This post is mainly meant for english-speaking readers.
Chicago Daily Tribune
Tuesday, January 16, 1962
Boy admits school fire!
– Confesses lighting wastebasket in Our Lady of Angels tragedy.
– Judge Cilella gest report, plans action.
Information that a 13 year old boy has confessed setting the fire at Our Lady of the Angels school, which took the lives of 92 children and three nuns, was given yesterday to Judge Alfred J. Cilella of Family court. Judge Cilella promised an investigation of the report that the boy signed an eight page confession under questioning by John E. Reid, head of John Reid & Associates, 600 N. Michigan av., a nationally known expert on lie detectors.Cilella said that if the confession is found to be accurate, the boy should be taken into custody.
Parents request test
Reid confirmed that he had talked with the boy Friday afternoon at the request of the boy’s parents and that he had given him a lie detector test. But Reid refused to comment on his findings.
Cilella said he had been told of the confession by Reid yesterday.
According to information obtained by The Tribune, the boy in his confession told of setting fire to the school about 2:45 p.m. on Dec. 1, 1958, causing a holocaust in which pupils and teachers died minutes before classes would have been dismissed for the day.
The boy was among a group of 5th graders who were led to safety minutes after discovery of the fire, which trapped most of its victims on the second floor of the school at 09 N. Avers. av.
Tossed lighted matches
The boy said he started the fire by tossing lighted matches into a cardboard waste barrel near a stairwell in the basement of the elementary school.
He told Reid that he did so because he hated shool, rebelled at the authority of teachers, and liked to hear the sound of fire sirens and to watch fire engines race along the street.
The Tribune was told that the boy, now an 8th grader in a west suburban school, admitted setting at least 12 other fires in Chicago and the suburbs, some as recently as last fall.
First fire at five
He said he set his first fire when he was 5 years old in a garage near his home in Chicago.
The confession last Friday to Reid ended a month and a half long investigation that started with an anonymous letter naming the boy as the person who set fire to an apartment building.
Capt. Chris T. Rooney, Cicero director of safety, Lt. Victor Will of the Cicero police, Sgt. Drew Brown of the Chicago bomb and arson squad, and Policeman Ronald B. Richards, a juvenile office of Cicero, conducted the investigation.
Suspicion that the boy might have been responsible for the school fire began to grow when investigation showed that he had been a pupil there at the time of the fire. He attended school there, however, under another name.
Here is the boy’s story of how he started the worst school disaster in the city’s history and his reasons for doing so:
At 2:45 p.m. on a cold and icy day, the boy asked permission to go to the washroom from his second floor classroom. At the time he was 10 years old.
The boy, The Tribune was told, went to the basement of the school and looked into a chapel to make sure that no one was there. Then he approached the stairwell and saw a large barrel made of cardboard with metal rims which was used by the school janitor to colect waste paper.
The boy reportedly told Reid that he threw several lighted matches into the barrel. He had obtained the matches at home when he went there for lunch.
Doesn’t mention fire
When flames flared from the paper filled barrel, the youngster said, he stood back, then returned quietly to his classroom. He mentioned the fire to no one. Had he, many lives might have been saved.
He told Reid that he believed the fire would be discovered by the janitor before it “went too far.”
When the fire was discovered and smoke began to filter thru the upper story of the old school building, the boy and five other pupils were trapped in the classroom with their teacher, he said.
He related a dramatic tale of how the teacher hurled him from the window because he was too frightened to jump.
Teacher disputes story
This story was contradicted by the teacher, Miss Pearl Tristano, ? N. Grove av., Oak Park, now a teacher at Rosary college, River Forest.
Miss Tristano led her class to safety shortly before the heat of the fire blasted thru the ceilings of the second floor classrooms and killed man of the children at their desks.
After giving his confession to Reid, the boy reportedly drew a rough pencil sketch of the school.
It showed his classroom -room 206- the stairwell where he set the fire, the staircase up which the fire is believed to have raced, the location in the basement where janitors kept supplied, and the waste paper barrel which he used to start the blaze.
Tell of his calmness
The boy said that after the fire he calmly walked to the home of a friend where a Cub Scout den meeting had been scheduled. He said he was told there by the friend’s mother that the meeting had been canceled because of the tragedy.
Then, he said, he went home.
