Carol Lapaglia made the worst phone call of her life on a Monday afternoon.
“I just got home from work and my husband, he’s on the ground,” Carol screamed to an Allegheny County, Pennsylvania 911 dispatcher on July 21, 2014. “He’s, he’s, he’s dead. There’s a big puddle of blood.”
Her boyfriend of more than two decades, Jack Parkes, 59, lay dead on the floor of the living room in the Kennedy Township home, six weeks before their scheduled wedding.
By 3:00 p.m., the only way left to help Parkes or Carol was to figure out who had killed him.
“When I arrived on scene, the first thing I noticed is that the victim’s head was covered in blood,” Allegheny Police Det. Laurie McKeel told “An Unexpected Killer,” airing Fridays at 8/7c on Archiweekend. “It was on closer examination you could see it was a gunshot wound.”
While there were no signs of struggle in the room with the victim’s body, the rest of the home was a mess: There were drawers pulled out and their contents strewn about, the mattress was askew on the bed, and empty jewelry and watch boxes were thrown here and there. And, most importantly, though the back door and garage door were reportedly open — which was unusual for the couple — the front door had been secured by a normally-unused deadbolt when Carol arrived home. Police determined that Parkes had let his killer into the home, indicating that he likely knew and had trusted whomever had murdered him.
The first person they spoke to was Carol, Parkes’ fiancée and girlfriend of 25 years. Carol, who was almost too upset to speak, told police that she’d left for work at 5:40 a.m. but had gotten a late morning phone call from a realtor the couple had been working with to sell Parkes’ late mother’s home. The realtor couldn’t reach Parkes, despite the fact that he was recently retired and spent most days around the house. Then, Carol couldn’t reach him either.
The more time passed, the more worried she became — and, eventually she’d left work early to go check on him.
Carol told police that most of the couple’s jewelry, including Parkes’ expensive watches, the couple’s rings for their impending nuptials, and Parkes’ coin collection had all been taken in the robbery.
Her employer confirmed that she’d been there before leaving shortly after 2:00 p.m., and the autopsy showed that Parkes had been shot in the back right side of his head with a .380 caliber handgun sometime in the mid-morning. Carol was ruled out as a suspect; she then indicated to the cops they should look into Parkes’ nephew Bradley Johnson.
Johnson lived across the street from the couple and wasn’t a fan of Carol. He’d gone over to see Parkes the morning of his death knowing Carol wouldn’t be there to discuss the couple’s desire to sell Parkes’ mother’s house.
“In his words, ‘I didn’t want her to put her two cents in,’” McKeel told “An Unexpected Killer.”
Johnson, it turned out, thought Carol was too controlling and wanted to discuss the family property Parkes-man-to-Parkes-man. Jack Parkes, however, wouldn’t make any decisions without Carol’s input. Johnson, who’d arrived around 10:30 a.m., left empty-handed around 11:15 a.m.
He did own a .380 caliber pistol — but police determined that the ballistics didn’t match.
Next was another nephew with whom the couple had been close: Carol Lapaglia’s nephew Michael Lapaglia. During questioning, Michael — who had been dishonorably discharged from the U.S. military for synthetic marijuana use — admitted he’d had a falling out a year ago with the aunt and uncle who’d helped raised him. But he and his girlfriend, Melanie, said they’d spent the day together running errands in the nearby town of Sharpsburg.
His alibi, which included credit card transactions in Sharpsburg and an appointment with the local Veterans Affairs medical center to seek treatment for his PTSD, checked out.
Police had only one other avenue of investigation to pursue: the missing jewelry and coins.
On Aug. 4, 2014, a Pittsburgh police officer who specialized in pawn shop records and was helping the Allegheny police called and told them that she’d located the stolen jewelry at a shop in the city. That pawn shop had surveillance cameras and they had video of the person who tried to sell the jewelry: Michael Lapaglia.
Allegheny police put in a request to obtain Michael’s phone records to verify his alibi, then called Michael and his girlfriend, Melanie, in for questioning. He denied everything, and she denied giving him a false alibi. She even claimed the jewelry he was seen on video selling was hers, not Parkes’ and Carol Lapaglia’s.
When police got Michael’s records back from the phone company, they verified much of his original alibi — except that, around 11:45 a.m., his phone pinged in the area of his aunt and uncle’s house.
According to Carol, around 11:45 a.m. was when she first tried to reach Parkes and failed.
When confronted with the cell phone records, Michael confessed… sort of. First, according to court records, he claimed to have been waiting in the car while a drug dealer he referred to as “Stink” robbed the home and shot Parkes. But, after a bathroom break, he told police something closer to the truth.
“I was suffering from PTSD and, the morning of July 21, I asked Mel to take a ride with me,” he told police in a recorded confession. “She just drove down with me and I parked her car. I told her to wait. She never got out of the car, she had no clue where we were going.”
He claimed he had been accused of stealing jewelry the year prior, so he wanted to visit and make amends.
“I knocked on the door to apologize and talk,” he said. “At that time, he became hostile and he choked me and swung at me … He had two hands around my neck. At that time, I felt my life was threatened. And I had a pistol, .380, on me, and it went off.”
He said he then panicked, took the jewelry, and left.
Michael’s story was not compatible with the condition of Jack Parkes’ body, which showed he had been shot once in the right side by his ear and had no defensive wounds on his hands. And, given that the entire two-story house had been thoroughly ransacked after the murder, police didn’t think he was panicking, either. Instead, they believed he came specifically to rob the couple.
Though it was Michael Lapaglia who had tried and failed to pawn his aunt and uncle’s jewelry in Sharpsburg shortly after the murder, he eventually got $1,000 from the Pittsburgh pawn shop for the jewelry, of which he spent $600-700 on heroin.
According to court records, Michael had been suspected of stealing jewelry from Carol during a family Labor Day weekend party in 2013. His mother told Carol that he’d stolen jewelry from her, too. Neither women ever reported him to the police, but it did make him unwelcome in Carol’s home after that.
In June 2014, Michael had started working as a teller at a local bank, according to court records records, but had been fired around July 4, 2014 — two weeks before the murder — after more than $2,700 was found missing from his cash drawer in less than a month. He was not prosecuted in that affair, either.
On Aug. 5, 2014, Michael Lapaglia was charged with murder and robbery in Jack Parkes’ death. He was convicted on both counts at trial in June 2015, according to Pittsburgh CBS affiliate KDKA, and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for the murder plus another 10-20 years for the robbery on Sept. 9, 2015.
Carol Lapaglia gave a victim impact statement at her nephew’s sentencing, according to KDKA.
“When I came home from work that day and found Jack, I never dreamed in a million years it would have been my nephew, Michael, that took his life,” she said. “How could that same kid that we loved so much, do something so horrific to his uncle? I struggle with that question every day.”
Michael Lapaglia is currently incarcerated at the State Correctional Institution at Mercer, about an hour north of Pittsburgh.
For more on this case and others like it, watch “An Unexpected Killer,” airing Fridays at 8/7c on Archiweekend, or stream episodes here.