The Brutal Axe Murder of Katherine Babchak

Tuesday, February 15—Wednesday, February 16, 1949
Warren, Ohio

Katherine Babchak came home on a snowless winter night to the home she shared with her husband Steve and a boarder. The 64-year-old had been at her favorite retreat, the Slovak Club on Washington St. NW, helping out with a mock wedding. Once inside, she walked into her kitchen and before she had the chance to remove her coat, she was ambushed; the light in her eyes forever dimmed.

Steve and Katherine’s home on Youngstown Rd., SE.
The 2,480 square foot house was built in 1890.
This is a private residence.

Katherine, the daughter of Andrew Urbancik, had married Steve Babchak in 1902 in New York, both immigrants of Czechoslovakia. They had come to Warren seven years prior from Redstone Twp., Fayette County, Pennsylvania, where Steve worked as a farmer and they raised their six children, Mary, Emily, Joseph, Stephen Jr., John, and Frank. They had come to Pennsylvania from New York where their eldest child, Mary, had been born. While living in Warren, Steve was co-owner at the V.E. Gillette Farm on Warren-Meadville Rd. outside of the city. He spent most of his time away from home, working on the farm.

Charles Ferguson arrived at the house around 12:20 a.m., heading to the upstairs room he rented from the Babchaks. On his way in, he noticed 75-year-old Steve standing in the narrow first floor hallway and only five minutes after Charles walked into his room, he was called back downstairs. Despite the late hour, Charles obliged his landlord by meeting him in the kitchen. There, Steve presented the body of his wife splayed across the floor in a pool of blood. 

Charles immediately called Dr. Hyde Storey, a neighbor, who rushed to the gruesome scene in the hopes he could save her. He examined her and discovered that the blood had spilled from wounds on her head. Unfortunately, there was nothing he could do for her. After confirming she was deceased, Dr. Storey called police who arrived at 12:45 a.m. The serviceman on that call were Captain J. Sullivan, Sgt. Harry Thomas, and Patrolman Herbert Rising. They found Katherine with her head nestled on a large white pillow and her husband sitting quietly beside her on the floor. Steve had blood on his hands, slippers, socks, and arms and his pants were wet.

Police probed for answers, but could not immediately discern what had occurred. Charles told them what little he knew, but when police questioned Steve they discovered he spoke very little English. He was taken to police headquarters where Chief Johnson called in the Homicide Bureau of detectives: Sgt. John Lepola, Andrew Bokros, Walter Mackey, and John Stephens. 

Tribune, Feb 16, 1949 8:3

Detective Bokros spoke the Slovak language and was able to communicate with Steve. The questioning lasted five hours and Steve initially denied harming his wife. However, the interrogation ended with Steve signing a statement confessing to murder. Steve said that he and Katherine had quarreled before she left for the Slovak club because Steve was not happy about her leaving the house. She had told him she was going to church, but he became suspicious when she headed towards town and not in the direction of church. She instead went to the Slovak club to participate in a practice for an upcoming wedding. 

Meanwhile, Steve went out to a café and drank a glass of beer and wine. When he was finished, he returned home where he waited for Katherine, but provided little information after that point. As Steve related this account to Det. Bokros, he showed absolutely no remorse and said that he had killed his wife simply “because she came home late”.

Katherine’s body was taken to Southside Hospital in Youngstown where Trumbull County Coroner Michael Cristo performed the autopsy. She had been struck in the head three times by the blunt end of an axe. The blows had opened a two-inch-long ragged cut in the back of her head and she had died from traumatic shock due to a severe brain injury. Her body was then taken to Gillen’s Funeral Home for embalming. The coroner filed the charge of murder in the first degree on Feb. 16.

During an inventory of the home, the short-handled axe used in the murder was found tossed on a pile of newspapers in the basement, flesh and hair attached to its edge. The side of the axe used in the murder was not the sharp end, but the pounding edge on the opposite side. Katherine’s blood spattered glasses were on the kitchen table and her coat was in the bedroom. Her front door key was discovered on the kitchen floor, probably where she dropped them when the surprise attack had been made. All of the evidence was taken to the Cleveland Police Department to be analyzed.

At a hearing held the day following, State Patrolman John Mundrick served as interpreter for Steve who offered more details on the night of Katherine’s murder. He said that Katherine had left for the Slovak Club after 6 p.m. and returned after 10 p.m. Steve was in the bedroom when he heard her come in the front door. He put on a shirt and pants and followed his wife into the kitchen with the axe where he struck her once. She immediately fell to the floor where he removed her coat, taking it to their bedroom and picked up her glasses, placing them on the kitchen table. He then stood over her and issued two more blows to her head as she lay helpless.

This information shows a clear case of premeditation with intent to kill. Steve had not hit Katherine in a blind rage, but had waited for her return home with his axe handy. Not only did he hit her once, but he returned to the body after removing her coat and hit her twice more, perhaps because she was either noticeably still alive or he wanted to make doubly sure she was dead. For someone to do this to a person they had been married to for almost five decades and had six children with speaks of Steve’s cold, unfeeling manner. Did he even offer Katherine an explanation before taking her life? Reprimand her harshly before swinging the axe; a series of terse words on her evening whereabouts or did he creep up behind her silently like a serpent waiting to strike?

