Forty-five years ago last Wednesday — on New Year’s Eve 1969 — the murders of United Mine Workers of America dissident Joseph Albert “Jock” Yablonski, 59; his wife, Margaret, 59; and their daughter, Charlotte, 25, were carried out by three men acting under orders from then-UMWA President W.A. “Tony” Boyle.
Eventually, the case would have a strong Letcher County connection.
The murders occurred around 1 a.m. after the Yablonskis had gone to bed in their 200-year-old home in Clarksville, Washington County, Pennsylvania. One of Yablonski’s two sons, Kenneth, found the bodies of his parents and his sister five days after they were shot to death with bullets fired from a .38-caliber revolver and a .30-caliber carbine rifle.
Near the 30th anniversary of the Yablonski killings — on December 26, 1999 —the Philadelphia Inquirer offered this harrowing description of three hit men entering the Yablonski home, walking up to the second floor bedrooms, and carrying out the assassinations after cutting the electricity:
“As the gruff union reformer and his wife and daughter slept … the family’s friendly dog, Rascal, was in the house but didn’t bark. The men stepped into the bedrooms.
“Charlotte Yablonski was killed first, shot twice in her bed. At the sound of the shots, Margaret Yablonski awoke in the master bedroom and screamed. She was killed next.
“Jock Yablonski was cut down by five bullets as he apparently tried to grasp a shotgun that he kept near his bed.
“When silence settled over the house again, the killers, juiced up on beer and whiskey, lumbered down the stairs and disappeared.”
As current FOX News political analyst Brit Hume told The Daily Mail in Charleston, West Virginia for an anniversary story appearing last week, “We all knew in our bones at the time that the union hierarchy was behind this but we couldn’t prove it.” Hume is regarded as an expert on the case, having written the highly-acclaimed book, “Death and the Mines: Rebellion and Murder in the United Mine Workers,” that traced the rise of Yablonski as a force for change in the union, beginning with the Farmington, W.Va., underground mine disaster that killed 78 men on the morning of November 20, 1968.
Less than a month after the Yablonskis were killed, the three gunmen were identified as 35-year-old Paul Gilly, 19- year- old Aubran Wayne “ Buddy” Martin, and 25- year- old Claude Edward Vealey, all of Cleveland, Ohio. Gilley, an out-of-work housepainter had ties to the UMW through his father-in-law, who was president of a UMW local district.
The three killers would become known in the press as the “Hillbilly Hit Men.”
The slayings occurred just three weeks after Yablonski lost an effort to unseat UMW President William Anthony “Tony” Boyle in the December 9, 1969 union election and just as Yablonski and his supporters were preparing to take evidence of “massive election fraud” to the U.S. Secretary of Labor.
According to the Philadelphia Inquirer’s December 1999 report, it was an astute observation by Jock Yablonski that helped catch his three direct killers and led to the convictions of six others who would also be charged in connection with the murders.
“Several days before the crime, the killers had attracted Yablonski’s attention while driving past his property,” the Inquirer said. “They seemed to be casing the place. Yablonski had recorded their license plate number on a yellow pad that the police later found on his desk. The number was traced to (Paul) Gilly’s wife, Annette.”
Annette Gilly was soon charged in the murder-for-hire scheme, as was her father, 62-year-old Silous Huddleston, president of the 75-member UMW Local 3228 in LaFollette, Tenn., where Boyle had defeated Yablonski in union’s international election, 61 votes to 0.
On March 2, 1972, Paul Gilly was sentenced to death in the electric chair after a jury in Washington County, Pennsylvania convicted him on three counts of first-degree murder in the Yablonski slayings. Gilly was the second of five initial suspects in the case to be tried and found guilty. Aubran Wayne Martin was also sentenced to death after a jury found him guilty in November 1971. The third “hillbilly hit man,” Claude Vealey, confessed to the crimes on June 23, 1971 and gave a statement to prosecutors in which he implicated the others. Vealey told authorities that Paul Gilly had told him that a man named “Tony” was willing to pay $2,400 to have Jock Yablonski killed.
