Skip to Content
Search Icon

The Jungle


On prison and grace.


It’s the first time Jeffrey Cristina has walked down Dresden Way in more than forty years. He walks past empty lots where his family’s homes once stood, past St. Kieran, the Victorian red-brick parish church—now, like so many other Rust Belt churches, condos—where he and his siblings went to Mass. He walks past the spot on the asphalt, long since paved over, where he and his girlfriend carved their declaration of love, to the retaining wall where, on December 10, 1975, the neighborhood tough asked him to help collect a debt.

He continues on, going half a block to Butler Street, the main drag in Lawrenceville, to the road he would walk down to swim in the Allegheny River. He goes past the bar, a time capsule from the seventies, wrapped in weathered dark brown paneling and ornamented with CONLEY’S in green neon and a St. Patrick’s Day Pabst Blue Ribbon sign in the window. He stops at 5222 Butler where, according to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, on December 10, 1975, he was responsible for the murder of eighty-two-year-old Frank Slazinski.

This address, like the rest of Lawrenceville (except Conley’s), has been spruced up in recent years. Its north wall, previously shared with another in a long line of rowhouses, is now exposed and adorned with a handsome mural of Old Glory. While its upper two floors remain residential, in keeping with best practices for neighborhood renewal its first floor is home to a business, the Butterwood Bake Consortium, which looks like something out of The Great British Bake-Off.Whether the owners of the Butterwood know that their shop occupies the first-floor apartment where a man was murdered, I can’t say. Memory in Lawrenceville is complicated. So many of the gentrified homes and businesses maintain aspects of the neighborhood’s grim and grimy past, but they do so largely as an affectation, an attempt to capture the market for Rust Belt chic. But living in Lawrenceville in 1975, especially as a newcomer, and especially as a teenage boy of a single mother, was not about embracing an aesthetic; it was about making daily choices to survive.

Jeffrey Cristina was born on October 26, 1958, to Elsie Rose and Andrew “Tony” Cristina. Elsie left home to marry when, according to a report compiled by Jeff’s federal public defender, “her father tried to get into bed with her.”

Isolated from her family, Elsie was now bound to Tony, sacramentally and socially, though not always financially. Tony’s income was inconsistent: Through the sixties he worked intermittent construction jobs, often coming home only on the weekends, but his preferred way to make money was boxing. Under the name Tony Christy, he amassed twenty-nine sanctioned bouts, including nineteen in his 1959-1961 heyday. He touched the big leagues on July 20, 1960, at the old Chicago Stadium, with its six-keyboard pipe organ and reputation for mania. A Brooklyn kid, Roland Kellem, who fought a dozen bouts at Madison Square Garden in his career, laid him out in five rounds. Tony never again fought outside the state, save for a 1964 comeback knockout of a rookie across the Ohio River in Steubenville.

Whether he was in the ring or the bar or the home, Tony liked to punch things. “I was scared to death of my dad,” Jeff recalls, though it was his eldest brother, who dared to protect the younger siblings, who experienced the worst of their father’s rage. Tony’s periods of financial dependence on Elsie only made matters worse, as the necessity of her income made the level of control he craved impossible. He had to drive her to work where she would stay, out of his home and his sight, for hours. Or sometimes he would refuse to take her to work, and she would be fired, and the family would run out of money, and she would take a new job, and the cycle would begin again.

Tony and Elsie had five children, three sons and two daughters, of whom Jeff was the youngest son and the second youngest overall, besides Angie. The family’s living situation was never steady or orthodox. For the first few years of Jeff’s life, they lived in what was then “the country,” now the paved-over Saw Mill Run Valley. They found something like stability in a home with Tony’s mother and younger brother in the south Pittsburgh neighborhood of Brookline.

On Lamarido Street, the Cristinas stood out. Unlike Lawrenceville, Brookline has never really changed: a working- to middle-class quasi-suburb, separated from the city’s industrialized floodplains by a tall and leafy ridge, it was home to quiet, respectable families. Tony Cristina probably wasn’t the only husband to walk down the cobblestones of Capital Avenue into the West Liberty Valley, drink angrily at the Mineshaft bar, then stumble back up the steep slope to pulverize his family. But this violence was much less common, on the eve of the collapse of the steel industry, in Brookline than in other neighborhoods.

The stability of these surroundings kept Jeff and his siblings afloat when all the adults left. First it was Elsie, who had to stab Tony with a kitchen knife to escape her home; she never lived with him again, and trusted that her mother-in-law could keep the kids safe. Then Tony went to Florida to find himself. Then his mother and brother moved out, too, leaving the five Cristina children, aged nine to nineteen, alone on Lamarido Street. Jeff would walk Angie to a friend’s house to sleep at night, then pick her up to walk her to school.

