Who was William Wright?

In my last article about the “Villains of Scranton”, I wrote about Thomas Atkinson – a pedophile that led a life of crime until his shootout with police in Barstow California in 1990. Today, I’ll take a look at William Wright – the man most known as the convicted murderer of two young Minooka boys, Paul “PJ” Freach and Edmond “Buddy” Keen, known through NEPA simply as Freach and Keen.

There are so many similarities and coincidences between the two pedophiles, but unlike Atkinson, William Wright wasn’t born in Scranton – instead, his story starts out just west of Philadelphia.

August 13, 1937

William Wright is born in Darby, PA to Robert and Ruth Wright. He’s the second son, born just over two years after his brother and two years earlier than his only sister. The Wright family is said to have a “good reputation” but have also been a “hard luck” family.

His father, Robert, has palsy before the age of 21. He is paralyzed on the right side of his body and has a speech defect, but is listed as a Truck Driver on his WWI Draft Card. Due to his disabilities, he is limited to part-time work and odd jobs. Subsequently, William’s mother is the bread-winner of the family.

November 5, 1940

William’s mother, Ruth, is struck by a car as she tried to cross the Chester Pike by her parent’s home. She ends up with a broken leg and arm coupled with several cuts and abrasions. The injuries would impact her abilities for the rest of her life, but she can still work.

In addition to their own health issues, William’s parents also cared for Ruth’s mother and grandmother – both of whom lived with them.

1952

At 15, “Billy” leaves high school before he finishes 9th grade and takes a job as an “office boy” in Collingdale, PA. It was reported that he has a Juvenile record and has undergone some psychiatric testing. His IQ is listed at 134 (which is classified as “Gifted” or “Well Advanced”) and he was known to be a talented artist. Still, neighbors were quoted as saying, unlike his siblings, he had little supervision and was known to have little respect for authority.

Between 1952-1954

Billy is reported to be involved with some minor thefts of his employer and a local restaurant but was released on “parole”.

February 10, 1954

Braxton “Buddy” Hamilton, age 4, was playing at a ballfield in Collingdale. He saw Billy, whom he knew, pointed a toy gun at him and said “bang, bang”. Billy grabbed the gun and shoved it down Braxton’s throat. Braxton was taken to the hospital and died the next day.

The death was ruled “accidental” and Billy was never charged for the incident. The report said he fell on the rifle and it pierced his throat and neck.

June 4, 1954

Not yet 17, Billy is committed to the George Junior Republic, a reform school in Grove City, Mercer County, Pa because of his thefts and the fact he’s listed as a chronic runaway. I have to believe the incident with Buddy played into this decision as well.

He is eligible to be released by the end of January 1955.

January 25, 1955

Billy is informed that he will not be released from George Junior at the end of the month – as he anticipated. The Delaware County authorities told the school his home was not conducive to getting back on track – citing that his grandmother and great grandmother lived in the house along with his brother, new sister-in-law and his younger sister. Billy did not take the news well.

January 26, 1955

While being transported to Grove City High School, Bill, as he’s known at the school, sneaks away and bribes two youths to give him a ride to Pittsburgh’s Penn Station, about 60 miles south of Grove City. He pays them with a typewriter his parents had given him.

He then takes a cab to visit his Great Aunt, Evelyn Thomas – a childless widow who he hasn’t seen in over 9 years but stayed in touch with via telephone. He paid the cabbie with his watch – a gift from his parents that used to be his father’s.

The school is made aware of his absence and contacts William’s parents to inquire about his whereabouts.

While visiting his Aunt, she scolds him for running away from the school and implores him to go back and to call his parents. William does not want to tell his parents. It was reported later that his mother had told him that if he ran away again, it would be the death of her.

The Aunt continues to press him to call his parents. William gets aggravated and tells her he has a nail in his shoe (which is true based on police reports). She retrieves a hammer for him to fix it. As he fixes the shoe, she walks towards the phone to call his parents, and William attacks. He bludgeons her with the hammer, striking her multiple times – ultimately killing her.

He ransacks the house looking for valuables and finds $3 and some stocks and bonds. He sets the house on fire and leaves. He takes a taxi back to the Harmony Bus Depot. He flushed the stocks and bonds down a toilet while at the bus station.

About 15 minutes after he left, a couple that rooms on the 3rd floor of the home arrive back home. As they opened the door, smoke poured out. They entered to search for Evelyn and found her beaten to death.

