Tony Boyle Trial: 1974

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Tony Boyle Trial: 1974

Defendant: W.A. Boyle
Crime Charged: First-degree murder
Chief Defense Attorney: Charles F. Moses
Chief Prosecutor: Richard A. Sprague
Judge: Francis J. Catania
Place: Media, Pennsylvania
Dates of Trial: March 25-April 11, 1974
Verdict: Guilty
Sentence: 3 consecutive terms of life imprisonment

SIGNIFICANCE: Successful prosecutions of those responsible for the death of Jock Yablonski revealed that his murder had been ordered by the president of his own union and paid for with union funds.

No one assumed that the struggle for leadership of the United Mine Workers of America ended when incumbent President W.A. "Tony" Boyle defeated Joseph "Jock" Yablonski in the bitter December 1969 union election. The reform-minded Yablonski planned to take evidence of massive election fraud to the U.S. Secretary of Labor. Although he would later claim that the challenger was his "very close friend," Boyle and the hierarchy of the powerful union openly hated Yablonski.

In the New Year's Eve darkness of December 31, 1969, Yablonski, his wife, and their daughter were shot to death in their Clarksville, Pennsylvania home. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) entered the case on the premise that the killings might be related to Yablonski's union activity, thus making the murders a federal crime. A tip led them quickly to the gunmen: Paul Gilly, Claude Vealey, and Aubran "Buddy" Martin. Gilly's wife Annette was arrested soon. So was her father, Silous Huddleston, the president of a UMW district local.

There was no initial evidence to support a hunch that higher union officials were involved. State prosecutor Richard A. Sprague methodically tried the captured killers one by one, allowing the pressure to mount as each of the conspirators tried to escape the death sentence. In June 1971, Claude Vealey pleaded guilty to three counts of murder. Awaiting sentencing, Vealey was summoned as a prosecution witness at Buddy Martin's trial and implicated his fellow gunman. Both Martin and Paul Gilly, who was tried in February 1972, were convicted and faced three death sentences for murdering the Yablonskis in their beds.

Annette Gilly Confesses

Bargaining her way out of the electric chair, Annette Gilly pleaded guilty and confessed that she and her father had arranged Jock Yablonski's murder at the request of UMW officer William Prater. The ailing Silous Huddleston also confessed and pleaded guilty. Huddleston told the FBI that he and Prater were told to kill Yablonski by Albert Pass, secretary-treasurer of the UMW and a member of the union's national executive board.

As the conspiracy unfolded, the evidence began to point toward the union leadership. But Tony Boyle had more immediate legal problems. In March 1972, he was found guilty of making illegal political contributions with union funds. In May, the results of the 1969 union election were overturned. Boyle lost his bid for re-election. In June, the same month that the U.S. Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional as it was then applied in most states, Boyle was sentenced to two concurrent five-year prison terms and fined heavily. A month later, as Boyle planned his appeal, Prater and Pass were indicted for murder.

William Prater came to trial in March 1973. Still unsentenced and facing three life terms, gunman Paul Gilley testified for the prosecution. He said that Prater had arranged and paid for Yablonski's murder, allegedly on Boyle's orders. Retired miners testified that they had kicked back their pay from a nonexistent union "Research & Information" committee to Prater. The jury was convinced that this $20,000 was used to pay for Yablonski's death. William Prater was convicted on three counts of murder.

Albert Pass was tried two months later. In addition to the prosecution's array of forensics experts, manipulated pensioners, confessed killers, and handlers of the blood money, prosecutor Sprague called Prater, who had decided to confess at the urging of his family. The witness implicated Pass, who had told Prater to organize the killing and had paid Silous Huddleston when the plot was in motion. The jury found Albert Pass guilty on three counts of murder.

Unlike other conspirators, Pass did not aid investigators after his conviction, but the case was not dead. On September 6, 1973, Tony Boyle was arrested for instigating the Yablonski murders. Before he could be extradited to Pennsylvania for trial, however, Boyle swallowed an overdose of sedatives. and nearly died. He recovered in the protective custody of a District of Columbia prison hospital, charged with the federal crime of violating Yablonski's civil rights, but still unarraigned on Pennsylvania's charge of murder.