Elsie had relatives in Lawrenceville, and so once Tony was out of the state she made plans to reunite her family. She rented a house in a narrow lot on Dresden Way, a few doors down from her brother, and all the children followed. In Pittsburgh, the alleys, always named “Way,” that run parallel to residential streets are usually fronted by garages and backyards; Lawrenceville is one of the few neighborhoods with houses on the alleys, abutting neighbors on three sides. Depending on the prevailing economic conditions, the effect is either a charming or a choking density.

Pittsburgh’s rivers form a sideways Y, with the Allegheny coming from the northeast and the Monongahela from the southeast. Lawrenceville spans much of the south riverfront of the Allegheny, hugging its left bank for more than two miles. It is the only city neighborhood to comprise three separate wards, and in current toponymy it is reckoned as three distinct neighborhoods: Lower, Central, and Upper. But in the early seventies, there were only the ward numbers—Sixth, Ninth, and Tenth—and everything depended on them.

The Sixth Ward spans from Doughboy Square, the inbound terminus of Butler Street near Thirty-Fourth Street where a representation of a young World War One soldier stands, to Fourtieth Street and the Arsenal Middle School, named for the Allegheny Arsenal that exploded in the worst civilian disaster of the Civil War. The Ninth Ward, the downtown of Lawrenceville, picks up at Fourtieth and goes to Fifty-First Street, including the expansive Allegheny Cemetery. And the Tenth Ward, always the grittiest, goes to the end of the residential district at Fifty-Seventh Street, then along another half-mile of riverfront industry to the Sixty-Second Street Bridge.

For the boys and young men of Lawrenceville, these arbitrary political borders took on an enchanted quality. The geography gave a mystical purpose to their lives as the market creatively destroyed their future security: In 1974, employment in the American steel industry was already down twenty percent from its peak, and it would drop another fifty percent in the next decade. It was a smaller and stupider version of the Balkans—the owner of a landmark Tenth Ward pub once said that marrying someone from the Ninth “was considered outside your species”—with no stakes and entirely legendary grievances.

Jeff Cristina quickly learned the ropes. He was a Tenth Ward kid assigned to the Sixth Ward Arsenal Middle School. In between lay the Ninth, a minefield of gangs and freelance toughs who, Jeff remembers vividly, “would know you ain’t from Ninth Ward and would jump on you and beat you up.” This is exactly what happened his first four days at Arsenal, where he had shown up late in the spring of eighth grade, and the school agreed to truncate his school year so that he could get a fresh start in high school.

It worked. While the Cristina home remained chaotic, with Elsie working a day and a night job and the older children getting in and out of trouble before eventually leaving altogether—one to a wife, one to family in the suburbs, and one to Tony in Florida—Jeff found stability at Peabody High School. He made a friend, Bud, with whom he would navigate the alleys and go swimming in the murky Allegheny. And he had a girlfriend, Cathy, whom he planned to marry after graduating.

When Jeffrey Cristina was processed into the Pennsylvania state prison system at the age of eighteen, he measured five feet, three inches, and one-hundred twenty pounds. His varsity jacket was a boys’ extra-large. Even on his compact frame, his head is small and his features tight and mousy. But he was from a “family of fighters,” and it showed in his posture, his manner, his countenance. After all, this small teenager was the man of the house in a place where a man’s strength was the only authority the roving boys respected. As long as the family was new and unaffiliated with a gang, they were easy marks: Boys regularly smashed Elsie’s windshield and harassed young Angie. And so Jeff made halting overtures to the Tenth Ward’s masters, James “Red” Phillips and his deputy, Billy Pirozzi, in an attempt to ingratiate his family while keeping his distance from too much trouble.

On December 10, 1975, Jeff was sitting on a retaining wall on Dresden Way when Billy Pirozzi sidled up to him with a proposal: He needed a lookout while he entered an empty apartment to collect on a debt. After a little cajoling, Jeff agreed—though he immediately felt uneasy as they walked not into another alley or up the hill into the thicket of small houses but down to the wide and public Butler Street. And then when the door to 5222 Butler was locked, Jeff again thought about begging off, but the potential benefits of this one little favor for Elsie and Angie flooded his reason.

At Billy’s direction, Jeff cautiously kicked the door, and the bottom panel fell in. He slid his small body inside, opened the door, and waited in the vestibule while Billy did his business. He saw Angie in the street and gestured wildly for her to go away. Then, to his surprise, he heard yelling, a crack, a thud. He ran, worried what Billy might think but more worried about what he’d heard and seen. Billy later emerged with cash and a television—a heavy load in 1975—leaving behind distinctive foot and fingerprints.

Sometime after this—accounts differ on when exactly—Billy returned to 5222 Butler, this time in the submissive role with Red Phillips. Whether Red wanted to finish off the heist, Frank Slazinski, or both is impossible to say. What is nearly certain is that Red landed the blows that resulted, four days later, in Slazinski’s death.