While awaiting their trials in the spring of 1972, Annette Gilly and Huddleston pleaded guilty to recruiting Paul Gilly, Martin and Vealey to commit the Yablonski murders. Both daughter and father also testified they were acting under the orders of UMW official William J. “Bill” Prater of LaFollette, Tenn., field director for the UMWA’s District 19, which covered all of Tennessee and eastern Kentucky, and Albert Edward Pass, a well-known former Letcher County resident who was secretary-treasurer of District 19 and a member of the union’s International Executive Board.
Prater and Pass were indicted on murder charges in July 1972. The day after Prater was convicted of three counts of murder at the end of his trial on March 26, 1973, he confessed to his role in the crimes and, at the urging of his family, agreed to testify against Pass, who was raised in the McRoberts and Fleming area before moving to Jellico, Tenn., and eventually to Middlesboro, Ky.
The case against the then-54-yearold Pass, who had been a longtime friend and colleague of Prater, went to trial in May 1973. Under questioning by Special Prosecutor Richard A. Sprague, who at the time was the top district attorney for the City of Philadelphia, Prater testified that Pass obtained money to pay for the murders by converting a $20,000 organizing loan from Boyle through a kickback scheme involving UMWA members from Kentucky who were not aware of the planned murders. Prater said that Pass instructed him to arrange the murders, and testified that Pass was the person who gave the money to Silous Huddleston to pay to his son-in-law and the other two killers.
On June 19, 1973, 15 days after his trial began, Pass was convicted of first-degree murder for his role in the Yablonski murders.
Despite that finding by the jury, also in Washington County, Pa., the wife of Pass, Letcher County native Beulah Mae Collins Pass, told reporters that she hadn’t “given up.”
“We know he isn’t guilty,” Mrs. Pass added.
Mr. Pass’s trial ended with him being the only defendant in the triple-murder who did not agree to help authorities build their case against Boyle, a Montana native who had been promoted to the top ranks of the miner’s union by its legendary president, John L. Lewis, and was Lewis’s choice to succeed him in power.
Still, prosecutors promised to make “at least one more arrest” when discussing the conviction of Pass.
“ We do not intend to stop with this conviction,” said Prosecutor Sprague. “It was obvious from the trial testimony that someone in Washington gave the green light to Pass.”
On September 6, 1973, Boyle — who at one time had offered a $50,000 reward from the UMWA for information leading to the convictions of the Yablonski killers — was charged with the three murders. His well-publicized trial (Boyle at one point overdosed on barbiturates) ended with a conviction on April 11, 1974. The convictions were overturned in January 1977, but Boyle was convicted a second time in February 1978.
Who was Albert Pass and what were his Letcher County connections?
A decade before he was implicated in the Yablonski murders, Albert Pass appeared to be just one of many former Letcher County residents who were forced to move elsewhere to earn their living because of this region’s slumping coal industry.
According to available records, Albert Pass received an early mention in The Mountain Eagle on March 4, 1943, when Pauline Estes wrote in her Fleming News that, “ Mr. and Mrs. Albert Pass and small daughter of Jellico, Tenn., were weekend guests of Mr. Pass’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. N.B. Pass.”
Subsequent columns by Ms. Estes and others show the Pass family to be popular, well-respected, and close to each other while living in what were then the major coal producing areas of Letcher County — Fleming and Jenkins.
A small item carried in the Jenkins news in 1953 said that Teddy Pass, son of Mr. and Mrs. Ted Pass, was visiting his uncle and aunt, Mr. and Mrs. Albert Pass, who by then had moved from Jellico to Middlesboro.
On February 22, 1962, The Eagle’s Fleming-Neon correspondent, Maggie Corello Gish, wrote that Albert and Beulah Mae Pass had returned to Letcher County from Middlesboro on February 18 to celebrate the 66th birthday of Albert’s father, N.B. Pass. Beulah Pass made the cake for the celebration.
Tragedy hit the Pass family hard on two occasions — first in December 1965 and again less than a year later.
