It was a shocking crime in a simpler time.
On July 11, 1978, the bodies of 25-year-old Kathy Kadunce and her 4-year-old daughter Dawn were found in their 702 Wilmington Ave. home. Each had been stabbed 17 times, and Kathy also was shot in the head.
Her infant son was left unharmed.
Eventually, three men — Mike Atkinson, Frank Costal and Larry “Lou” Kadunce (Kathy’s husband) — were charged and tried in the brutal slayings. Atkinson and Costal were convicted and spent the rest of their lives in prison. Kadunce was acquitted.
The case drew widespread attention both locally and regionally, with Costal getting much of the spotlight because of his alleged homosexuality and practice of Satanism.
Now, local author Dale Perelman has revisited the crime in his book “New Castle’s Kadunce Murders,” released last week by History Press. Perelman combed through reams of court and police records, interviewed the investigating detectives (who are now deceased) and even visited Costal and Atkinson in prison en route to compiling the tome.
Twenty-one years later, the book is finally being released.
“I wrote the book, probably, in 1988, maybe ‘89,” Perelman said. “I sent it out to one publisher and they didn’t love it, and I wasn’t sure I loved it. So I set aside, put it in a box.”
What followed was a series of books focusing on regional history, including one on the Scottish Rite Cathedral. Perelman ultimately pitched his story of the Kadunce murders to his publisher — History Press — as well, and after some updating and editing, the book was released Nov. 18.
In it, Perelman details the day of the murders, the investigation by police and the trials of all three of the accused. His accounts of each man’s day in court “came right from the transcripts, word for word. I didn’t make a word of that up.”
As part of his research, Perelman visited both convicted killers in jail.
“I visited Costal three times at (Pittsburgh’s now-defunct) Western Penitentiary,” Perelman recalled. “He was always very nice, he asked me to send him information, I corresponded with him.
“Costal was charming, funny and talking to him, you would say it’s impossible that this guy could have done what they say. But he had two types of appearances. With authority, he was very meek, very mild. With those of lesser mental capacity and youth, he was different. Today, he would have been put in jail for having sex with them.”
Perelman’s sole visit with Atkinson went very differently.
“I didn’t spend a lot of time with Atkinson,” said Perelman, who was accompanied to the state prison in Huntingdon by the New Castle police detectives who led the murder investigation, Frank Gagliardo and Charles Abraham.
Noting that the warden labeled Atkinson as his “worst prisoner,” Perelman got neither information nor intimidation from the convict.
“He was like a lump when I met him,” Perelman said. “I was told I could bring a recorder or a camera, and I chose the recorder. I was sorry I chose the recorder, because he denied everything. By the time I saw him, I wasn’t afraid of him because, physically, he was not the same 250-pound hulk that he was 10 years earlier. He was a shadow of himself.
“Atkinson was not an interesting guy. He was easy to figure out. He was a thug, he was slow, he was a failure. I don’t think Costal was a mental genius, either, but he had an interesting persona.”
During the investigation of Atkinson and his subsequent trial, Perelman wrote, both police and then-District Attorney Don Williams attempted to show him as a serial liar who constantly changed his stories about the killings and the events both before and after. When Atkinson later was called to testify against Costal and Kadunce, each defense attorney looked to do the same in order to discredit him.
Neither the gun nor the knife allegedly used in slayings were able to be introduced as evidence, as both had been disposed of. Perelman also writes that other evidence at the scene of the crime may have received short shrift during the investigation.
“They were so sure the husband did it, that they weren’t as careful as they should have been with the evidence,” he said.
That left the prosecution to rely solely on the testimony of witnesses, many of whom — like Atkinson, who already was charged in a previous murder and was in jail for rape — had checkered or unsavory pasts.
“There wasn’t a good witness among them,” Perelman noted.
The author also alludes in his book to a similar 1975 slaying, when 4-year-old Melanie Gargacz and her 37-year-old babysitter Beverly Ann Withers were killed in the child’s Neshannock Township home. That crime has never been solved.
“I think they’re connected to this, but I can’t really prove that,” he said. “The state police told a relative of the Gargasz family that they thought Atkinson was involved, and I think he was, too — and maybe Coastal, too,”
At the end of the book, Perelman leaves his readers to ponder the question, “Was justice served in the case of the Kadunce murders?”
“That’s what the reader has to decide at the end; I ask that question,” he said. “It’s the same with the Gargasz-Withers killing.
“I wish I had come up with the solution to this but I can’t. I don’t think anyone can.”