Photos courtesy of Peter Zablocki
By Steve Sears
For Denville resident and Kinnelon High School history teacher, Peter Zablocki, it’s not and never enough to read up on and educate others on the subject.
He writes about it, too.
Zablocki, also Vice-President of the Denville Historical Society, Museum, and Research Center, has already written and published Denville Goes to War: Denville’s Story of World War I, but now the History Press has published his The Denville 13: Murder, Redemption & Forgiveness in Small-Town New Jersey, the story of a 1953 killing of a 30-something-year-old that at the time involved supposedly 13 young males.
Soon to come in August is Denville in World War II, and another work regarding three plane crashes in 58 days in Elizabeth in 1951 will be published before the new year.
The idea for The Denville 13: Murder, Redemption & Forgiveness in Small-Town New Jersey came while he was interviewing veterans for his third book. “A lot of times they would tell me, ‘You know, there is this murder that happened in Denville in the 1950s’. And I always brushed it off because my impetus was to try to get information about scrap drives and things like that from World War II. However, it kept on coming up.”
His interest piqued, Zablocki Googled it, and found nothing, scanned pdf files at the museum of the then Denville newspaper, The Denville Herald, and found that three pages of the September 3, 1953 issue were missing. “It’s the only random three pages missing out of the entire file of roughly 15 years or so,” he says. Next, his efforts with microfiche uncovered the fact that the entire first issue of September 1953 was now non-existent. “And then we actually have crates of newspapers in the museum itself. We have real newspapers; someone had collected them and donated them to us. So, I went through the crates, and I got to the 1953 crate, and every single one of the issues is there except that one.”
A freelance historian had compiled some newspaper clippings of the murder, but there was no indication what newspaper the clippings came from; all were scotch taped in a notebook that was inside a folder. However, it was enough to get Zablocki the exact date of the murder and the names of those involved. He contacted the Morristown Historical Society, where he was able to go through The Daily Record archives, which covered the incident extensively, and he also reached out to the Morris County Prosecutor’s Office, through whom per his credentials he was granted permission to look at the incident file, he the first one to do so since 1953. His eager eyes now met with pictures, autopsy reports, statements, anything connected with the murder.
In brief, the victim, who had previously spent a few years in jail as a pedophile, arrived in Denville that summer and attempts to do the same, first hanging out with youngsters in town, and then trying to get involved with a 14-year-old. “These boys are as young as 14,” Zablocki says. “There are 13 boys all together that are supposedly involved in this murder. One is 22-years-old, everybody else is a teenager. And they essentially plan that they’re going to teach this guy lesson.” The man is beaten severely, and all the boys are arrested within 48 hours, but only one, the 22-year-old, spends time in jail. “This was the largest indictment for single murder in American history up to that point,” says Zablocki.
“I hope that this book kind of clears up a lot of the rumors” says Zablocki. “13 is not the correct number. Out of those 13, really, I would say probably the better number would be like four or five. Some of the kids were just really in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Of the 13, 10 have died, two are unaccounted for, and one was still alive but living out of state in 2018.
The Denville 13: Murder, Redemption & Forgiveness in Small-Town New Jersey is available at Barnes & Noble, Costco, Target, Walmart, and wherever books are sold.