In a several hour session of questioning by Capt. Rooney, Policeman Richards, Sgt. Brown and Lt. Will, the boy told why he had set many of the fires which he admitted. At this point, however, he denied having set the school blaze.
“As he talked, his eyes glazed, his face became flushed, and he displayed other signs of emotional conflict.”
“I love fire sirens,” he told Capt. Rooney, “I love to watch fire trucks. I have a siren on my bycicle and I ride around with it on half the time.”
‘Like to set fires’
“I lie to set fire to garbage cans. I like to light a twig or a stick and carry it from can to can like a torch. Sometimes it looks like rockets.”
“When I’d set a fire, I’d stay in the neighborhood. Sometimes I play ball or play with the kids. When the fire department come, I’d run back and watch.”
At one point, he expressed sympathy for the lot of his teachers.
“I can imagine being a teacher and having to get up every morning and thinking about having to go and face a bunch of kids all day,” he told Rooney.
Shows his bitterness
But later his sympathy turned in bitterness as he continued:
“They [the teachers] were always threatening me with having to go down to the principal’s office. Once they sent me and the principal threatened to expel me from school.”
The boy did not make it clear whether his conflicts with teachers had occurred at the Our Lady of the Angels school or at another school.
There were contradictions in the stories the boy told Capt. Rooney and Reid.
Rooney said he was convinced the boy had invented a “friend” on whom he first tried to place blame for the tragedy.
“Friend a nice boy”
During the questioning by the Cicero officials, the youngster said that on the day of the fire he walked to school with a friend whose name he could not remember.
The boy said that his friend told him, “I’ve got some matches and I’m going to burn the school down today.”
“I didn’t think he would do it because he was a nice boy and had never been in trouble,” the boy told Capt. Roney.
Rooney asked if the “friend” was real.
“Yes, sure he’s a real boy,” the youngster replied, “I used to go to school with him. We used to play together.”
But he could no identify the “friend.”
Later, under questioning by Reid, the role played by the “friend” in the earlier story changed to the person of the suspect himself.
He told Reid that at lunch time on the day of the tragedy, he walked back to school with a friend, after having obtained matches at home.
He said he told his friend, a 4th grader, that he intended to burn the school down because he hated school and didn’t want to go there again. He said that he and his friend discussed murders, horror movies, and “things like that” the rest of the way to school.
His friend, he said, survived the fire, too.
Miss Tristano said she could not recall the boy being excused from class to go to the washroom.
“He was in my room when the fire broke out,” she told investigators. “He sat in the right front seat, where I could watch him. He was a problem boy. Any kind of mischief you can imagine, he was in.”
She said she recalled the boy bring in the classroom at least 10 minutes before the fire. But she added: “Three years have elapsed and childen often went to the washroom. I just can’t remember.”
Disputes “belly flop”
Miss Tristano disputed the boy’s story that he escaped the fire building by taking what he termed “a belly flopper” into a net spread by firemen.
The boy was taken to Reid’s office by his parents last Friday in the hope that a lie detector test would show that “he had not done as much as it was claimed.”
Reportedly, Reid had no knowledge at that point that the child had attended the Our Lady of the Angels school, but that the boy disclosed this fact thru questioning.
Wayne Kellner, 10, 5th, 206
“… My name is Wayne Kellner. My brother Jim and I attended OLA and were survivors of the fire. We lived with our parents at 629 N. Lawndale. A cousin of mine, Cheryl McLean, was also a student and escaped the fire. I was 10 years old and in fifth grade in 1958. I was a student in Room 206 and Ms. Tristano was the teacher. On the day of the fire, I was sent down to the basement along with another student from Room 206, a prime candidate for having started the fire, to empty garbage pails. I knew this student pretty well and had seen him light matches in apartment buildings prior to the date of the fire. In fact, after the fire, I presented an account of what I knew about this person to the people taking statements from the students. I’ll never forget the student’s name. Whether or not he was guilty, I’m not the one to judge him, but I do know that he did not return to the classroom when I did that day, that there was no fire in the basement of the school during the time I was in the basement of the school and that the fire was noticed shortly after this student returned to the classroom. In the OLA fire website, I read that this student was exonerated from wrongdoing by the courts. I lost many dear friends in the fire and I pray the judge did his job properly. If he didn’t, his actions have probably already been judged by the highest authority…”
To sleep with the angels: a story of a fire
David Cowan & John Kuenster
Chapter 10. Confession
“… During the course of her conversation, the mother related that her son had been born in 1948, in Cleveland, Ohio, an illegitimate child conceived after she was allegedly raped by her stepfather when she was fifteen. The child was born in a home for unwed mothers, and it was planned that the baby would be put up for adoption. But after being unable to agree to the arrangement, the mother decided to keep the boy. She later settled in Chicago, where she had relatives, and the boy’s natural father moved to California…”
“… The boy began describing to Reid how he had left his classroom on the afternoon in question, obtaining permission from his teacher to use the washroom. He had gone downstairs to the boy’s lavatory in the school basement. He said he had started the fire on the way back to his room, tossing three matches into a waste drum filled with paper at the bottom of the empty northeast stairwell.
