The Corpse in Coffee Creek, 1936, OhioHome | Feature Stories | The Corpse in Coffee Creek, 1936, Ohio
First Published: “The Corpse in Coffee Creek-Secrets of Ohio’s Tragic Triangle,” by Detective Otto H. Diskowski, Homicide Squad, Cleveland Police Department, as told to R. Rodgers, True Detective Mysteries, May, 1938.
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CHARLES SALWAY SLOWLY MADE HIS way home across the small culvert over Coffee Creek. His farm was just outside Mesopotamia, Ohio, and almost daily he walked down State Road 57 and crossed the creek to get to his field.
This afternoon of September 24th, 1936, there was an autumn tang in the air. It would not be long before frost would be on the ground and farming would be over for the season. He, his wife and his father had put in a good day’s work out there—the sort of work that gave a man an appetite and made him think longingly of his fireside and slippers.
Salway leaned for a moment on the rail, waiting for the others to catch up to him. Maybe next day he would bring out his fishing tackle and try his luck. Sometimes a man could get a pretty good string out of Coffee Creek.
The farmer’s eyes focused sharply. Directly underneath was an odd looking object. As the man’s family joined him at the railing, he pointed, wordlessly, to the bobbing horror in the water. Mrs. Salway gasped.
“What is it, Charles?” she asked.
Her husband was still staring. “It looks like a man,” he whispered.
Mrs. Salway shuddered. “A man? But where is the rest of him?”
The farmer gulped. “It looks like it’s just his head down there.”
His father nodded. “Yes, I don’t see anybody.”
The trio noted the closed eyes, and the purple, blotched face. Leaving the older man to keep watch at the culvert; young Salway raced for a telephone. “There’s a dead man out near my farm on Route 57,” he told the police. “I’ll wait there until you come out. He’s in the creek.”
Charles Salway returned to the grim vigil. He studied the face of the man in the water. Folks in that section of the country all knew each other. But neither Salway nor his father had ever seen the dead man before.
Sheriff Roy Hardman and Captain George C. Salen of the Warren police, lost no time getting to the scene. Accompanying them were several officers and Coroner J. C. Renshaw of Trumbull County. The farmer flagged them to a stop and excitedly pointed to his find.
“First we thought it was just a head, Sheriff,” he said, “but now I can see where the body is weighted down with something, so that just the head sticks out
It was a grotesque sight that greeted the officials. The water lapped gently against the dead face, tossing it from side to side. Releasing the body from what held it might prove to be a task.
In a short time, dozens of people flocked to see what the excitement was.
The officers, assisted by bystanders, finally extricated the body and laid it out on the ground for the Coroner’s inspection. While he went about his work, Sheriff Hardman and Captain Salen examined the wire with which the victim had been trussed and the heavy concrete slab attached to the corpse.
“Whoever did it,” the Sheriff remarked, “must have felt pretty sure it would be a long time before this thing rose to the surface. But the weight slipped down around the feet and there was enough buoyancy in the body to let the head float to the surface. No wonder it looked like a head without a body.”
“Looks like the fellow was pretty well beaten before being tossed into the creek,” Salen commented. “It’s the kind of beating gangsters give their double-crossers.”
The Sheriff shrugged. There might be some truth in that theory. The spot where the body was found is not far from Youngstown and only about forty miles out of Cleveland. Perhaps some rival city gangsters had been warring. Or maybe the killing was the outcome of strike trouble in the Youngstown steel area.
Coroner Henshaw estimated that the corpse had been in the water a week. There was not much else he could discover without a thorough examination, and the body was taken to the morgue at West Farmington.
After questioning the neighboring farmers and failing to find anyone who had heard or noticed anything unusual during the past week or ten days, the officers went to the morgue to search for a clue to the man’s identity.
Preliminary examination of his clothing revealed little—a few cents and the usual odds and ends. In a hidden inside coat pocket, apparently overlooked by the killers, the officers found a worn leather wallet.