Billy goes to a restaurant across the street from the bus station and calls the School to tell them he wants to come back – of course, not mentioning what he had just done.

Police detain him, but are completely unaware of his crimes. He is returned to George Junior by 10pm that night.

January 29, 1955

Days pass and the killer is still on the loose. Based on a few clues, the Police believe that the victim knew the killer. For example, they noted that there were two place settings for lunch. The drawers in her room were ransacked, but the killer left behind her wedding ring and her husband’s watch.

February 27, 1955

A month passes and the killer is still unknown.

Today, William’s parents finally learn from extended family that Evelyn Thomas was murdered on January 26th. They hear of the details and recall that William had run away from the school on the same day. They think the worst – that William had committed the crime while he was on the run from George Junior.

March 1, 1955

William’s parents are devastated, but they reach out to local law enforcement and tell them of the relationship between William and Evelyn and that William had escaped from school that day. They encourage the police to investigate William.

March 2, 1955

Pittsburgh Police are notified via teletype.

March 3, 1955

Back in Collingwood, Catherine Miller, William’s Great Grandmother (and Evelyn Thomas’ sister-in-law), celebrates her 99th birthday. The same day, William’s father is celebrating his 59th birthday. There are four generations living in the “neat, two-story brick home” on the Chester Pike in Collingdale, PA. This home has been the home of Catherine Miller since 1918. There’s mention that William and his siblings will celebrate with Catherine, but obviously, William is still at George Junior. I have to think the celebration was awkward at best, with the parents knowing what was about to come.

March 5, 1955

William’s parents, along with their oldest son and his new wife, visit William at George Junior. They are only with him for about 20 minutes before Police arrive and tell the Wrights to leave the room while they talk to William.

Detectives take William out to a restaurant for breakfast. When asked if he wanted more food, he responded “No. I’m full and I don’t want to waste anything.” Adding, “I never had it so good. either at home or at school.”

William confesses to the grizzly murder.

June 15, 1955

William pleads guilty. His psychiatrist testified citing his unhappy home life as a potential reason for the outburst.

June 17, 1955

William receives some leniency and is sentenced to a rather mild 8-20 years. A doctor involved in the case says he believes it’s a case of “symbolic matricide”, in that the ongoing quarrelling and tyranny at home is partly responsible for his actions. William’s father had testified that “No home is big enough for more than one woman.” – and William had his mother, grandmother and great grandmother all living at home.

July 13, 1957

William’s Great Grandmother, Catherine Thomas (sister-in-law to Evelyn Thomas) dies at 101 years-old.

March 13, 1963

William is Paroled for the Murder and is now living back in Collingdale, Pa.

December 31, 1963

While babysitting his 9-year old niece, William molests the girl.

January 28, 1964

Before being charged with the molestation, Wright is sent to Farview State Hospital for the Criminally Insane for evaluation and treatment. I can’t determine when he actually arrived at Farview.

May 18, 1964

A 5-year old boy is molested in the woods in Collingdale. Police only have a vague description. I’m not sure if this is tied to William, but it certainly seems suspicious.

December 27, 1964

William’s grandmother, Maud Miller, who was living with William’s parents, passes away in Darby, Pa.

1965

While still being held at Farview, William allegedly confesses to killing the 4-year old boy in Delaware County. Apparently alluding to the incident with Baxter “Buddy” Hamilton from 1954.

March 8, 1965

William’s father passes away at 69 years-old in Collingswood.

1972

Staff at Farview deem Wright competent to face trial for the charges he faced involving his niece. However, the charges were dropped in Delaware County due to lack of evidence.

March 19, 1973

He is on a “work release” program that allows him to work during the day and return at night. He’s employed by the City of Scranton in a state-funded extermination business – Northeast Vector Control Association.

Early 1973

A prisoner tries to escape Scranton Police and runs down Washington Ave. William tackles the man and holds him until police arrive moments later. He receives a letter of recommendation from Police Chief McCrone praising him for his efforts.

June 15, 1973

William is granted a long-term leave of absence from Farview and continues working for Northeast Vector Control. He’s living in the 1200 block of Pittston Ave. in South Scranton.

October 4, 1973

Wright purchases a .25 caliber ammunition from Bill’s Sporting Good in North Scranton.

