Near the corner of St. Aubin Street and Mack in Detroit is a tract of land where a house once stood. In 1929 a horrific murder was committed under its roof, where a family including four children were killed. Not surprisingly there have been reports of a headless man seen wandering where this abode once stood. Could it be the fact that this murder was never solved that causes a tortured soul to be bound to the place it experienced its last horrific moments as a human being?
In 1902, fifteen-year-old Benjamino Evangelista was only one of million of Italian immigrants who came to America seeking a better life. He anglicized his name to Benny Evangelist, moved to Philadelphia and set about making a life for himself with his older brother Antonio who had immigrated from Naples with him. The brothers prospered but during this time Benny developed an interest in the occult, and claimed to be receiving visions from God, many which were quite dark and not Catholic at all. He also started his cult, which was probably the sale of love potions and hexes to those who were lovelorn or wanted vengeance.
Whether his brother Antonio already had seen this side of his brother is unknown, but it was enough to sever the relationship and Antonio disowned him (at least temporarily), and Benny went off to York, Pennsylvania to work on the railroad there.
Like magnet to steel Benny developed a friendship with another Neapolitan named Aurelius "Leon" Angelino. Perhaps he was seeking a mentor or a father figure since Angelino was twenty years his senior, and before long they both continued studying occult philosophies such as Theosophy among others.
Benny continued with the development of his cult and its philosophies, but a horrific event occurred which derailed the fruition of his plans.
Whether they fed each other's insanity or there was a triggering event which sent Angelino over the edge in May 1919 he was jailed and transferred to the county asylum. His wife made efforts and secured his release, not realizing what a horrendous mistake this would turn out to be. The following day while his wife prepared dinner in their Lancaster home he took up a club and tried to kill her. She ran into the yard with two of their four children, however he took the opportunity to lock himself in the room where his 4-year-old twin sons were sleeping and he crushed their skulls with the club. He then stripped nude, took their bodies to the yard, chopped up one and stuffed the body parts in a can and he was stopped by police before he could dismember the second. He ended up in the hospital for the criminally insane.
Benny Evangelista whether truly disturbed by what his friend had done, or because he thought it was expedient to sever all ties between himself and this ghastly crime relocated to Detroit, Michigan. He moved in with his brother "Tony" who lived in an Italian neighborhood at 642 Wilkins Street with his wife and four children. Benny worked as a carpenter.
Sometime after 1920, Benny married, had his own children and expanded his interests into real estate. Despite making quite a bit of money with his real estate interests there is no denying that he was enthralled with the occult. He named the cult The Union Federation of America. He authored his own bible for it titled The Oldest History of the World Discovered by Occult Science. He was a self-described prophet, mystic and healer and used religion, black magic and herbal medicine to cure those with mental or physical ailments. He would charges sometimes as much as $10 which was the equivalent of two days pay for most of the people that lived in his neighborhood.
Things went so well for Benny that he moved his family to a house at 3587 St. Aubin Street in Detroit. It was spacious, painted green and had a wide porch. In the basement he had constructed a dingy shrine that consisted of paper-mache dolls and figures hanging by a wire in the ceiling which he claimed depicted "celestial planets", and his bible was the "sun". He also had an altar where he concocted his potions and hexes, including the sacrifice of animals.
He held sermons there as well as readings, but not all those that came to him for cures or love potions were pleased with the results. They thought he had duped them and taken their money.
On July 3, 1929 a real estate agent named Vincent Elias came to the Evangelista home, He was there to wrap up a deal with Benny for the purchase of a farm near Marine City, Michigan. He thought it was very strange that the household appeared to be so quiet. The front door was unlocked and he thought that Benny was downstairs in his basement and he let himself in. He found him there alright with his arms across his chest, sitting in a chair behind his desk, minus his head which had been placed next to his feet.
He bolted from the house and summoned neighbors and the police. When they entered they found a house of horror. Benny it appeared had been the first victim and bloody footprints were tracked upstairs where the bodies of Santina Evangelista and her four children were found in their bedclothes. The coroner estimated the crime was committed around midnight.
Santina's head had been almost severed, and her 18-month-old son Mario lay in her arms with his head crushed in. Angeline 7, Margaret 5, Jean 3 had their heads crushed in as well, but one of them had a partially amputated arm at the shoulder.