Katherine’s body was taken to the family residence where family and friends came to say goodbye. A private funeral service took place Saturday, February 19that Saints Cyril and Methodius Church where Katherine had been a member. At first, the question of whether Steve could attend the services was dubious, but he was ultimately contained behind bars during the rites. It was shockingly a member of the family that requested Steve receive allowance to attend, but Judge Lynn B. Griffith denied permission. Why give Steve the right to attend his wife’s funeral, when he had stolen her right to live?

“I felt that Babchak had no business at the funeral services for his wife,” Judge Griffith commented. 

Surely, Steve’s presence at the funeral would have been highly inappropriate and what, I wonder, was passing through the minds of their six grown children who came from New York and Los Angeles to grieve their mother? In the unspeakable horror, did their deepest fear come true? Had they constantly worried their father would someday hurt their mother to a degree beyond healing or were they instead caught off guard, thinking violence was out of character for their father? Perhaps they had tried to persuade their mother to leave their father, but her Catholic faith frowned on divorce.

This leads to my big question: Did Steve had a history of domestic violence? In most cases of one spouse murdering the other, we see a buildup of spousal abuse through the years, with each episode growing increasingly more violent. I could not find any record of Steve committing domestic violence against Katherine, but that doesn’t mean it never happened. 

Steve spent the following months at the Trumbull County Jail, a building of brick and stone so ancient and crumbling that the poor conditions were mentioned at Steve’s arraignment. Steve was represented by attorney M. Francis Connor and the Prosecutor was W.M. McLain. His arraignment before Common Pleas Judge G.H. Birrell occurred April 13thand he plead “not guilty”. Shortly after, Attorney Connor changed Steve’s plea to “guilty” on behalf of his client, waiving the right to a jury trial. The court decided a three judge trial was necessary. 

On April 23, 1949, Judge Arthur L. Cooper of Steubenville was appointed to sit with Judges Lynn B. Griffith and G.H. Birrell at Steve’s trial in Warren, Ohio. On April 29th, at the Trumbull County Court of Common Pleas in Warren, the judges observed the elderly man before them and recommended mercy. Without this proposal, Steve could face execution in the electric chair. At last, the judges announced their verdict and Steve was convicted of murder in the first degree and sentenced to life in the Ohio State Penitentiary. Steve’s face was void of emotion upon hearing his fate.

Just a few years later on September 19, 1953, Steve died at the Ohio State Penitentiary from stomach cancer. His autopsy also found cerebral arteriosclerosis with senile psychosis. Before the 1960s, senile dementia was thought to be caused by cerebral arteriosclerosis, but this was disproved during the 1960’s and 1970’s. Perhaps Steve exhibited signs of dementia during his incarceration that was not noticeable during the trial. If that was the case, perhaps it would explain why Steve would violently murder his wife simply because she missed her curfew.

Both Steve and Katherine are buried at St. Mary’s Cemetery in Warren, OH. You may pay your respects here and here.

Other notes of interest relating to the case:

  • Babchak’s crime was the first murder to take place in Warren in four years; on July 4, 1945 George Wheeler killed his son Clifford. In modern day, this length of time between murders would be unheard of in the city as Warren currently has one of the highest crime rates in America.
  • Steve’s defense attorney M. Francis Connor went on to be a municipal judge. 
  • The Trumbull County Jail where Steve was incarcerated while awaiting trial became infamous in the 1950’s and 60’s for the amount of prisoners who were able to break through the decrepit walls and escape.
  • The Slovak Club building on the corner of Washington St. NW and North Park Ave. is no longer standing.
  • Not only was Katherine member of the Slovak Club and Saints Cyril and Methodius Church, but she was also a member of the Altar and Rosary Society of the Jednota. She had a large circle of friends who mourned her passing.


“City Man Charged With Killing Wife” Katherine Babchak, Warren Tribune Chronicle Feb 16, 1949 Front Page Headline

“Admits He Struck Her With Axe” Warren Tribune Chronicle Feb 16, 1949 1:8

“Babchak is Held to Grand Jury” Warren Tribune Feb 17, 1949 1:3

“Funeral is Held for Slain Woman” Warren Tribune Chronicle Feb 18, 1949 6:2

“Babchak Denied Right to Attend Wife’s Rites” Warren Tribune Chronicle Feb 19, 1949 1:6

 “Man Indicted for Murder” Warren Tribune Chronicle Apr 9, 1949 1:5

“ ‘Not Guilty’ Babchak Says” Warren Tribune Chronicle Apr 13, 1949 1:1

“Babchak Will Go On Trial April 29th” Warren Tribune Chronicle Apr 15, 1949 1:1

“Babchak Pleads Guilty to Murder” Warren Tribune Chronicle Apr 19, 1949 8:3

 “Babchak to Face Judges Tomorrow” Warren Tribune Chronicle Apr 28, 1949 34:3

“Deputies at ‘Paper Bag’ Jail Cringe” Niles Daily Times Aug 27, 1960 p.1

Katherine Babchak Death Certificate: “Ohio Deaths, 1908-1953,” database with images, FamilySearch ( : 21 May 2014), 1949 > 09201-12500 > image 3553 of 3598.

Steve Babchak Death Certificate: “Ohio Deaths, 1908-1953,” database with images, FamilySearch ( : 21 May 2014), 1953 > 57401-59900 > image 2643 of 3145.