Eagerly the contents were spilled on the table. The clue they seized upon was an identification card of a common type. Unless the murderers had been clever enough ‘to put it there to throw the police off the trail, it should reveal the identity of the dead man. It bore the name of Charles Steffes, Jr., and an address in Cleveland.
There was a space on the card classified “In Case of Accident Notify . . .” And next to it were the words, “Catherine Bunjevac, 1144 East 76th Street, Cleveland, Ohio.”
“Well, boys, that gives us something to start with,” Captain Salen announced. “We’d better get in touch with the Cleveland police and see what they know of Steffes.” The report of the murder came into Cleveland Headquarters over the wire that evening and Detective Lieutenant Jack Zeman took down the details.
He called in Detectives Carl Ziccarelli and Ralph McNeil, who were working on the four-to-midnight shift. “Just had word of a body being found in Coffee Creek,” he told them. “Check up on Charles Steffes, Jr., at 1328 East 53rd Street. And see what you can learn from a girl named Catherine Bunjevac at 1144 East 76th Street.”
Things began to hum. A quick check with the files revealed a record on Steffes. He had been arrested and charged with auto theft about a year before. He had pleaded guilty and, since it was his first offense, had been placed on probation. Further details disclosed he was an auto mechanic and twenty-six years old.
It was hardly the record of a person who might be involved in gang wars, but in the Police Department we learn to expect anything and consider everything a possibility until proved otherwise.
If he were a Clevelander and had been dead a week, perhaps someone had reported his disappearance to the Bureau of Missing Persons. A check-up here disclosed that on Sunday, September 20th, a call had come into the Bureau. A worried feminine voice had reported a disappearance.
“I’m worried about my friend, Charles Steffes, Jr.,” the caller said over the telephone. “I had a date with him last Thursday night and he said then that he’d telephone me the next day.
“He didn’t call and I thought maybe he was sick.” Her voice broke a little. “Charlie always kept his word with me. And when I found out he hadn’t been at work since Thursday and that no one had seen him at all, I got frightened.”
The officer tried to calm her. People, he told her, particularly men, often dropped out of sight for a time. Ninety-nine out of a hundred turned up again in their own good time. But this girl, who gave her name as Catherine Bunjevac, was sure Charlie Steffes had come to some harm.
“He’d never go away without telling me,” she insisted.
The report had been investigated at the time, but no trace of Charlie Steffes had been found. There was no accident victim who answered his description in the hospitals or the morgue.
That is, no one, until Charles Salway had seen the “body-less” corpse in Coffee Creek. It began to look as if woman’s intuition as to trouble had again proven correct. What Catherine Bunjevac had feared had apparently come true.
But supposing the corpse was that of young Steffes, the identification was just the beginning of the job. All we knew was that a girl named Catherine Bunjevac was to be notified in case of accident and that this same girl had reported him missing.
The department began to get busy in earnest. Detectives Ziccarelli and McNeil went out to check on Steffes, at the address in his wallet. This turned out to be a rooming house, run by Rudolph Zupanic. Here, Steffes had lived with his brother.
Both Zupanic and the victim’s brother, when interviewed, insisted they knew nothing of the garage mechanic’s whereabouts. The proprietor of the rooming house eagerly told the meager facts he knew about his lodger.
“Steffes left the house last Thursday night and we haven’t seen him since. He was rather close-mouthed about his affairs and never said where he was going or when he’d be back.”
Steffes’ brother confirmed this statement. “I haven’t any idea where Charlie could be. He just went out and didn’t come back. Several people have been asking for him since he left.” He shrugged. “He might be anywhere.”
His brother seemed to take his absence rather lightly, apparently confident that in due time he would turn up again. At the garage where Steffes was employed, the proprietor had the same attitude.
“He hasn’t been around for a week. Guess maybe he just decided to quit. A little guy came around a couple of times looking for him. Don’t know who he was.”
Was this “little guy” one of those who had called at the rooming house to inquire about the missing man? That was another angle to be investigated.
The garage owner gave the boy a good send-off. “He was a conscientious worker. Seemed serious-minded and said he was saving his money.”