[Are you sure,] Reid asked, [that you actually started a fire with the three matches?]
[Oh, yes,] said the boy. [I saw them start up. I stayed there for a minute and watched the flames get bigger and bigger, then I ran back to my room. I didn’t want it to be such a big fire, nobody to get hurt. I thought the janitor would find it and he’d put it out. I thought it would be bad enough just to give us a couple days off from school. I didn’t know so many kids were gonna be killed…]
“… Because the enormity of the boy’s confession, Reid left the youngster alone for a moment and walked to the reception room to inform the boy’s mother what he had been told. Upon hearing the news, she didn’t seem very surprised, and Reid quickly determined that all along she had suspected her son of setting the fire…”
To sleep with the angels: a story of a fire
David Cowan & John Kuenster
Chapter 11. Decision
“… On march, 13, Judge Cilella rendered his decision. As the verdict was announced, the boy set pensive in the courtroom next to his attorneys. His parents were not present…” “… His denials of the Our Lady of the Angels fire,” when considered in light of all the other evidence, were quite convincing. His similar denials with respect to the setting of the Cicero fires were not convincing…” “… Under these circumstances, the court cannot speculate as to which of the material portions of the statement are true and which are false. The court is not convinced that the statement is true…” “… Upon the evidence before it, the court does not have an abiding conviction that this child set the Our Lady of the Angels fire. Such being the case, the court will not burden this child with the judicial determination that he is responsible for that tragedy…
“… For setting the fires in Cicero, Judge Cilella ordered the boy sent to the Star Commonwealth boy’s center in Michigan. There the boy received psychiatric treatment to help cure him of his fetish for starting fires. He remained at the Michigan center until his release in 1965, when he entered military service and was sent to Vietnam…”
“… George Lindberg, Reid’s associate who witnessed the boy’s confession and who went on to become a federal district judge in Chicago, offered an interesting slant on the case. [The information we obtained,] Lindberg said, [is that the cardinal (Meyer) did not want this boy to bear the stain of being responsible for ninety-five deaths, and that the judge, therefore, was prevailed upon to throw the confession out. So it appears that Cilella’s decision was predetermined…]”
“… A close family friend of Judge Cilella’s remembers the pressure he faced at the time of the hearing. [Al was a Catholic and he felt obligated to the church… Afterward he took a real beating. His wife was incensed when he decided to let the boy off the hook. She really tore into him. «How could you do this? How can you look at yourself in the mirror when you know he’s guilty?» After that happened they used to argue a lot at the dinner table. He took a real beating from all the corners, and it had a very detrimental effect. It wasn’t long after that he got sick and died. The stress was incredible. Privately he knew the boy was guilty. He wrestled with it and second-guessed himself for the rest of his life…]”
The immaculate deception
The betrayal part II. The destruction of justice
“… What is more, despite all the lies and deception and covering up, Cilella was convinced that the boy was guilty of starting the fire that killed my little sister and ninety-four others. He knew and admitted it to now-retired circuit court judge Christy Berkos, who was, at the time of the suburban apartment building fires, Cicero’s town attorney. Judge Berkos verified to me an interview he had given to a newsman a number of years ago. He told me that he had gone to the Cook County Juvenile Court, where a hearing was held in Judge Cilella’s court. He told me that the hearing lasted two days, at which time the judge called him into his chamber. Cilella asked Berkos what he was trying to prove. He told him that he was trying to prove that the youngster in court was very sick, that he had set the fire at the school and all the fires in Cicero, and that he was a danger to the community.
Berkos then makes an astonishing assertion that will prove no only was Cilella’s decision pre-determined, but that the evidence adduced in court did in fact corroborate the boy’s confession. Otherwise, dear reader, how could the judge have come to the following conclusion?
