1964: Club owner, hit man turn Center City dive into a murder scene

Jack_Lopinson_leaves_City_Hall_with_police
Walking on crutches, Jack Lopinson is flanked by police officers in City Hall after he was held without bail in the slaying of his wife, Judy, and his business partner, Joseph Malito. July 15, 1964.

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The jukebox stopped mid-song.

Frank “Birdman” Phelan was crouching in the basement of Dante’s, a nightclub-restaurant at 18th and Chestnut Streets. He held a .32-caliber revolver in one hand and a .38-caliber revolver in the other.

After a 10-second pause, a different record started playing.  

That was the signal.

At the bar upstairs, the joint’s owner sipped whiskey and waited for his signal -- confirmation that his business partner and wife were dead.  

The plot

Jack Lopinson, then 27, had planned the hit on his wife and his partner weeks before, in June 1964. If there was a motive, it never came out during his trial, which was splashed across newspaper pages and gossiped about for years afterward.

He hired "Birdman," a 26-year-old who had worked as a collection agent in Lopinson's loan-shark business. Phelan likened himself to the movie star Burt Lancaster, and adapted his nickname from Lancaster's 1962 hit movie, Birdman of Alcatraz.

Lopinson told Phelan he would pay him $10,000 to do the job, at his own restaurant at 1809 Chestnut. He wanted to be there when it happened.

Lopinson and his wife, Judy, had been married for two years. They bought the place in August 1963, and created an anything-goes vibe that appealed to the after-work crowd as well as beatniks and gangsters. Joseph “Joey Flowers” Malito was a partner, but it was Lopinson’s place.

Judy had said the bar was designed to elicit a “raising-hell atmosphere,” depicted in a 74-foot mural she and a few creative friends painted inside the restaurant. It was a scene evoking the restaurant’s name, which led newspapers to dub the joint “Dante’s Inferno.”

Hours before the hit, Judy was with her mom and dad at the restaurant, celebrating her dad’s birthday.

It was Judy’s last meal.

The hit

Around 3 a.m., Phelan entered the bar through a rear door.

Judy and Malito came downstairs, separately, and entered the basement office.

Phelan heard a specific record spin on the jukebox in the first-floor dining room, indicating the coast was clear. He floated into the office.

Malito was kneeling in front of an open floor safe.

Judy was sitting in the chair behind the desk.

Phelan fired at Malito first.

Then he shot Judy twice in the face.

And then he shot again at Malito, who fell over, convulsing on the floor.

Judy slumped forward on the desk, her face resting on her forearm.

“Frank, Frank,” Judy cried, calling out her murderer by name. “What happened?”

“Just take it easy,” he said. “Everything will be all right.”

Cautiously, he went upstairs and found Jack. He washed his hands and they went back down together.

Upon seeing the scene, both bodies convulsing, Jack told Phelan to shoot them again.

The hit man pumped two more shots into Judy, and shot Malito once more.

After checking to make sure the doors were locked, the two men sat upstairs, drinking more whiskey.

Jack praised Phelan’s work, told him, “It was a good job.”  

But their plan wasn’t over.

The cover-up

In the main dining room, Phelan shot Jack in the left thigh as his alibi.

He tried to make it look like Jack survived a mob hit, while the others didn’t.

Jack fell to the floor. Phelan checked to make sure he was conscious, then drove down to the Delaware River and threw the guns into the water.

Jack Lopinson called for help shortly before 4 a.m. It was an awkward phone call in which he did not identify himself.

“There’s been two people shot here,” he told the operator. “I think they’re dead. You better send somebody.”

Police found Lopinson in the office chair behind the desk; two bodies laying on the other side of the desk; papers and envelopes scattered about the floor.

He mumbled: “Holdup, holdup … two white men, one was a short fat man," and then lapsed into hysterics, police said.

The inferno

Lopinson gained sympathy and was painted as the victim of a senseless tragedy.

But police didn’t buy it.

As detectives challenged the evidence, Lopinson became uncooperative. They learned about the loan-shark business, and found a black book filled with "names of girls, phone numbers, exciting physical descriptions and sums of money."

When a medical examiner's inquest was held in mid-July 1964, an acquaintance of Lopinson's testified that he had spoken of wanting to ''get rid of" his wife and had boasted of knowing a hit man who could do the job.

The smoking gun, though, was the bullet wound in his thigh.

A police chemist identified powder burns and called it “self-inflicted.”

Around the same time, Phelan got into a fight with a police officer and was thrown into Holmesburg Prison. There, he told police he wanted to share his secret.

The seven-week trial pitted two legal titans — Richard A. Sprague, then an assistant district attorney, and A. Charles Peruto Sr., the court-appointed defense attorney.

In the end, both Phelan and Lopinson were sentenced to death, but both appealed successfully  to serve life sentences.

For years, Lopinson protested his innocence and denied any involvement in the murders. But in 1993, when he filed his fifth petition for clemency before the state Board of Pardons, he finally admitted his guilt.

In the petition, he said he had "made my peace with God" and had "gained the inner strength to accept fully the responsibility for my crimes and to truly feel remorse for those unconscionable acts."

The petition was denied.

Lopinson died of cancer in April 2002 at Graterford Prison. He was 64.

Phelan, 77, is still serving his life sentence at Fayette County Prison.

The lawyer who defended Lopinson years earlier was caught off guard by the admission of guilt.

"I'm surprised,” Peruto told the Inquirer in 1993, “because he always maintained his innocence with me.”


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