When a young man who has had a previous brush with the law, settles down and talks about saving his money, experience has taught us there’s usually one reason—a woman. “Find the woman” is the detective’s old adage, and often a very successful one. In this case, the name of the woman had providentially been delivered into our hands.
But, before questioning Catherine Bunjevac, the detectives sought Steffes’ sister, whose address they had obtained at the rooming house. She had new information to give.
“Charlie and Catherine were at my house last Thursday evening (Sept. 17, 1936). We had a lot of fun kidding around, but they had to leave early, as Charlie complained he didn’t feel well. I didn’t think it was anything serious, but it did seem that he was worried about something. Usually Charlie was very happy-go-lucky, but that night he was different—acted a little as if he were afraid of something.
“I thought it was my imagination,” she continued, “but when Kate—that’s what we call Catherine—came over here on Saturday, looking for him, I got kind of worried. It wasn’t like Charlie to miss a date. He was crazy about her. Talked about getting married.”
So the girl, whose name appeared on Steffes’ identification card, was more than just an acquaintance.
Catherine Bunjevac’s parents told the detectives that their daughter was out with her fiancé, a Mr. Miller. The officers concealed the surprise they felt at this announcement. Steffes had talked to his sister about marrying Kate, but she apparently had other plans, or at least, that’s the way it looked.
“Do you know Charles Steffes, Jr.?” they asked the Bunjevacs.
Instantly there seemed to be a chill in the atmosphere. “Yes, we know him. He frequently called on our daughter.”
“Was he in love with her?”
“Perhaps. She’s a very pretty girl. Lots of men have liked her. But we didn’t want her to go with that Steffes. He isn’t dependable. He hasn’t any money. Mr. Miller can give Catherine a nice home and an automobile. He’s the kind of suitor for our girl.”
“Well, when she comes in, tell her the police want to talk to her.”
The parents’ faces showed no emotion at the knowledge that police wished to question their daughter. If there were fear there, it was well hidden.
Very early the next morning, Miss Bunjevac appeared at Headquarters. Her parents had been right when they said their daughter was pretty. It was not hard to imagine several young men in love with her at the same time.
As Sergeant James Hogan questioned her, he noted that she seemed greatly worried about her missing friend.
“The last time I had a date with Charlie, he seemed quite upset,” she said. “I asked him to tell me what was bothering him, but he wouldn’t say.”
As the girl talked on, the background of the case became clear. Here was a fun-loving young girl, torn between duty to her parents and her own heart. Steffes appealed to her romantic tastes, but her family frowned upon him.
Miller, she explained, was a name Joseph Csonka sometimes used for business reasons. He was a wall paper hanger whom she had known for a long time, and her parents thought he would make an ideal husband for her. He was the old-fashioned type, the sort who would never give a girl any worries—nor any thrills.
But Catherine Bunjevac had liked young Steffes. He was full of fun, liked to dance and have a good time. He made Csonka seem old and dull. A common enough tragedy, up to that point. But it didn’t tell us what had been worrying Steffes that last night he was seen alive. Could he have been involved in some racket and forced to “take a ride?” Or was it perhaps another woman, whose jealous fury had spent itself on her betrayer?
We discarded the latter theory at once. The very facts of the crime told us it had to be the work of a man. Women do not transport their victims forty miles, and then dump them overboard, with a slab of concrete to weigh them down.
Detective Gordon Shibley and I went to West Farmington to verify the identification of the victim. We questioned several of the near-by residents, but could find no one who knew anything about the mysterious happenings at Coffee Creek. The killer had taken pains to cover his tracks well, and no doubt darkness had hidden his sinister work.
Delve as we would, we could find nothing to tie the victim with any gang machinations. He had, to all intents and purposes, been paying strict attention to business and behaving himself. It looked as if the explanation would have to be found closer to home.
Officers returned to question Miss Bunjevac once more. Over and over she repeated her story of her friendship with Steffes and the last time she had seen him.