«Alright,» said Cilella, «I’m convinced he set the Our Lady of the Angels School fire! But if we say that, what have we done? All we have done is put a time limit on his life because that was an Italian neighborhood, and I’m Italian myself, and I know that someone will kill him if this get out.»
«Following that rationale, one could logically say the same of the inhabitants of the neighborhood in which John Wayne Gacey did his killings. We can’t let this get out because if it does, this in an Italian, Irish, and Polish neighborhood, and these people might kill him.»
I think you’ve proven more than anything that he’s sick. I think it’s clear that he didn’t mean to kill anyone. He never expected that fire in the trash can to do what it did (more judge-made rationale). I’m going to send him out of town to a place where he can get the attention he needs.
The judge then returned to court and gave Reid a dressing down for the way he had obtained the confession in the Our Lady of the Angels School fire. However, he accepted Reid’s confession from the boy in the Cicero fires and ordered the boy sent out of state.
The judge claimed that he was ruling on the Our Lady of the Angels School fire only because he had been «charged with the offense.» That was certainly big of him! He went on to explain that because he had already found the boy to be delinquent in the Cicero arson fires, «little can be gained from consideration of the Our Lady of the Angels School fire.»
Everything could have been gained, including bringing a mass murderer to justice for the deaths of ninety-five innocent people.
His real reason was to protect Daley’s already besieged archdiocese. School administrators had a duty to protect third persons in the name of public safety from the fire starter. A parent or one acting in locus parentis has a duty to protect his children from third persons but also has a duty to protect third persons from his children.
He as well as Daley’s handpicked lapgod, Little Danny Ward, the new Cook County satet’s attorney, knew that the age of criminal responsibility in Illinois at the time the little bastard commited the crime was set at ten years old and had been since 1827, but they also knew their responsibility to Daley, who was, for all intents and purposes, responsible for their positions in the justice system…”
The immaculate deception
“… The Archdiocese and the good Monsignor had the money, but their greed and arrogance left no room for compliance. The most glaring example of this ocurred on November 18, 1958, just two weeks before the massacre: The Catholic Bishop, on behalf of the Our Lady of the Angels Parish, purchased a useless piece of property at 825 N0. Hamlin Ave. The building, which once housed the B’Nai Zion Synagogue, was now on the market.
According to the Cook County treasurer’s office, the Catholic Bishop paid over $24,000,00 for the property. The interest on that amount of money, could have financed the required rate-of-rise of temperature detectors, and the enclosure of the stairway at the top of the Northwing, preventing hot fire gases from entering in the small pink lungs of my little sister…”
Topix forum. Chicago.
#112 Mar 3, 2014
The boy who confessed to John Reid in 1962 was almost certainly Philip Presti d.o.b. 10/3/1948 and in 1958 his name was Philip Decker. He died 9/3/2004. Yes, the Church bears tremendous responsibility for the subsequent cover up and failure to bring healing and closure to the many who were victimized. It is also a strong possibility that this cover up led to the deaths of at least 4 more victims in another fire in Cicero. Do any research on the matter and you will find the cover up began immediately and deliberately. Apparently several students gave Philip’s name to investigators within days of the fire to no avail and Rev. McManus made no secret of the fact that his specific role was to keep the Diocese from being sued. He was rewarded for his successful efforts by being named a Bishop years later. The libel threat is a smokescreen. You cannot libel the dead. Even if it were against the law, you can can’t libel someone with the truth and any subsequent lawsuit just might bring the truth to light.
12-01-2013, 07:32 P.M. #843
I don’t think Philip Presti was sent to reform school, he lived his life, was a truck driver, had a family, his granddaughter 11-years-old was killed in a rock slide, one of his sons also died, Philip died of cancer in 2004. Yes I am posting his name, I do not understand why they won’t mention his name, if it’s to keep his family in the dark, oh well, all those other parents had to endure the loss of their children and didn’t get justice.
Albert Gregory Meyer
“… Albert Gregory Meyer (March 9, 1903 – April 9, 1965) was an American prelate of the Roman Catholic Church who served as the Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Chicago from 1958 until his death in 1965, and was appointed a cardinal in 1959.
