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.
Kron left home at about 8 p.m. to buy rye bread. Donahue, a Northeast Utilities employee, was helping out with a Halloween dance for NU workers at the Knights of Columbus hall in Newington. He left the hall in his 1968 Corvette Stingray to pick up a date, a 21-year-old Newington woman. He had gone into the bakery to ask directions to her house.
The Dowlings had dropped in after church, as they had for several years, to buy doughnuts. Anne Dowling may have gone in first and her husband followed to see what was keeping her.
Bakery owner John Salerni was returning from the Motta bakery in Hartford, where he had picked up 12 spinach pies and seven dozen cannoli. Investigators later determined that he likely arrived at the New Britain bakery at about 8:42 p.m.
Shay and Ahern said they believed both Piskorski and Schrager took part in the killings. Shay said the slaughter began after Salerni arrived. He and other investigators have said that Schrager may have thought Kron, his uncle by marriage, had recognized him and would be able to identify him.
Evidence showed that Donahue put up a fight. He had defensive wounds on one hand. Ahern said Donahue was the last to die. A crime scene photo showed him slumped half on top of Thomas Dowling's body, his face up.
A Blue Bandana
City and state police had no suspects at first.
"We went in there with absolutely nothing," Shay said.
Investigators went door to door in the area and served dozens of warrants, hoping that people wanted for other crimes would have at least heard something about the Donna Lee killings.
Schrager and Piskorski became the prime suspects on a tip from Schrager's wife, Ahern said. Abigail Schrager had been with Piskorski and her husband when they drove to Maine the day after the killings. Schrager mentioned that his uncle, Kron, was one of the victims, but none of the news reports at that time had included any victims' names.
Christian Noury also became an important witness. Noury said Piskorski had borrowed a 9 mm handgun from him two or three days before the killings. Noury also had connected Piskorski and Schrager with a double-barrel 16-gauge shotgun, which another man sold to the pair for $20 on Oct. 17. At least five inches had been cut from both barrels before the sale. Schrager called the shotgun "my baby."
When the pair arrived at the Austin Street party that Saturday night, they had the handgun and shotgun with them. Noury said Piskorski went into the kitchen, put the handgun under the faucet and washed away a red substance around the trigger.
Piskorski and Schrager then went into a bathroom right off the kitchen, and in about two minutes, Noury told police, they called him in. The two were tearing papers and cards out of several wallets and flushing the stuff down the toilet, Noury told police.
Piskorski told Noury that he had better help him get rid of the handgun because Noury's fingerprints were also on it. Noury borrowed his girlfriend's car and the two drove to a pond in Berlin by Route 72. Piskorski took off the blue bandana he was wearing, wrapped several wallets and the handgun in it and left the car, Noury told police. A state police diver would later find the gun and four wallets belonging to the male victims still wrapped in a blue bandana. The shotgun was found in the Berlin home of a friend of Piskorski's.
On the trip out to dump the evidence, Noury said Piskorski kept repeating "that he had to do it, that it wasn't worth it and he wouldn't be able to sleep at night."
Schrager and Piskorski were arrested on unrelated charges about two weeks after the killings, and both were indicted for murder in March 1975.
Piskorski was found guilty of the slayings at his trial in December 1975. Because the death penalty was not an option at the time, he was sentenced to 150 years to life in prison. Schrager's trial began late in 1976. He stopped the proceedings early to plead guilty to four of the six slayings. But it was a strange confession. Schrager admitted that both he and Piskorski had gone to the bakery to rob it. Schrager said he never shot anyone, but he would not name the killer, saying only that "someone" had gone into the back of the bakery and he heard several shots.
Schrager was sentenced to 20 years to life. He tried to gain parole several times — to the strenuous objections of victims' families — but the state parole board finally ruled in 1997 that he will never be set free.
Now 65, Piskorski is locked up in a Maine prison. Schrager, 70, is in a Minnesota pen.
Golon, now retired and living in California, says that the memory of the Donna Lee killings becomes especially clear whenever he goes into a store alone at night.
"It never left me," he said.