“He left me at my house early Thursday evening, as he said he didn’t feel well. I thought maybe he had another date, but then I felt sure he wouldn’t go with any girl but me. He said he’d call me Friday and when he didn’t I was annoyed. Joe asked me to go out with him that night and since I hadn’t heard from Charlie, I went.”
“Did you tell Csonka about Steffes?” the girl was asked.
“Yes, I mentioned it and said I was worried as that was the first time he had ever disappointed me. Joe said not to worry about it; that he’d probably be able to explain when I saw him.”
“Did you often discuss Steffes with your other suitor?”
“Quite often. He asked me, a couple of times to give up Charlie.”
The detectives’ eyes betrayed no particular interest. “Did the boys ever fight about your attentions?”
“Of course not,” was the quick reply. “Why, Joe helped me try to find Charlie. He went to his rooming house and the garage where he worked to discover what had happened to him.”
The little thin man who had “been making such anxious inquiries for the victim, as described by Steffes’ brother and the garage owner, was Csonka, evidently. He had been trying to find the man who had cat him out, in order to set the girl’s mind at rest.
“It was Joe who made me come right down to Headquarters, when we found out you were looking for me,” Miss Bunjevac continued. “He said it was best for me to go right away.”
“How did Joe act the Friday night after Steffes’ disappearance? Was he nervous or excited?”
“Why, no,” the girl answered, surprised. “He never talks a lot, but I didn’t notice him acting nervous or anything. Why should he?”
That’s what we were asking ourselves at the moment. We had two men in love with the same girl. One brash and forward; the other, from Catherine’s description, shy, meek and self-effacing. And the brash and forward one was now dead, his head battered in. I was convinced from what I could learn around Coffee Creek, that Steffes had been killed elsewhere and his body brought out to the lonesome farm area, probably by automobile.
The body had been returned to Cleveland from the West Farmington morgue and County Pathologist Dr. Reuben Strauss went to work to determine what had caused death. What we primarily wanted to know was whether the victim was alive when tossed into the water, or whether it was his corpse that was weighted down and shoved under the culvert.
On Friday night a detail of officers was sent to Csonka’s home on East 88th Street, to question him. It was destined to be quite a wait, as he was not at home. It was five-thirty in the morning before a short, slight man mounted the steps, to be met by a group of detectives.
Csonka evidenced no surprise. He acted as if it were not at all unusual for a couple of officers to be waiting to take him down to Headquarters. He showed no curiosity as to why he must go. He offered no protest, when the men went through his personal belongings. He evinced no embarrassment when he saw his personal letters being read. These included several written, but never mailed, to Catherine Bunjevac.
Those letters seemed to coincide with the man’s colorless personality. He was admittedly in love with the girl, but there was no hint of passion in his letters. They, too, were shy and bashful.
Downstairs in the basement, Csonka showed the same lack of interest, as officers went through his storage closet. The only thing found of any possible importance was a small amount of old wire.
And when Sergeant Hogan began asking him questions that Saturday morning, he realized he was facing a man who was able to conceal every emotion. He presented a bland, expressionless face and carefully deliberated before replying. We had a suspect, it is true, but we had little more on him than any man we might pick up in the street. He was in love with the same girl as the dead man had been—but that was his only connection, thus far, with the case.
The Sergeant, however, continued his investigation. A couple of detectives went out to find Csonka’s car. While they were gone, the report of Dr. Strauss came in and with it, the first ray of light. Steffes had been struck a hard blow on the head, but that had not caused his death. Water in his lungs indicated that he had been alive when tossed into the creek. He had died from drowning. That meant that the murderer, if and when we caught him, would be tried in the district in which the victim died—and those country juries are tough.
We decided to use a little old-fashioned psychology on Csonka. Detective Shibley and I brought him to the garage, and, with Sergeant Hogan and Coroner Arthur J. Pearse of Cuyahoga County, in which Cleveland is located, we started out on the ride to Mesopotamia and Coffee Creek. We were heading for the spot where Steffes’ battered body had been found. We had a little plan in mind and were eager to find out if it would work. The coolest, the calmest, the most collected criminal will often go to pieces when he is forced to revisit the scene of his crime. Dreams often will hound a guilty man into clearing his conscience, but a compulsory viewing of the spot will usually do it more quickly.
