2008-11-15 / News

ROULETTE MURDERS: 35 YEARS HAVE PASSED

Two-time double murderer George Fitzsimmons is escorted to the courtroom of District Justice Edward L. Easton for his preliminary hearing in the 1973 killings of his elderly aunt and uncle at their Roulette home. His trial was held in Westmoreland County on a change of venue. Two-time double murderer George Fitzsimmons is escorted to the courtroom of District Justice Edward L. Easton for his preliminary hearing in the 1973 killings of his elderly aunt and uncle at their Roulette home. His trial was held in Westmoreland County on a change of venue. Mention the name George Fitzsimmons in the village of Roulette and many still shudder.

Tuesday will mark the 35th anniversary of the brutal double-murder that rocked that small Potter County village.

Nov. 18, 1973 dawned as a typical late autumn day in Roulette, windy and cool, with a light dusting of snow on the ground. DeAlton and Euphresia Nichols -- Nick and Fressie to their friends -- went about their business while their nephew, 36-year-old George Fitzsimmons, moved restlessly about the house.

Fitzsimmons had begun his day by lifting weights, then joined his Uncle Nick in the living room to watch football.

He had trouble concentrating on the TV screen. When he tried to read the newspaper, he felt like each line of type was moving.

Prosecutor Harold B. Fink (second from left) arrives at court with defense lawyers (from left) Jeff Leber, John Albert Johnson and Herb Siegel for a hearing in the murder case against George Fitzsimmons. Fink more recently at right. Prosecutor Harold B. Fink (second from left) arrives at court with defense lawyers (from left) Jeff Leber, John Albert Johnson and Herb Siegel for a hearing in the murder case against George Fitzsimmons. Fink more recently at right. In his twisted mind, Fitzsimmons concluded that his aunt and uncle, both 80 years old, were trying to kill him by spiking his food with arsenic.

"It was kill or be killed," Fitzsimmons told State Police Criminal Investigator Al Drapcho after the slayings. "I know damned well they did (poison me), because I looked in the mirror and I was all drawn out. And my head thumped . . . I could feel it going through my system."

He confronted his aunt and uncle. An argument ensued, prompting Fitzsimmons to reach for a large hunting knife.

"I let him (his uncle) have it twice in the heart," the killer calmly told a psychiatrist. He then cornered his helpless aunt in the kitchen and stabbed her to death.

Fitzsimmons then drove to Buffalo and turned himself in. The evidence trail and taped confession provided a seemingly cut-and-dried case against him - until celebrated attorney F. Lee Bailey entered the scene.

Buffalo had been home to Fitzsimmons for most of his life. A tall, handsome teenager, he dropped out of college, joined the Army and learned karate in Korea. He also developed a dependency on amphetamines, which may have caused permanent brain damage.

After a dishonorable discharge, George moved in with his parents, William and Pearl (Tate) Fitzsimmons, in the Buffalo suburb of Eggertsville.

Tensions ran high as his parents tried to tame his free spirit. He showed violent tendencies and was subject to crying spells and hallucinations.

On Jan. 12, 1969, a disagreement over attending church caused Fitzsimmons to fly into a rage. He killed both of his parents with karate chops and was tracked down in Altamont, Ill., nine days later.

A judge ruled that Fitzsimmons was a paranoid schizophrenic, legally insane. He was sent to Buffalo State Hospital for confinement and treatment. The public reacted with outrage when it was revealed that Fitzsimmons, as sole heir, was eligible to inherit his parents' estate.

George Fitzsimmons, being escorted here by an unidentifi ed state trooper at left and Criminal Investigator Al Drapcho, appeared unphased by the charges brought against him as he was escorted to court. George Fitzsimmons, being escorted here by an unidentifi ed state trooper at left and Criminal Investigator Al Drapcho, appeared unphased by the charges brought against him as he was escorted to court. In less than three years, the doors of the hospital swung open for Fitzsimmons. A panel of doctors declared him "no longer a danger to himself or others."

He and his wife Beverly, who he met at the mental hospital, moved in with the Nicholses in June 1973. Fitzsimmons had spent his summers there as a child.

The fact that her nephew had brutally murdered her brother was not enough to turn Fressie Nichols against him.

"She said these acts could be explained by the very bad treatment he received at the hands of his parents," said one doctor. "Mrs. Nichols said if I only knew how unhappy George's childhood had been, I would have understood that he had reason to kill his mother and father."

Weeks after they moved in, Fitzsimmons beat his wife so severely that she required hospitalization. He was convicted only of simple assault, after Beverly refused to testify.