October 26, 1973

While driving along I-81, Wright stops to pick up hitchhiker, Thomas Nasser, 19. Wright pulls over near Hartford and takes Nasser into the woods at gunpoint. He tries to force Nasser to perform a sex act. Nasser refuses and Wright ultimately lets him go.

Nasser immediately reports the incident to Pennsylvania State Police in Gibson.

November 1, 1973

Two South Scranton boys are reported missing – Paul “PJ” Freach (13) and Edmond “Buddy” Keen (12). Reports quickly come in of a possible abduction as they left school. A third boy, who said he declined to get in the car gave a description of the vehicle and the suspects – as there were believed to be two – a man and a woman (with Wright wearing a wig). The boy reported that they got into a blue and white Chevrolet near the corner of Cedar and Elm St in the city’s South Side – about two blocks away from where Wright lives.

The witness provides police with descriptions of both people involved. They believe that one was a male and one was a woman (or a man wearing a wig).

That same day, and before the boys are reported as missing, Officer Robert Connolly sees a van parked by the Cedar Mine Fire Zone and approaches. He talks to the driver who tells him he’s setting bait traps. The boys, frightened, sat quietly in the back of the van. With nothing to be suspicious about, Officer Connolly lets him go. Shortly after the cop leaves, Wright states that he shot the boys.

November 3, 1973

Police now release two sketches. One from an abduction earlier in the year (left) and the current one (right) given by the witness to the Freach and Keen abduction. The sketches look almost identical, suggesting that the one might be a serial pedophile.

November 4, 1973

A camper from West Side, Joseph McNamara, finds textbooks belonging to the boys at a dump site near the How Kola Campground in Falls Township, PA. Police are notified and return to search the site, but can’t find anything.

November 5, 1973

Police returned to the site with search dogs. The dogs’ actions led the officers to believe the bodies had either been there or were still there. Further searching turned up a pair of bloody eyeglasses. Finally, there in the dump, under a rug, FBI Agent Wayne Smith discovered the mutilated and murdered bodies. It was later determined that both boys had been sexually assaulted, then shot in the head with a .25-caliber handgun.

November 6, 1973

Overnight, four inmates escape from Farview. One, James Frederick Franks, was believed to have in his possession, a .25 caliber pistol. Could this have been the second suspect or the murder weapon? Franks is a career criminal with mental issues and at least two prior escapes to his name.

Three of the men are captured around Jessup and Mayfield within days. Franks remained free until his capture on Nov 23 in Baltimore MD, on his way back to his home in Raleigh NC. Franks is released at some point and returns to Raleigh. While I can’t confirm it was him, someone with his name and age murders a woman with whom he’s living with in Raleigh in February 1978.

On the same day, Wright, obviously unphased by the discovery of the bodies, volunteers to work the voting polls. In the evening, he’s standing steps away from Mayor Eugene Peters at the Hotel Jermyn, as Peters announces that he is putting up $1,000 of his own money to find the “fiends and maniacs” that are responsible.

ABT November 11, 1973

Police interrogate William after learning he purchased a .25 caliber ammunitions from Bill’s Sporting Goods in October.

November 15, 1973

Wright calls in sick to his job and flees to Florida – leaving behind his last paycheck.

Abt December 14, 1973

Based on a tip from Wright’s brother, Robert Wright, Florida officials capture William and extradite him back to Scranton for violating his parole. They house him at the State Correctional Institute in Dallas, PA

December 19, 1973

Wright is arrested and charged with the murders. It’s believed that the actual murders took place at the Baker Colliery culm dump in South Scranton. The community is outraged that he actually worked for the city.

Baker Colliery Marker

Tears flow down his face at his arraignment. Police are still looking for a second suspect, the vehicle and the weapon.

Morning of December 28, 1973

Confusion and infighting between departments causes concern and speculation.

Lead Detective, Frank Karam announces that the nationwide search for a second suspect is called off – due in part because he said the youth that gave the initial description had made up the story – even though he told the same story under hypnosis.

The Pennsylvania State Police Captain in charge of the investigation backs him up saying that the crime looks to be the work of one man and praises the work of Detective Karam.

Meanwhile, the City’s Director of Public Safety, Anthony Batsavage, claims that the search for a second suspect will continue. Mayor Peters states that any future announcement regarding the case will come directly from his office.

Rumors swirl about the possible second suspect and ties to someone with political power.