We did not do a lot of talking on that ride. Csonka continued to answer politely all questions put to him. Sergeant Hogan encouraged him to talk about himself. He nodded sympathetically when Csonka complained of business being slow. Csonka mentioned that he usually carried his tools—brushes and pails—in his car. Was he in love with Catherine Bunjevac? Sure, sure.
“You know, Sergeant,” he said to Hogan, “I think some gangsters got after Steffes. Probably took him for a ride. You know he was mixed up in some bad company for a while there.”
We did not answer. We were waiting for the psychological moment to outline to him what we thought had happened. But that time had not arrived as yet.
Coffee Creek looked far from sinister in the bright daylight. The foliage was just beginning to turn and the countryside was rich in autumnal hues. Everything spoke of peace, and quiet, restful living. It seemed hardly the spot for violence and death. Yet a man’s badly beaten body had been tossed into that creek and its calm water had taken his dying breath.
I took Csonka over toward the east rail and waited with him while the Coroner and Sergeant Hogan talked things over. I knew what was coming and encouraged the man’s nervousness by a complete silence and apparent indifference as to what was going on.
As the two officers conversed, their voices carried clearly on the still air. Hogan was outlining to Pearse what had happened. Csonka was the only one there who didn’t know that the Sergeant was putting on a little dramatic act.
“I think we’ve got this fellow,” Hogan was saying. “It all links up. Two of my men found his car, took a look in it and what do you suppose they found?”
“What ?” asked Pearse, all interest.
“Blood on the upholstery.”
“Yes! And one of the windows was smashed. I think that happened when this bird Csonka swung at him with the brush and missed.”
“Brush?” asked Pearse.
“Didn’t you know we found a heavy paste brush in his car with blood on it? He hit Steffes over the head with his paste brush,” the Sergeant went on. “Again and again he struck him. Then when he thought he was dead, he drove out into the country and tossed the body overboard. He weighted it down to make sure it wouldn’t be discovered.”
Hogan paused dramatically as they came over to where we were standing. “Is that the way it happened, Csonka?” he asked suddenly.
I watched the man who was standing so close to me. I had thought of him as meek and mild—hardly the type to become involved in a murder case. But before my eyes I saw an amazing change take place. As he listened to Hogan’s outline of what might have happened that fatal September 17th, Csonka s eyes glittered. It was almost as if he were reliving the crime, and enjoying it. The meekness was gone and replaced by an expression of burning hate.
Abruptly he turned and faced us. “Sure, I killed him. I did it.”
The confession, unexpected as it was, did not give us all we wanted. We had to have details—proof to stand up in a trial. It was not a Cleveland case, but it was up to us to get Csonka talking.
Once he had started, the paperhanger seemed eager to tell the whole story and get it off his mind. I marveled at this shy little man, who, for more than a week had gone about his affairs as usual, but with a horrible secret hidden behind his meek, colorless face. He had even joined in the search for his victim, apparently seeing this would ingratiate him into the favor of Miss Bunjevac. And all the time he had known that the man she loved and waited for was lying in the cold waters of Coffee Creek, a heavy slab weighting him down.
Csonka opened up in earnest on the ride back to Cleveland. The story was even more grim and cold-blooded than we had conceived.
“I was ready to marry the girl. I wanted her. I was getting along fine and had a good business and good prospects. I could have given her things. I was in love with her and she seemed to like me well enough,” Csonka added, “until that Steffes fellow came along last April. Then things changed.”
I could picture this little paperhanger paying his court more to the parents than the daughter, much as they did in the old country. He loved the girl, in his fashion, and a great rage began working in his slow mind, when he found himself being cut out.
“That Steffes was just a no-good, a bum. I used to follow the two of them around and spy on them. A couple of times I met him and begged him to give up the girl. But always he just laughed and told me to beat it.
“And once,” his voice dropped to a whisper, “he told me Catherine wanted to marry a man. He insulted me.”