On December 4, 1965, a Saturday morning, Albert Pass’s sister, Mrs. Barbara Pass Ryan, died at only 38 years of age when she was badly burned in an explosion and fire that destroyed the Haymond Cash Store in Haymond, where she was employed.
A report appearing on the front page of the December 9, 1965 edition of The Eagle says that Mrs. Ryan died at the Jenkins Clinic Hospital about six hours after she was burned over 95 percent of her body.
“ She remained conscious until only a few minutes before her death and was able to tell some details of the fire,” The Eagle reported. “She had opened the door of a heating stove in which the fire had been banked the night before and had started to poke up the fire, when flames erupted from the stove.
“Apparently, the fire burst into flame when air hit it, firemen said, and the leaping flames ignited a can of oil used to oil floors, which had been sitting behind the stove. The fire began about 8:15 a.m. and continued burning until about 12:30 p.m. Mrs. Ryan made her way from the building,” which was destroyed.
Mrs. Ryan was born at McRoberts. In addition to her parents, N.B. and Rachel Murray Pass, and her brothers Albert and Ted, she also left behind brothers Joe Pass and Tommy Pass. She was very active in community projects including Little League baseball and support for the Neon Volunteer Fire Department.
Tragedy again hit the Pass family late on Friday, May 20, 1966, when the 19-year-old son of Albert and Beulah Collins Pass was one of five persons killed — four of them teen-agers — in a two-car wreck on U.S. 160 at Morehead.
Three of the dead, including Denny Lee Pass of Middlesboro, were students at Morehead State College. Kentucky State Police said the crash occurred after one of the vehicles skidded across the highway’s centerline. Both drivers survived the wreck. The oldest person killed was a 21- year- old woman. The mishap also left five others injured and hospitalized.
Interestingly, The Eagle made no mention of Albert Pass or his role in the Yablonski slayings in its coverage of the Yablonski slayings. That oversight most likely occurred because the paper’s editor and publisher, Thomas E. Gish, then 44, had suffered a major heart attack that resulted in his undergoing heart bypass surgery that was still rare at the time and required an unusually large amount of time for rehabilitation when compared to today’s standards.
Rather than devote its limited resources to the coverage of the trials of the eight men and one woman implicated in the Yablonski slayings, The Eagle used its space to report on the positive reforms that began occurring rapidly in the UMWA after Boyle lost his stronghold on the organization and was replaced by Arnold W. Miller.
Under Miller’s presidency, the union dropped its opposition to the proposed federal black lung legislation it had — incredibly — fought so hard to prevent under Boyle.
According to a report in the September 17, 1973 edition of Time magazine, Pass became involved in the conspiracy to murder Yablonski, a strong supporter of black lung laws and benefits for miners, after Pass and Turnblazer were present for a shouting match between Yablonski and Boyle that occurred during a meeting at UMWA headquarters on June 23, 1969. According to Turnblazer, Boyle turned to him and Pass and said, “This guy is going to murder us.” Turnblazer said Boyle then said Yablonski “ought to be killed or done away with.”
According to the Time report, Turnblazer said that three weeks after the shouting match between Yablonski and Boyle, Pass returned to District 19 headquarters from a trip to Washington, D.C., and confirmed that he and Boyle had figured out a way to finance the killings with $20,000 in union funds they would help embezzle.
A 1977 Pennsylvania Supreme Court document says that Turnblazer testified in court that “He [Boyle] said, ‘We are in a fight, we have got to kill Yablonski or take care of him.’” The document also said that Turnblazer told jurors that, “Mr. Pass said that if nobody else would kill him, ‘District 19 would’ and that Boyle said ‘fine.’”
Today, Gilly, now 81, is the only one of the three “hillbilly hit men” still alive. Vealey and Martin died in prison, as did Pass and Prater.
Common Pleas Court Judge Charles G. Sweet, who supervised the cases of most of the nine charged in the Yablonski murders, granted probation to Annette Gilley and Silous Huddleston after they cooperated with the prosecution. He also dropped the murder charges against Turnblazer after he testified against Boyle. Judge Sweet died at a nursing home in Tampa, Florida on Oct. 31, 1999. He was 81.
Boyle died in prison on