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George Joseph CVEK






A.K.A.: "The Aspirin Bandit"
Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Robberies - Rape
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: February 5, 1941
Date of birth: 1917
Victim profile: Catherine Pappas, 29
Method of murder: Strangulation with a towel
Location: Bronx, New York, USA
Status: Executed by electrocution in New York on February 26, 1942
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The aspirin bandit

By Mara Bovsun -

Saturday, March 22nd 2008

One thing was certain: This victim would never have opened her door to a stranger.

The dead woman was Catherine Pappas, the 29-year-old wife of a prosperous coffee importer, two decades her senior. Newly immigrated from Alexandria, Egypt, the pretty brunette, known as Kitty, rarely spoke to her neighbors and seldom stepped outside, unless she was heading to the Greek Orthodox church a few blocks from her apartment on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx. Even shopping could not lure her out of her apartment. She had all of her groceries and clothes delivered.

"The Egyptian Princess" was how her neighbors referred to the quiet, aloof beauty.

Terrified of strangers, Kitty would never dream of opening the door without first scrutinizing the caller through the peephole, her husband, John, told police.

Yet, when he returned home on Feb. 5, 1941, and found his wife strangled in the bedroom, the scene in the living room suggested that she had spent the afternoon sipping coffee and brandy with her murderer.

Two coffee cups and saucers, from the couple's finest china, were set out on a serving table, next to a plate of cookies and two partly filled wine glasses. A picture from the Pappas wedding two years earlier had been left on a chair. It was usually hanging over the dresser, and police figured that Kitty must have taken it down to show it to her guest.

A bottle of aspirin and a water glass were on another small table.

A cup of coffee, and murder

The killer had apparently attacked her after they had chatted over coffee. There were signs of a struggle - an overturned lamp - in the living room. Then he had dragged her to the bedroom, stuffed his handkerchief in her mouth, and bound her hands with his necktie and her legs with a kitchen towel. The murder weapon was another towel, tightened around her throat. She had not been raped.

He had made off with jewelry, including her wedding ring, a gold crucifix, $50 in cash and a silver cigarette case. But he had left behind a pack of cigarettes and, most importantly, a clear set of fingerprints on the water glass.

It had all the earmarks of a phantom cops were calling "the Aspirin Bandit." In the past three months, he had attacked two other local women, each time asking for aspirin before he jumped them. Both times he took money and jewels, but no lives.

The first was in November, when a couple had picked up a hitchhiker on the Pulaski Skyway. The young man introduced himself as John Mitchell, and said he was the mayor of Boys Town, the famous Nebraska refuge for youths founded by Father Edward Flanagan. Mitchell told the couple that he was heading north to find his sister, who had been seriously injured in a car wreck in Maine. Along with the ride, the couple offered him some cash. He reluctantly took it, but insisted on writing down their address so that he could pay them back.

A few days later, Mitchell was knocking at their door in the afternoon, when the husband was out at work. After the wife fed her visitor lunch, he complained of a headache. As she was reaching for the aspirin, he slipped his arm around her throat, bound her with her husband's ties, and raped her.

Another couple that picked up a hitchhiker told an almost identical story. They gave him a ride, money and sympathy. He later showed up at their apartment when the husband was at work, then asked for aspirin before tying her up and stealing her fur coat.

Both couples described a stocky young man, about 6 feet tall, with a scarred lip and pimples. They also said that he had been wearing a garish green striped coat and yellow shoes.

Pappas did not have a car, and so could not have given a lift to a hitchhiker. But everything else matched the pattern of the Aspirin Bandit. Once the Pappas murder hit the papers, and others came forth to tell of other frightening encounters, detectives were certain that he was the killer.

One woman told police that, just before the Pappas murder, a stranger had knocked on her door, said he was a friend of her husband and launched into his tear-jerking tale. She knew the young man had to be lying. Her husband had been in the grave for years.

It was conceivable that Mrs. Pappas had believed that the man at the door was her husband's friend, and worthy of her hospitality.

Attacker's trail of tears

New York detectives followed the lead, and found a string of attacks from Maine to Delaware. Some were simple robberies, others horrible assaults. In Philadelphia, Edward Wagner and his pregnant wife, Catherine, 20, had picked up a hitchhiker shortly after the Pappas murder. The stranger later showed up at his home, ate lunch, then raped Mrs. Wagner, causing her to miscarry.

There were at least 20 accounts of a young man in a green coat who sobbed out the same hard-luck tale, wormed his way into a home, and attacked, with or without aspirin.

In his attempt to impress his victims, the bandit would talk of his close ties to Father Flanagan, and would sometimes try to prove it by dropping a postcard in the mail to the head of Boys Town. There was, police learned, a stack of these odd messages at the Nebraska refuge. They were easy to identify, because the bandit had misspelled Flanagan's name.

From these, police gained one of two critical clues - a handwriting sample. The second clue, the fingerprint from the glass in the Pappas' apartment, had yielded a name - George Joseph Cvek, 23, a petty crook with a long record.

'He's always been bad'

Figuring that their quarry was most likely a vagabond, New York City Detectives Fred Durant, Edward Gillon and Edward Mahon focused their efforts on Salvation Army shelters and cheap hotels, comparing the handwriting on the Boys Town postcards to names in registries.

At the Mills Hotel, on 36th St. and Seventh Ave., they found a match - a guest named Jack Mitchell, one of the aliases Cvek had frequently used.

Disguised as desk clerks, the detectives waited. Around 9 p.m., a strapping youth, with a scarred lip and pimples and wearing a green coat and yellow shoes, sauntered into the lobby, and the cops grabbed him.

Before dawn, Cvek had confessed to dozens of crimes, including the murder of Kitty Pappas. He said that he had picked her address at random, and used the "friend of your husband" lie to gain her trust and entry into the apartment. But he insisted that he didn't mean to hurt her. Her death was an accident.

"I put my arm around her, she screamed. I grabbed her. We were on the floor," he told police. "I hit her on the side a few times. When she didn't move, I knew she was dead."

Back in his hometown of Steelton, Pa., Cvek's family couldn't even pretend to be surprised. "He's my boy and I don't want to see him die in the electric chair, but I don't feel much sympathy for him. He's always been bad. To me, he's always been a headache," said his widowed, worn-out ma, Barbara Cvek. He was just 10 when his father hauled him into juvenile court for the first time, complaining that the boy was disobedient, surly and thieving. None of the clan's hard-earned money was safe when George was around.

On May 19, 1941, a jury composed of Bronx businessmen took 20 minutes to decide to give the Aspirin Bandit a sentence that would end his pain for good. Cvek died in the electric chair on Feb. 26, 1942.


Photo Illustration by Charles George



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