Police and spectators crouch down during the Chicken Hill Shootout in 1959
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Previous ‘This Used To Be Here’ Posts have looked at objects that used to exist in Pittsburgh, but today’s look is at an event in Pittsburgh’s past that may not be as well-known to many Pittsburghers below a certain age. A loyal TPOP reader asked me if I ever heard about the Chicken Hill Shootout. I had not, so I was intrigued to delve deep into a rabbit hole of research.
On a stiflingly hot day on July 23, 1959, two men robbed a bank in the Hays neighborhood of Pittsburgh. Hays itself is an interesting and overlooked area of the City, as it surrounds Hays Woods, a 635-acre parcel of undeveloped land that has waterfalls and multiple streams. After the robbery of $27,000, a police chase ensued through the South Hills, which isn’t surprising considering that with inflation $27,000 would be worth $219,000 in 2015.
The two robbers, Joseph Gaito and Edward Kern, busted through a police blockade on Greentree Road, then pulled onto a dirt road called Junius Street. They abandoned their car and fled up a wooded hillside. Once up there, they dug in and started a wild shootout with the assembled police below them. Over 200 policemen were involved plus a helicopter and snipers, all in view of the general populace from the Parkway West, Saw Mill Run Boulevard, and Wabash Avenue.
Two police were shot in the fracas, with one of them not expected to initially pull through, but he did. As for the two criminals, Joseph Gaito served 17 years in prison and became known as the Chicken Hill Bandit. Gaito made crime his career after his release, as he was suspected (but never convicted) in the murder of his estranged wife in 1976, a supermarket robbery in 1982, and for good measure a bank in 1993.
I went to Junius Street to see what the scene looks like today. Junius Street is like the land that time forgot. Or in this case, the City of Pittsburgh. Judging by the condition of the asphalt, it looks like this road has only been paved once since the Chicken Hill Shootout.
Nature has taken over Junius Street and the surrounding area. The vegetation now mostly obscures the sight lines that the general public had back in 1959. It’s no longer possible to see Junius clearly from Saw Mill Run Boulevard (where the police were hiding behind the cars in the lead picture of the article).
The Chicken Hill Shootout feels quaint to me by today’s 2015 police standards. Two policemen were shot — virtually every policeman in a situation like this today would be wearing body armor. SWAT would have been called in with an armored vehicle in support. Sharpshooters may have taken the bandits out after setting up on the train trestle. Everything was different and simpler back in 1959, even armed standoffs.