A Grisly Night At New Britain's Donna Lee Bakery

A woman is consoled by an officer outside the Donna Lee Bakery after six people were murdered. (Courant File Photo)

NEW BRITAIN — Even after all the mass killings that have calloused the state and nation in the past 40 years, the name of a New Britain bakery remains infamous.

Before the night of Oct. 19, 1974, the Donna Lee Bakery was a neighborhood place to pick up doughnuts, bread, cakes and cannoli. Thereafter, the name evoked only senseless, point-blank brutality.

'I've Never Seen That Much Blood'

The call to police came in at 8:50 p.m. — lights on and front door open at the East Street shop; no one inside. Officer James Golon recalled in a recent interview that the day, a Saturday, had been busy and he had not eaten when a dispatcher told him to check the bakery.

Golon walked in through the unlocked door and found no one in front. He went through to the back and discovered a savage scene. All six victims had been shot at close range. Two had been beaten severely before they were shot.

Golon said he first thought there were five bodies, but later learned that one victim was sprawled on top of another man. He called in to headquarters and told the second officer to arrive what to expect. The other cop said something like, "'You better not be putting me on' — but he changed his attitude," Golon said.

"I've never seen that much blood in my entire career," city police photographer Lt. James Ahern told The Courant in 1999.

As Ahern recorded the carnage, Donna Lee Salerni, 19, heard a radio report about a robbery and killings at an unidentified New Britain bakery. Salerni had a flash of fear and apprehension.

"I know my father's dead!" she told the young man she was dating. "I know my father's dead!"

John Salerni, 55, who had named the shop for his beloved daughter, was found face down in the refrigerator room. A shotgun blast had smashed the right side of his head. The other five victims had been hit with 9 mm slugs. They were: sales clerk Helen Giansanti, 59, of Newington; customers Thomas and Anne Dowling, 58 and 57, of New Britain; Michael Kron, 49, of New Britain; and William Donahue Jr., 27, of West Hartford.

The motive was robbery, but the haul from the register and victims was only about $300. Salerni still had $1,350 in his pants pockets when police found him.

'Tiny' And Gary

The killers had come from a party no more than a 3 1/2-minute drive from the bakery. They returned to 52 Austin St. on the city's East Side at about 9 p.m. One told a friend to come into the kitchen, according to records of the investigation.

"I just shot six people," Christian Noury would later testify the killer told him.

Ronald Piskorski, 25 at the time, and Gary Schrager, 31, were heavy boozers and drug users. Both were especially fond of speed. "Tiny" Piskorski — 6 feet, 2 inches tall, weighing 300 pounds with a shark tattoo on the back of one hand — liked to drink tequila straight up, six or seven shots in one glass. Schrager was known as a quiet man who became explosive when drunk. Neither was a steady worker, and in the week before the killings, evidence would show, they were looking for easy money.

The two, both New Britain natives, had been planning a robbery for at least a week before Oct. 19. They probably had targeted the Brookside Package Store next door to the bakery, but it was closed by the time they arrived.

James Shay, a former East Hartford police chief and state police lieutenant who led the state's role in the investigation, told The Courant what police believe happened next:

Helen Giansanti was alone in the bakery when Piskorski and Schrager arrived. They announced they were robbing the place, but it turned out there wasn't much money in the till. Giansanti said the owner would be by shortly and he usually had cash.

So the two waited. And as they waited, customers arrived.

Giansanti had been working at the bakery for about six months. Her husband, Humbert Giansanti, stopped in at about 6:35 p.m. on his way to a Moose meeting. Helen had decorated a birthday cake and showed it to him.