Boyle Balks on Arraignment

On December 20, U.S. marshals attempted to bring Boyle to Pennsylvania for arraignment. Boyle refused to leave his bed and fainted when the marshals tried to force him to his feet. The marshals returned the next day and physically removed the furious old man from his bed. They flew him to Pennsylvania, where he was formally charged, sitting in a wheelchair and still wearing his hospital pajamas. Boyle pleaded not guilty and was sent on his way to a Missouri federal prison to begin his sentence for election fraud.

A change of venue brought Boyle's trial into an eastern Pennsylvania court, far from the coal field region where the Yablonskis had lived, with Judge Francis J. Catania presiding. When the trial began in the spring of 1974, Boyle's attorney, Charles F. Moses, tried to stanch the testimony creeping toward his client by suggesting that Prater and Huddleston had killed Yablonski to hide their embezzlement of union funds.

Testimony by the same witnesses who had appeared at earlier trials laid out the prosecution's case. The chain now extended from the triggermen to Prater, who said that Boyle had visited him in prison and told him to "stick to your story, even if you are convicted."

Even more striking than the now-familiar machinery of the plot was a new witness directly linking Boyle to the murders. The FBI had arrested and secured the cooperation of UMW official William Turnblazer, who recalled standing in a hallway outside the UMW, executive boardroom with Boyle and Pass on June 23, 1969, six months before the union election.

"We're in a fight," Turnblazer quoted Boyle as saying. "We've got to kill Yablonski or take care of him."

Pass, Turnblazer testified, accepted the job. Turnblazer also explained that Pass gave him printed minutes of an executive board meeting at which the "R&I" group was discussed, thus fraudulently documenting the existence of the bogus committee formed to pay for the murders.

On the stand, Tony Boyle protested that he had authorized the union to offer a $50,000 reward for the conviction of the killers of his "very close friend" Yablonski. Boyle claimed that he had seen Prater in prison only at the urging of Prater's attorney, H. David Rothman, who was concerned about his client's health. Boyle recalled that both his own lawyer and Rothman were present during the encounter, which took place outside Prater's cell and lasted less than 10 minutes.

Boyle denied ever seeing the minutes discussing the R&I committee. He denied meeting Turnblazer and Pass in the corridor outside the executive board room after the June 23 meeting, when the order to kill was allegedly given. When Boyle stepped down, three former UMW board members testified that Boyle left the meeting by a side door that night and had never even entered the hallway.

Boyle's Secretary Spoils Defense

Boyle's defense was gutted by the final prosecution witnesses. Boyle's secretary testified that the union reward for Yablonski's killers was her idea. She had proposed a $100,000 sum, but Boyle cut the amount in half. The secretary also explained that there was no side door by which the union president could have avoided the corridor after the June 23 conference.

Attorney Rothman testified that the prison meeting with his client, William Prater, was Boyle's idea. Rothman recalled Boyle and Prater talking for about 20 minutes, alone. Finally, prosecutor Sprague called Charles Groenthal, an FBI fingerprint expert. Sprague handed the agent the minutes discussing the R&I committee and asked if Groenthal had identified a print found on one of its pages.

"Yes, sir, I did," answered the FBI expert. "It was the thumbprint of Mr. Boyle."

Like the conspirators who had carried out his wishes, Tony Boyle was found guilty on three counts of murder. His sentence was the final blow to the corrupt union hierarchy he had sought to preserve by having Jock Yablonski murdered. Boyle died in 1985 while serving three consecutive life terms in a Pennsylvania prison.

Thomas C. Smith

Suggestions for Further Reading

Armbrister, Trevor. Act of Vengeance. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1975.

Finley, Joseph E. The Corrupt Kingdom. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972.

Franklin, Ben A. "Case of the Persistent Prosecutor." New York Times (September 9, 1973): 2.

Lewis, Arthur H. Murder By Contract. New York: Macmillan, 1975.