Connecticut Post (Sunday)
In the 1950s, a series of brutal murders terrorized Conn. — and swung opinion on the death penalty
By Erik Ofgang CONNECTICUT MAGAZINE
On Dec. 15, 1956, Joseph Taborsky and Arthur Culombe went to Kup’s Tydol gas station in a lonely section of New Britain. Earlier that night, the duo had robbed and badly wounded the owner of a Hartford tailor shop. Now they were after more cash — and blood. Culombe ordered the gas station owner, Edward Kurpiewski, to the station’s boiler room, had him kneel by the toilet, then shot him in the back of the head, according to court records.
As the duo attempted to make off with the money, a car pulled into the gas station. Culombe posed as an attendant and pretended to service the car. Taborsky pointed his gun at the driver, Daniel Janowski, took his wallet and ordered him into the bathroom, where he shot him twice in the head. Janowski’s 16-month-old daughter, Cheryl Ann, was in the car, but was spared because Taborsky told Culombe “she isn’t old enough to talk,” according to the 2002 book Ten Weeks of Terror: A Chronicle of the Making of a Killer by the late Hartford Courant crime reporter Gerald J. Demeusy.
The terrifying string of Connecticut killings and robberies the press would soon dub “the Mad Dog Murders” had begun.
Less than a week later the pair struck again, pistol-whipping but not killing the owners of a Coventry grocery store. Eleven days later, they robbed, then shot and killed liquor store owner Sam Cohn in East Hartford. Panic gripped the area and many liquor stores began closing earlier. It wouldn’t stop the killers.
On Jan. 5, 1957, they entered an East Haven shoe store. Taborsky told the owner, Frank Adinolfi, he wanted to buy a size-12 pair of dress shoes. When Adinolfi started to look for the shoes he was forced into a backroom of the store. Culombe then pistolwhipped Adinolfi so savagely he was sure he’d killed him. At that point, a Meriden couple, Bernard and Ruth Speyer, entered the store and were ordered to their knees and then killed.
John Rosenthal, a pharmacy owner in Hartford, was killed next on Jan. 26.
Adinolfi survived the earlyJanuary beating and told authorities about Taborsky’s large shoe size. Like some twisted version of the Cinderella fairy tale, that information proved the clue that cracked the case.
Sam Rome, the celebrated state police detective in charge of the case, was known both for his tenacity as a “super sleuth” and his dislike of oversight from the courts. He immediately thought of the 6-foot-4 Taborsky. After all, not only had the big man killed during a robbery before, he’d been caught and sentenced to death.
Taborsky grew up in Hartford’s North End and stole a tricycle at age 7. By 14 he was confined to a home for juvenile delinquents. As he got older his robberies grew more frequent and violent. On March 23, 1950, on Taborsky’s 25th birthday, he and his brother, Albert, decided to rob a West Hartford liquor store. As Albert waited in the car, Taborsky went in, grabbed the cash and shot and killed the store’s owner, Louis Wolfson. Police didn’t have any leads in the killing until Albert reached out to them and confessed.
On June 7, 1951, Albert was sentenced to life in prison and Joseph was sentenced to death. What should have been the end of Joseph Taborsky’s criminal career was only the beginning.
After the conviction, Albert, who had always suffered from mental illness, had a full breakdown and began telling people that he was Jesus Christ. Joseph’s lawyers convinced the state Supreme Court to order a new trial for Joseph, because he had been convicted solely on his brother’s testimony, which was now called into question. Prosecutors opted not to retry the case because of Albert’s lack of credibility as a witness. After 52 months on death row, Joseph was free and, according to him, a changed man.
“Life is suddenly good,” he said after his release in October 1955. “You can’t beat the law. From now on, I’m not even going to get a parking ticket.”
As authorities in 1957 looked at criminals with large feet, they quickly zeroed in on Taborsky and his known accomplices, including Culombe. Before long, Culombe confessed, though he blamed Taborsky for all the murders. Taborsky held out for longer but eventually confessed after Rome asked his mother to talk privately with him in a bugged room.
Both Culombe and Taborsky were sentenced to death. Culombe — who suffered from a mental disability — ultimately had his sentence commuted to life in prison. Taborsky, on the other hand, could not cheat death row a second time. He was put to death by the electric chair on May 17, 1960. He was the last person in Connecticut to be electrocuted and the last execution of any kind in Connecticut until Michael Ross was executed by lethal injection in 2005.
Connecticut abolished the death penalty for future crimes in 2012, and in 2015 the state Supreme Court ruled that executing those already on death row would be unconstitutional. Without the Mad Dog Murders, the state’s stay on execution might have come sooner. In 1955, prior to the start of the string of killings, Gov. Abraham Ribicoff endorsed an end to the death penalty, spurring a groundswell of support including an editorial in the Hartford Courant. After the killings began, Ribicoff, the Courant and many others changed their positions on capital punishment, and the death penalty in Connecticut survived into the new millennium.
In the summer of 2021, a relative of Rome donated recently rediscovered confession tapes from the case to the Connecticut State Police Museum in Meriden. “Reading that Sam Rome obtained a confession from someone is a hell of a lot different than listening to a tape of a confession of a murder,” says the museum’s president, Jerry Longo. “It isn’t something you can quantify unless you hear it — how cold this guy was.”
This article originally appeared in Connecticut Magazine. Follow on Facebook and Instagram @connecticutmagazine and Twitter @connecticutmag.