F. Lee Bailey (right-- more recently, inset) created a stir in Coudersport when he appeared on behalf of murder suspect George Fitzsimmons. Bailey was arguably most famous lawyer in America at the time. Also shown are co-counsels Herb Siegel (left) of Buffalo, N.Y., and Jeff Leber, who went on to serve for many years as District Attorney of Potter County. F. Lee Bailey (right-- more recently, inset) created a stir in Coudersport when he appeared on behalf of murder suspect George Fitzsimmons. Bailey was arguably most famous lawyer in America at the time. Also shown are co-counsels Herb Siegel (left) of Buffalo, N.Y., and Jeff Leber, who went on to serve for many years as District Attorney of Potter County. Lawyer Herbert M. Siegel, who had arranged for Fitzsimmons' release from Buffalo State Hospital, tried to persuade Fitzsimmons to voluntarily re-enter the institution.

"George would not even think about that," Siegel said. "He was absolutely convinced that there was nothing wrong with him."

Roulette citizens grew increasingly concerned that Fitzsimmons was free to walk among them.

"Most people were angry, or afraid, or both," said Bill Grandin, one of George's childhood friends. "There was a feeling that he got away with something and it was only a matter of time before he snapped and hurt somebody else."

He did snap; Fressie and Nick Nichols lay dead, each with more than a dozen stab wounds.

Within hours of the slayings, a nearly incoherent George Fitzsimmons called Siegel and informed him "something terrible" had happened in Roulette. Siegel summoned Buffalo police, who found George waiting for them on the curb.

He was charged with homicide and offered a rambling confession that was videotaped.

F. Lee Bailey had made a name for himself by representing "Boston Strangler" Albert DeSalvo, as well as Cleveland surgeon Dr. Samuel Sheppard and other high-profile clients. Bailey's high fee was no problem for Fitzsimmons, due to his inheritance.

Pennsylvania was, and still is, a "M'Naghten" state, using an established two-way test to determine if a criminal defendant was insane when he or she committed a crime. It holds that a person cannot be held responsible for a criminal act if he was unable to comprehend the nature of his action or was unable to distinguish between right and wrong.

Bailey, a leading critic of M'Naghten, wanted to expose the law's shortcomings and force the state to adopt a more modern standard.

The trial opened in July 1974 at Greensburg, transferred on a change of venue. Prosecutor was Potter County District Attorney Harold B. Fink, assisted by Louis Ceraso from Westmoreland County and Daniel Glassmire V, who was interning with Fink after his first year at John Marshall School of Law.

Judge Earl S. Keim, a former Pa. Supreme Court justice, would decide Fitzsimmons' guilt or innocence. Against his client's strenuous objections, Bailey entered the insanity defense and introduced compelling evidence to support it.

Ironically, the videotaped statement was introduced by the defense. It was hailed by Bailey as a rare picture of an insane killer's state of mind within hours of his crime.

On Dec. 19, 1976, after weighing conflicting psychiatric evidence, Judge Keim found Fitzsimmons guilty of murder and sentenced him to life imprisonment.

Bailey appealed to the Pa. Supreme Court. He urged the high court to throw out the M'Naghten Rule and replace it with another standard.

"It is ludicrous that the defendant should be found sane because of the language of the archaic rule that does not contemplate modern medical concepts and current penal philosophies," Bailey argued.

"George Fitzsimmons is the sickest man I have ever seen in 26 years of practice," Bailey continued. "I do not advocate that Mr. Fitzsimmons be released to prey upon society, but it seems to me that from the outset we have failed to protect the public from George Fitzsimmons. The question now is whether we will permit that failure to be buried in a conviction which is highly suspect."

The Supreme Court rejected the appeal.

Many years later, Judge Keim shared his perspective on the case:

"First and foremost to me was the protection of society. What could I do to protect the public from a person who had already demonstrated his capacity to kill four people? Although the M'Naghten test has its shortcomings, that was the specific test that I was required to apply. Within its framework, and keeping in mind my obligation to protect society, I felt comfortable with my decision.

"Quite frankly, I do not have a great deal of confidence in our system of mental health treatment. I don't like the procedures now in effect for the release of potentially dangerous people such as Mr. Fitzsimmons from this state's mental institutions. And I certainly would not want it on my conscience if Mr. Fitzsimmons were ever permitted to go free and to kill again."

"Judge Keim made the right decision for the wrong reasons," co-counsel Siegel conceded. "As I look back, I can't help thinking to myself, 'Thank God we weren't successful'."

Bailey was later involved in other high-profi le cases, including the defense of Patty Hearst and O. J. Simpson, but ran afoul of the law himself and served time in prison. He now lives in Florida and is popular on the lecture circuit.

H. B. Fink returned to private practice in the late 1980s and died earlier this year.

Fitzsimmons spent the rest of his life at the State Correctional Institute in Dallas, Pa., where he was at first boisterous and belligerent, then later became a loner who was often incoherent and nonsensical. His life became a private hell, bedridden, pain-racked with cancer in the final weeks before he succumbed in 1999.

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