Afternoon of December 28, 1973

Wright is headed to his initial hearing. During the hearing, “mountains of evidence” are presented, including a taped confession. When played in court, Wright openly cried. He detailed where he picked them up, the interaction with Officer Connolly, when he shot them, where he dumped them, how he acquired the weapon and admitted to being alone.

In addition, the police traced the weapon used and were able to match the ballistics, tying Wright to the gun and the murder.

Wright also admits to picking up a hitchhiker along I-81 earlier in the year, but he let him go because he was afraid “I thought maybe he’d tell and that’d stop me”.

January 5, 1974

Wright is now charged with assaulting another man – the hitchhiker he mentioned in his confession. The same incident from Oct 1973.

January 10, 1974

Wright is indicted by the Grand Jury on two counts of each – murder, kidnapping and involuntary deviate sexual intercourse.

In a related action, the court issues a blackout to media – suggesting that it will protect the suspects’ rights.

January 16, 1974

The State suspends the Community Treatment Program that allowed Wright to work for the city.

January 28, 1974

Reports surface that there may have been two vans involved. The DA’s Office can’t comment due to the blackout, but rumors are there was a blue van with a bullet hole in it and a yellow van with blood stains. Additionally, a religious medal belonging to one of the boys was found in the blue van. Wright had originally confessed that he was in a yellow van.

April 15, 1974

After a mental and physical exam, Wright is deemed fit to stand trial.

May 19, 1974

The families of Freach and Keen file preliminary papers of a lawsuit.

June 17, 1974

Judge orders trial to be moved out of Scranton due to the “pretrial publicity that was inherently prejudiced” against the suspect.

July 9, 1974

Centre County is chosen as the new site for the trial.

September 12, 1974

Wright pleads Guilty and the hearing now turns to degree of guilt. No jurors are even called because it was learned in the pretrial conference that Wright admitted guilt.

Below is a transcript of his confession that was played in court.

September 20, 1974

William’s brother, Robert is trying to claim the reward for his capture. It’s noted that his only involvement was providing his location in Florida after he left Scranton abruptly. Police claim that if anyone is eligible it might be Parole Officer Paul Farrell. He suggested that Wright be investigated as soon as the boys were found.

September 29, 1974

Speculation still mounts as the families ask more questions. There are loose ends that have gone unexplained. The Police Officer’s report of his interaction with Wright. The medal that was found in the blue van when Wright said he was in the yellow van, the witness account of two people (along with sketches), including one that appears to match an earlier suspect and the other that clearly looks like Wright.

The family continues its lawsuit to hold state and local officials responsible by allowing Wright to go free from Farview.

October 4, 1974

Rumors start to swirl that Wright will change his plea to Innocent, via Insanity. Doctors believe he suffers from “focal epilepsy” – a condition that causes impulses to commit violent acts by changing his personality, causing a dormant and other “evil person” to take over his body.

October 6, 1974

Many people still believe there were two suspects. A woman wrote a letter to the Scranton Times saying she saw the vehicle around town, including at West Scranton High School. She also shared a license plate number that she believed was issued in Ohio.

October 17, 1974

Wright changes his plea to innocent by way of insanity. It’s noted that a plea may be changed at any time up until sentencing.

October 22, 1974

Thomas Nasser comes forward and seeks a share of the reward money. Nasser is the man whom Wright picked up hitchhiking and eventually was let go. Nasser claims he told police about Wright and he should be entitled to the reward.

In addition, Rev Walker Wescott, a parapsychologist, psychic scientist and evangelist filed a request to be part of the reward as well.

December 13, 1974

Without taking the stand to defend himself, Wright is found Guilty of First Degree Murder! January sentencing is planned.

December 20, 1974

Wright’s appointed Attorney, John Dunn, files an appeal. The date to hear the appeal is set for January, 13, 1975.

January 13, 1975

Wright submits an offer to waive all of his appeal rights. In exchange, he wants to undergo certain mental and physical tests and make the results public. The offer was created unbeknownst to his defense attorney. The offer is rejected by the Judge since he can not legally waive his rights to appeal.

Instead, the Judge orders more data to be submitted from both the defense and the prosecution by January 23.

March 25, 1975

Wright wins a minor battle in that the 2 kidnapping charges are dropped because he didn’t hold the boys long enough or move them far enough to justify the charge. The other charges were upheld and sentencing is set for April 23.

April 15, 1975

Wright sues members of the state’s sanity commission – the ones who found him sane enough to stand trial.