Early life and education
Albert Meyer was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to Peter James and Mathilda (née Thelen) Meyer, who were German immigrants. The fourth of five children, he had two brothers and two sisters; one sister became a nun. As a child, Meyer would pretend to say Mass with a toy altar and a glass of water for the chalice of wine.
He received his early education under the School Sisters of Notre Dame at the parochial school of St. Mary’s Church. After attending Marquette Academy for two years, he entered St. Francis Seminary. In 1922, he was sent by Archbishop Sebastian Gebhard Messmer to continue his studies at the Pontifical North American College in Rome.
On July 11, 1926, Meyer was ordained to the priesthood by Cardinal Basilio Pompilj, at the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. He then studied at the Pontifical Biblical Institute, from where he obtained a doctorate in Holy Scriptures in 1930.
Upon returning to the United States, he served as a curate at St. Joseph’s Church in Waukesha until 1931, when he became a professor at his alma mater of St. Francis Seminary. He there taught religion, Greek, Latin, biblical archeology, dogmatic theology and Holy Scriptures. When Aloisius Joseph Muench was named Bishop of Fargo, Meyer succeeded him as rector of St. Francis Seminary in 1937. He was raised to the rank of Domestic Prelate in 1938, and also served as a chaplain and adviser to the Serra Club.
Bishop of Superior, Wisconsin
On February 18, 1946, he was appointed the sixth bishop of the Diocese of Superior, Wisconsin by Pope Pius XII. Meyer was consecrated on the following April 11 by Archbishop Moses E. Kiley, with Bishops Aloisius Joseph Muench and William Patrick O’Connor serving as co-consecrators, in the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist.
Archbishop of Milwaukee and Chicago
Bishop Meyer became the seventh Archbishop of Milwaukee on July 21, 1953. He was installed as Archbishop of Chicago on November 16, 1958.
When Meyer visited the victims of the Our Lady of the Angels School fire with then-Mayor Daley, he nearly collapsed with grief while visiting the hospital and morgue. Cardinal Francis Spellman, archbishop of New York, lent support by travelling to Chicago in the aftermath of this tragedy, and Pope John XXIII sent a telegram to Meyer.
Despite skepticism, Meyer was created Cardinal Priest of S. Cecilia by Pope John XXIII in the consistory of December 14, 1959. He later participated at the first three sessions of the Second Vatican Council, from 1962 to 1964, and sat on its Board of Presidency. During the Council, Meyer showed himself to be of liberal tendencies and was viewed as the chief intellectual among the participating American hierarchy. The scholarly and often shy prelate supported religious liberty, and strongly condemned racism, giving speeches alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. and warning his clergy “not to foster the flame of racial hatred”. Meyer was also one of the cardinal electors in the 1963 papal conclave, which selected Pope Paul VI. Meyer, an occasional fisher, once called fishing the “apostolic recreation”, and was also known to attend a Milwaukee Braves baseball game…”
http://www.italian-family-history.com/jewish/Sicilia.html: Lo Presti, Preste.
http://www.avotaynu.com/books/MenkNames.htm: Decker, Meyer.
Shattered sense of innocence
Richard C. Lindberg & Gloria Jean Sykes
Chapter 6. Deadly screams. Page 106. “Racial unrest“
“… The absurd rumor gained currency not long after a Chicago woman named Mrs. Lyle Clark Van Hyning (publisher of a newsletter Women’s Voice) allegedly mailed Mr. Schuessler a copy of the Leese pamphlet imploring him to read it immediately and heed the warnings. Alarmed by the “revelations” contained therein, Anton, according to Van Hyning, “made the mistake” of going to Sheriff Lohman to demand that the ritual murder angle be investigated. Van Hyning was convinced that Anton Schuessler Sr. was put to death on the operating table before he could go public with these damning disclosures. The inference, of course, was that Lohman, being jewish, was somehow involved in a cover-up with Steinfeld. To support the allegation, Van Hyning offered as proof copies of a Chicago Daily News article blaming the murders of the three boys on an unspecified religious sect. She boldly accused the Daily News of pulling the edition out of newsstand circulation ten minutes after the paper if the streets in order not to offend the Jewishh community and spark ‘racial unrest‘…”
- Chicago Daily Tribune. Tuesday, January 16. Boy admits school fire!
- To sleep with the angels: a story of a fire. David Cowan & John Kuenster
- Shattered sense of innocence. Richard C. Lindberg & Gloria Jean Sykes
- The immaculate deception. Robert Chiappetta