Amongst the weird idols that Evangelist had on the altar, he had well-known Catholic icons including a cross. He also a had false beard and wig which the police believed he used when giving his readings. There were also three pictures of a child laying in a coffin, which later on the police found out to be of Benny's son who had died several years before. There was no explanation as to what message the photographs were intended to convey..
The police interviewed his physician which lived also on St. Aubin Street. He told them that Benny was insane and a religious fanatic. That he would demonstrate outside his home on the street, waving his arms around and shouting incantations while he stared heavenward. He said that the older children were Mrs. Evangelist's by a former marriage as they had not been married that long.
Next the police interviewed his attorney who told them that he had been involved in several lawsuits about real estate transactions, but none that would have caused such a level of enmity to cause the massacre of an entire family.
The preface of the Evangelist bible read:
The police had their hands full as not only neighbors but other gawkers came to see the house where the crime took place, contaminating the grounds and destroying any clues. They were lucky to recover a bloody fingerprint from the front door knob.
When the detectives started to canvass the neighborhood for more information they ran into another problem, which was that most of the families living there were recent Sicilian and Italian immigrants, who did not want to talk about what they knew if anything at all. Despite the proof found at the Evangelist home that Benny had received hundreds of people for a reading, not even a handful admitted to even knowing him.
One of the leads the police found were several notes Benny had kept, in which he was being threatened by the "Black Hand" the last one only being written six months before. They had a reputation of preying on wealthy Italian immigrants, but that theory led nowhere as by 1929 the Black Hand had evolved into organized crime where extorting local businessmen was something that was common before the time of Prohibition. Benny would probably not have taken the threat seriously, correctly assuming it was an amateur trying to scare him.
The following day police arrested Umberto Tecchio and Angelo Depoli. Tecchio had visited the Evangelist home the day before the murder to make the final payment on a house he had bought from Benny. Depoli had accompanied him to the house. When the police visited the boarding house where they lived, they found a "keen-edged" banana knife and work boots that had just been washed.
Both men denied any involvement with the murder and claimed they had gone off to drink after visiting the house. The police were slow to accept their words as truth since Tecchio had escaped prosecution after knifing his brother-in-law Bart Maffro in April. He claimed that it was self-defense, and since Maffro had later died at the hospital, there was no one to contradict his version of the story. But with no further proof to tie them to the murder they were both freed.
Tecchio was rearrested for the murder in March of 1932 based on new evidence, and then freed when they verified that his fingerprint did not match the one found at the murder scene. The police ultimately pinned the murder posthumously on him in August of 1935; Tecchio had died November 1934 from a hemorrhage. His wife who had divorced him after he had killed her brother, told police that Benny Evangelist had two machetes hanging over his altar, one which was not found and believed to be the murder weapon. A newspaper boy said that he had seen Tecchio at 5 AM on the doorsteps of the Evangelist home when he was delivering papers, and others who lived in the same boarding home as him were not sure if he had left later that night. None of these witnesses had dared to come forward while he was alive. However the resolution to the case was short lived when in August 1935, the fingerprint taken at the scene was sent to another police department who confirmed that it did not belong to Tecchio.
The last suspect Aurelius "Leon" Angelino, in hindsight was probably the most accurate based on the nature of the crime. About a year after the murder a comparison was made between the fingerprint at the Evangelist crime scene and those taken from the Angelino household when his sons were killed, and they appeared to match.
In 1923 Angelino had escaped from the Pennsylvania Asylum for the criminally insane and was never found again. He had escaped twice before and had been recovered. Had he made his way to Detroit ready to reestablish their business relationship, only to be rebuffed by Evangelist who had no interest in sharing the spotlight or the money he was making? Did he make his way into the home when he knew the residents of the working class neighborhood would be asleep in their homes and slip out to leave the city quickly, knowing there would be many that would be suspected? After his escape in 1923, nothing was ever known of the whereabout of Angelino.
In the 1940s the Evangelista home was demolished and now most of the neighborhood built in the 1920s has been leveled as well. Only a grassy field remains on the site of this horrific murder which is said to be haunted by the figure of a headless man. Perhaps this was the bargain he made with the dark forces that he worshipped in his basement shrine.
Stranger Than Fiction Stories by M.P. Pellicer