April 24, 1975

Finally, Wright is sentenced to two consecutive life terms, followed by two consecutive 10-20 year terms for committing what the court described as “the most heinous crime” in Lackawanna County’s history. Right before sentencing was announced, Wright’s Atty told the court that William will not appeal any longer and never wants to be free again.

He remains incarcerated at SCI Chase, in Dallas, PA.

September 17, 1975

Wright barricades himself in his cell as he was about to be transferred to new quarters. He had been able to acquire two homemade “zip guns”. He allegedly tried to fire at an officer and the weapon failed. At that point, he tried to shoot himself, but the other weapon failed. as well. Investigators try to determine where he acquired the two .22 caliber bullets.

It’s reported that he’s tried to take his own life several times already.

About November 10, 1975

After spending a few weeks undergoing further evaluation at Farview, William is transferred back to SCI Dallas on November 6th, before being secretly sent to SCI Pittsburgh. This is supposed to be a better facility that can monitor him more closely for suicide.

February 8, 1978

Jury clears 24 defendants in the suit filed by the families of Freach and Keen, thus exonerating the city and state officials.

March 29, 1978

Authorities are investigating Dennis Vogel as the potential second suspect involved with Wright. Vogel is serving time for killing two people at a convenience store in Lock Haven, Pa in 1962 and was on a “dusk to dawn” lockdown at Farview.

Wright and Vogel became friends while at Farview and had a “homosexual relationship”. Vogel claims that in a conversation with Wright just two days after the murders, Wright stated, “they will never find the gun or the second guy”.

July 19, 1980

Thomas Nasser, the man that Wright had picked up hitchhiking along I-81, wins a lawsuit that grants him 50% of the reward money – $15,150. The other half is reduced greatly by legal fees, but there is an ongoing battle that will continue for years.

September 9, 1980

Dennis Vogel, Wright’s alleged lover, is paroled for his murder charge. Part of his deal requires him to stay out of Clinton County, where he killed the two people, and within 80 miles of Pittsburgh.

May 18, 1982

William’s mother, Ruth Wright, passes away.

June 30, 1983

Wright is denied a new trial. He argued that he had ineffective representation from Atty Dunn.

January 28, 1985

The State Superior Court upholds the decision – which sounds like the final chapter on his conviction.

April 9, 1986

The Superior Court now pushes the decision on the legality of the sentencing back to the lower courts. At issue is the fact that Wright was sentenced to two consecutive 10-20 year terms on top of two life sentences – which could potentially mean “double jeopardy”. There’s another murder case ongoing where the defendant, James Gillespie is fighting to have his robbery sentence dismissed since it’s in addition to his murder sentence.

In referencing Wright’s case, District Attorney Ernie Preate is quoted as saying “It’s too bad that we didn’t have the death penalty in 1973 and 1974. This guy deserves the death penalty”.

To me, this is the classic “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titantic”. What’s the point of arguing down the additional sentences if you’re serving two life sentences?

November 1, 1986

The State Supreme Court reverses the decision that vacated the additional sentence for Gillespie – thus putting a nail in the coffin for Wright’s case as well.

December 20, 1989

The remaining balance of the reward fund finally has a home. Just over $4,500 has been awarded to Scranton Preparatory High School to establish the Freach-Keen Memorial Scholarship Endowment. The school is required to at least match to establish the Scholarship. The Scholarship will be awarded to those in financial need and applied towards tuition.

July 31, 1995

William’s brother, who was trying to claim the reward, passes away.

November 4, 2000

The story of William Wright finally ends. He dies in custody in Pittsburgh – fulfilling his wish to “never be free again”. He’s buried in Chester County, Pa along side his sister (who would pass away just two months after William).

The names Freach and Keen are burned into the memories of anyone who lived in Scranton during that time. The images from the newspaper displayed above came flooding back to me as I researched this case. The details, buried in my brain, came back to life as I uncovered more articles.

Unfortunately, this case is so eerily similar to that of Atkinson. And so very close together in time and distance. The common denominator at the root of this? The troubled home life with little supervision. From there, both started their life of crime at an early age. Both serving time at George Junior Republic reform school and later, Farview. The lack of mental health resources and the broken judicial system that failed the victims 50 years ago is still very much alive today.

Today, PJ and Buddy continue to be honored with multiple scholarships and sportsmanship awards in their names along with a baseball field not far from their homes. While it can not replace their lives, we’ll never forget those two boys.

One thought on “Who was William Wright?

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