Police enter 703 Chislett Street in East Liberty while investigating the deaths of two sisters that happened next door.
By Jonathan D. Silver, Liz Navratil and Paula Reed Ward / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Time and again Pittsburgh police officers returned to the East Liberty block where two sisters were slain. They stepped up patrols in the neighborhood and regularly stopped by the home on Chislett Street to check for burglaries, monitor for suspicious people and look for a break in the case.
On Wednesday, police believe they got their break as a result of their diligence.
Police sources confirmed that homicide detectives took the dead women's next-door neighbor in for questioning after two officers on patrol in the area recognized him from a surveillance photograph taken at a nearby gas station and distributed at the precinct.
That man was spotted in surveillance footage at a Sunoco gas station on North Highland Avenue, from which police said they suspect the man bought a pack of cigarettes. Police also removed trash bags from the station that they said contained a pen they suspect is from Iowa, the state where the sisters grew up.
Video footage taken from other locations throughout East Liberty showed the man made efforts to conceal his face, police said. Late Wednesday night, detectives were questioning the man they believe appears in those videos along with his girlfriend. Both are 43.
Just before 3 a.m. Thursday, police released the man who had been detained for questioning from police headquarters. He was not charged, police said.
The man said he did not wish to comment. Cane in hand, he shuffled from police headquarters and lit a cigarette almost as soon as he got outside.
Police did not say whether the man was considered a suspect, a witness or someone with valuable information -- or no help at all.
But Stephen A. Zappala Jr., Allegheny County district attorney, said the man was detained "to facilitate the investigation" and that several search warrants were obtained Wednesday afternoon.
"It's premature to call him a suspect," Mr. Zappala said. "I doubt we'll get the information from these warrants and have time to charge anyone" Wednesday night.
Officers from the city's Zone 5 station in Highland Park had taped off the area around the home in the 700 block of Chislett that Sarah Wolfe purchased in December. They also blocked off homes beside the sisters' residence.
Around 10:40 p.m., a number of homicide detectives and Major Crimes Lt. Kevin Kraus and Lt. Daniel Herrmann were at the scene and the police bureau's Mobile Crime Unit arrived at the house. Detectives carrying folders, possibly containing a search warrant, entered the couple's house. Shortly after midnight, detectives removed three brown paper bags, possibly containing evidence, from the building. The rest of the crime unit left a half-hour later.
The search warrant was expected to cover the couple's first-floor apartment in the triplex unit and the communal basement.
Detectives and prosecutors were said to be carefully vetting the search warrant application ensuring that it was airtight before presenting it to a Common Pleas Court judge.
The man, who was not identified by police, was taken to police headquarters on the North Side in the afternoon and was said to have gone willingly. Hours later, shortly before 8 p.m., two homicide detectives escorted his girlfriend to their car and took her in for questioning as well.
The girlfriend's mother was on scene first at Chislett Street and then at police headquarters, where she arrived shortly before 10 p.m. saying she wanted to know how long police would be keeping her daughter.
The woman said her daughter had come home from work for lunch and was relieved to see police in the neighborhood.
When officers came to her door, though, she quickly learned they were there for her boyfriend, said the woman, who asked not to be identified.
"He said he was willing to go talk to them," the woman said she was told by her daughter.
She said her daughter was willing to comply with a request by police to search the house. But she advised her daughter to wait for a warrant.
"She's very upset," the woman said. "She don't have a clue what's going on and rightfully so."
The woman said her daughter's boyfriend was unemployed and suffering from medical ailments. He walks with a cane. She said he recently got out of the hospital. The couple had been living in the house for about six months.
"He's just a nice guy, a very, very nice guy," she said. "He made some bad decisions when he was young, but that don't mean you pay for them for the rest of your life."
She said she did not know the man to have a gun. Both sisters were shot once in the head.
A second-floor tenant of 703 Chislett who also did not want to be named said police appeared to be interested in the house's basement because officers asked her to avoid it.
"They just asked us to please not go in there," the woman said. "There's a lot of rooms down there."
The woman, who lives with her son, said there are also tenants on the third floor, a mother and daughter.
Police have been on high alert since the killings of the sisters in a middle-class neighborhood that is in transition.
Around 10:30 Wednesday morning, one of those officers, a lieutenant, spotted the man later taken in for questioning and believed he matched the image from the surveillance video from a Sunoco gas station less than a mile away.
Over the past two weeks, detectives had recovered both video and garbage bags from the premises.
The supervisor did a "field contact," identifying the man, but did not have the wherewithal to detain him because there was nothing linking him to Chislett. They were several blocks from the crime scene and the man's identification indicated that he lived in Wilkinsburg.
The lieutenant notified detectives.
Things changed later in the day when a different officer spotted the man and thought he matched the surveillance video. This time, though, the man was seen returning to his home -- the first-floor apartment right next door to the Wolfe sisters.
Homicide detectives were called. They identified the man as the person they were looking for.
A man living in that unit whose name and description matched that of the person being questioned by police told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Tuesday that he did not hear any commotion or gunshots at the home Feb. 7.
Susan and Sarah Wolfe were found dead in the basement of their home that day.
Susan, a 44-year-old teacher's aide, was naked. Chemicals had been poured over her body. Sarah, a 38-year-old psychiatrist, was found clothed nearby.
Investigators said each of the women sustained a single gunshot wound to the head and sustained additional injuries, according to the Allegheny County medical examiner.
Surveillance footage factored heavily into the investigation. In addition to the video from the Sunoco in the 500 block of North Highland Avenue, officers had footage from the Carnegie Library's East Liberty branch, near where police found Sarah Wolfe's lime-green Ford Fiesta parked early Feb. 8. They also obtained video from a nearby shoe store.
A different man whose image was captured in a video from a Port Authority bus taken by Susan Wolfe on Feb. 6, the last night she was seen alive, spoke with police Tuesday. Police said he is not considered a suspect.
Sarah Wolfe was a psychiatrist at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic. Susan Wolfe worked as a teacher's aide at Hillel Academy in Squirrel Hill.
Susan Wolfe left work about 5 p.m. the day before she and her sister were found dead. Susan Wolfe told a co-worker she had an appointment that night but did not provide further detail, and police have not discussed the meeting.
Lexi Belculfine contributed. Jonathan D. Silver: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1962 or on Twitter @jsilverpg. Liz Navratil: email@example.com, 412-263-1438 or on Twitter @LizNavratil. Paula Reed Ward: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-2620 or on Twitter @PaulaReedWard. First Published February 19, 2014 6:40 PM