It’s kind of like what you picture in New York City. Harrisburg had it also,” he said.

That January, the future looked very bright, indeed.

Pennsylvania’s capital city wasn’t just its political center. Harrisburg’s bustling businesses ruled the region’s retail and shopping activity, as well.

“It was a big deal to come downtown,” Morrison said.

Over the next decade, however, Harrisburg’s once-thriving businesses would be bruised, battered, then all-but washed away with the rise of suburban shopping centers, then ultra-modern indoor shopping malls, and finally, the wrath of Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972.

“There was concern that the city wouldn’t survive,” Morrison said. “There were suggestions that the state capital should move somewhere else. It wasn’t unheard of to entirely move a capital.”

Harrisburg survived, of course.

But the hollowed-out city would never again come close to recapturing its retail glory.

The shopkeeper serial killings of 1963-64 don’t rank as a major reason for downtown’s decline.

But they sure didn’t help.

Slim Clues

Robert Yablon lay unconscious in his hospital bed, battling for life.

He’d taken two bullets to the head. The .22 slug that entered through his mouth had lodged in his spine, doctors said. The second bullet to the back of his head entered the brain.

Officially, Yablon’s medical condition was critical. His wounds sounded more dire than that. Despite it all, he was still fighting.

Family and police could do nothing but wait. Hours crawled by.

Robert Yablon made it all the way to the next morning.

He was pronounced dead at 4.29 a.m. Tuesday, January 22. With him went the best chance to stop what was about to become the “retail rampage” of the Harrisburg shopkeeper killer.

A storm was coming, and a long, cold winter of fear lay ahead.

The investigation went cold even sooner than that.

Despite the best efforts of both Harrisburg and state police, high-dollar rewards for information, and emotional appeals from Yablon’s widow over what she called her husband’s “execution,” there were no leads.

The first reward was posted the day after the shooting. A & G Stores, an association of independent grocers to which Yablon had belonged, put up the cash. More would follow.

In the coming days, Mrs. Yablon held a press conference announcing the family was adding $500 to the growing amount. The total would top $2,000 before the month was out.

Ironically, the cash for the family’s share of the offered reward might have come from a second bag full of cash, this one containing $700 in bills. Yablon’s killer had missed it inside the store.

Mrs. Yablon also used the press conference to make sure the public understood just how cold-blooded her husband’s murder was. She described his shooting in what the Patriot-News called “gruesome detail.” Two close-up bullets to the head that amounted to an execution.

Yablon’s adult son, Ronald, and his daughter-in-law, who lived in Philadelphia, couldn’t come to grips with their father’s seemingly senseless murder. The family had previously discussed the possibility of a robbery at the store. The son and daughter-in-law insisted that their dad would have given up the cash without hesitation.

Killing him was absolutely unnecessary, they said. More than callous. Colder than cold-blooded. It was soulless. The work of pure evil.

“We knew it was possible in that neighborhood,” the daughter-in-law told the Patriot-News. “He had always said he would never resist an armed holdup man, but would just hand over any money he had. That’s why it seems so senseless for anyone to shoot him. He had no enemies. He is a gentle, soft-spoken man.”

Harrisburg Police Chief C. Preston Price knew better. He told the press the killer was determined to leave behind no witnesses.

“There was no question of this being murder. The killer fired the second shot as Yablon lay on the ground,” Preston said.

As a result, the deadly predator remained at large.

“We are questioning everyone in the neighborhood and checking various other information sources,” Preston added.

But in those early days after the first shopkeeper killing, the Chief could offer little in the way of leads — or results.

“Clues are pretty slim right now,” he admitted.

Manhunt

It wasn’t just Harrisburg police who were on this case from the jump. Captain Richard D. Gray, commanding officer of State Police Troop A, added his troopers to the widening manhunt. State Parole Board investigators were on it, too.

This parole board involvement indicates investigators believed their killer was an experienced criminal. It seemed likely the suspect had done time for robbery before. Now, back on the streets, he had stepped it up to murder. His motive in the killing was a cold, cruel, yet very rational, criminal calculation: Leave no witnesses to reduce the risk of ever being caught.

The focus on parole lists proved fruitful in many ways. Just not in catching the killer.

As weeks stretched into months, the investigation into Yablon’s homicide was being called “one of the most intense operations ever undertaken in Harrisburg.”

It had become a law enforcement machine that was taking other criminals off the streets, police said. Literally hundreds were questioned in the case. Interrogating parolees, especially, had helped to solve a series of other crimes – burglaries, larcenies and break-ins, Chief Preston said.

This was the positive news as the homicide probe stretched into late March.

As for the Yablon case, itself, the Chief dangled hope of a break there, too.

The massive investigation had identified “a few prime suspects,” some of whom were now under police surveillance. Still others were being tracked down, questioned and watched, Preston added.

“My men, along with the State Police and Parole Board investigators, have been working long hours, day and night, on this,” the Chief assured. “We are making progress, and if we get a break, we’ll get our man.”

The hopeful message was that it was just a matter of time.

But plenty of time had already passed.

Winter turned to spring. Follow-up stories on the Yablon case, which once dominated the front pages, now ran in the back of the newspaper. The articles appeared next to the kind of mom-and-pop ads the slain grocer might have once taken out.

Public interest was waning. But the Chief made clear there was no “back burner” when it came to his department’s handling of the case.

“Whatever is called for, in terms of money or manpower or hours of work, will be given,” Preston vowed on March 29. “We will not give up.”

Turns out, neither would the shopkeeper killer.

Very soon a second Harrisburg store owner would be in his presence — and never even know it.

He’d be dead just as soon as he turned his back.

PART THREE: The co-owner of a Harrisburg luncheonette famous for 15-cent hot dogs and hot sausage sandwiches is cleaning up after the lunch rush when the shopkeeper killer comes to call. The restaurateur doesn’t have a chance. (Start reading part three of five in PennLive’s cold case investigation)

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