Steffes, knowing that the girl preferred him, and with the confidence of youth, had laughed tormentingly at the other man. And with that laugh he had sealed his doom.
“I met Steffes early in the week and told him I knew he had been in jail,” the paperhanger went on. “I threatened to tell the Bunjevacs what I knew, so they’d make Kate give him up.
“Steffes tried to laugh it off, but I told him it was time for a showdown. I told him to meet me Thursday night and he said he’d try to get away early enough to make it.”
That meeting, then, was what the garage mechanic had on his mind the last night his sister and his sweetheart had seen him. The story of feeling ill had been invented to make sure he would get away in time for the meeting he dreaded. The girl’s intuition that something was worrying him had been correct.
The men met by appointment at a beer parlor on East 53rd Street. Csonka began pleading with him to step out of the picture. Steffes drank stein after stein of beer and quickly lost his former dread. The oddly matched couple moved on from one beer place to another. At each they consumed several drinks, Steffes switching to liquor as the night wore on.
Once again in Csonka’s car, they continued the discussion, the murderer said.
“Sitting in the car at East 70th and Quincy. I told Steffes he’d have to give up the girl. He got mad at that, and took out a whisky bottle he had in his pocket. He swung it at me and I got scared. He was bigger than me and I reached in back of the car for my paste brush. I grabbed hold of it and hit him over the head.”
Csonka stopped a moment, as if remembering. A shudder shook his slight frame. He was thinking perhaps of the sickening thud each blow had made on the victim’s head. Then he continued:
“I had to hit him a lot of times before he became quiet. Then I got panicky and pushed his body into the back seat.”
It was evident that Csonka had believed his victim dead after the first blows. He even stopped to change a tire on his car before driving into his own garage.
“I stayed in the garage a while, not knowing just what I ought to do. I was scared someone might come’ in while he was there. And then—” his eyes widened with horror—”Steffes came to life again and started to fight some more.”
I could visualize the terror of the man, as his victim suddenly showed signs of life, when he believed him dead.
“This time I hit him with a heavy iron clamp and he lay still.”
Poor Charlie Steffes. His vitality must have been great, indeed, to withstand a series of such blows. The report showed without any question that he had been still breathing when tossed into the creek.
“I went around the corner to my house and got some wire and a big chunk -of concrete from under our garbage can. I tied him up and then started out to find some place to dump the body.”
And then came the most amazing part of this gruesome story. The killer had driven nearly fifty miles through the night, with the trussed-up body of his victim in the back of his car. And at each bridge and culvert he had stopped. With his flashlight he had peered into the water, trying to determine its depth. Joe Csonka was looking for water deep enough to-cover all evidence of his crime.
“The water under that concrete bridge seemed to be deep enough, so I dragged the body out of the car, made sure the concrete was securely fastened to it and pushed it over the rail. It made a loud splash and disappeared. I stood there watching for a few minutes, until the water was quiet again. Then I got in my car and drove home.”
In a dispassionate tone, Csonka ended his confession. Later, he willingly repeated it at Headquarters and signed it. He seemed glad that the matter was off his chest; but showed not the slightest regret for his crime. Over and over again, as if in self-justification, he repeated the words, “He was just a bum.”
We found it hard to believe that on the night after he killed the young man she loved, he went out with Miss Bunjevac, to all appearances, the same shy, harmless man whom her parents wanted her to marry.
“Sure I saw her,” he told me. “We had a date together. I knew she wouldn’t be busy, so I called her. But she didn’t know a thing about any of this. She’s a fine girl. He was just a bum, just a bum.”
We turned Csonka over to the Trumbull County authorities for trial. On April 16th, 1937, after seven months. Prosecutor Paul J. Regan accepted a plea of guilty of second degree murder, and Joseph Csonka was sentenced to life imprisonment at the Ohio State Penitentiary.
The case of the two men who loved one girl became history. But to this day, Farmer Salway and his family rarely pass the culvert of Coffee Creek, off Route 57, without an involuntary glance into the still water, where one fall day they saw a “floating” head.
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