This was too much even for Lawrenceville, and the Pittsburgh Police swarmed the Tenth Ward and Peabody High School looking for answers and a scalp. It became clear to the cops that Jeff, Billy, and Red had all participated in some way in burglarizing Slazinski, and so they brought in all three. A prisoner’s dilemma too complicated for Law & Order ensued. It seems that Jeff and Billy attempted to forge an alliance that would have included Red, but he aced the polygraph and issued threats against Billy’s sisters. Billy’s story then replaced Red with Jeff as the ringleader and assailant, and Jeff’s confused attempts to coordinate accounts with Billy now looked like guilt. Both were charged with second-degree murder, which then carried a life sentence without parole in Pennsylvania.

On the day before the June trial, the district attorney offered Jeff a deal: Plead to third-degree murder and be sent to the Shuman Juvenile Detention Center until the age of twenty-one. Elsie wanted him to take the deal, but Tony had come up from Florida amidst the crisis, and no son of his was going to be a patsy. Tony berated Jeff and Elsie in the presence of their attorney, who had been willing to take the plea to Judge John O’Brien with only Elsie’s consent. But Jeff could not resist his father; he rejected the deal and, despite conflicting evidence and incomprehensible testimony from Billy, was convicted of second-degree murder. Billy got six years for third-degree murder, of which he served two years.

Judge O’Brien never forgot Tony Cristina’s infuriating intransigence, and never gave Jeffrey a second chance. A year later, moved by conscience and the increasingly psychopathic behavior of Red Phillips, Billy Pirozzi signed and notarized the following statement:

I William Pirozzi, at this time would like to make a true confussion of the fact that I William Pirozzi was at the seen of the murder of which I have been convitced of, and that Jeffrey Cristina, was not at the seen of the crime of which he has been convicted of… I have tryed in the pass to establish this fact, but the court’s just neglected my statement, and due to the fact that Jeffrey Cristina has been found guilty of something that he did not do, I fine it hard to see a man go to prison for a crime that he did not coment. I feel sorry for the fact that a man has to pay for something that he did not do. I would like for it to be known that Jeffrey Cristina did not have nothing to do with the murder in which he has been convicted of…for I am the individual to blame, and I confess to the fact that Jeffrey Cristina did not have nothing to do with the murder of which he has been convicted of.

Respectfully your’s William Pirozzi

Jeff’s lawyer begged for a new trial, but this would require Billy to be brought up on perjury charges for the testimony that convicted Jeff. Judge O’Brien had no interest in bringing Billy Pirozzi back into his courtroom, and no interest in retrying the murder case. There would be no new trial, and Jeffrey Cristina was processed into the State Correctional Institution at Camp Hill on May 16, 1977.

The Cristinas were Catholics, but they were not a Catholic family. In Brookline, the clan belonged to Our Lady of Loreto, a parish which had just been established to accommodate the neighborhood’s growth, but languished for its entire lifespan in a renovated but bland school chapel. Tony never went to Mass, while Elsie required that the kids attend Mass and catechism but only occasionally joined them. She quizzed her children about the readings to ensure they were fulfilling their duty.

In Lawrenceville they could nearly see the majestic St. Kieran from the Dresden Way house. There, Jeffrey was confirmed under the name Michael, an appropriate patronage against the assaults of the devil. In nearly every Pittsburgh neighborhood, even in the mid-seventies the parish was the center of not just liturgical but social life. Jeff’s family was attached only loosely to this world.

Jeff entered the Camp Hill prison with a minimal relationship with Christ and several legitimate grievances: against his father, against Billy and Red, against Judge O’Brien, and against a society that had discarded him. That bitterness lingered for decades, and he knows that it kept him from embracing the Cross.

Even so, there was a preternatural discipline and peacefulness in the way Jeff acclimated to prison. He channeled whatever brutishness he inherited from Tony into developing his small frame, and only a few years into his term he became the Eastern Pennsylvania prison powerlifting champion in his weight class. When three days of riots required the state police to storm Camp Hill like an enemy stronghold, Jeff kept his hands clean. When he was sent to California while the Commonwealth reconfigured its prison system, officials required that he affiliate with a gang as part of their inmate management procedure; he refused to join an extant group and instead formed “the Pennsylvania Boys” with his fellow transferees.

When he returned to Pennsylvania, he was eventually settled closer to home: the State Correctional Institution at Somerset, in the picturesque Laurel Highlands in the southwest of the state. There are prisons where the walls obscure all views of nature and freedom; S.C.I.-Somerset is not one of them. Situated in a valley glade, the men can watch the seasons pass in the turning of the hillside forests.

He credits a fellow inmate, James, and the minister assigned to Somerset, Deacon Pat, for bringing him back to the Church. But it’s what he says offhand that reveals who is really responsible: He loved Eucharistic adoration. That hour of stillness and presence, amid the din and dehumanization of prison life, was more valuable than any collection of words and arguments could ever be. He started going to Mass again.

In the mid-nineties, when Jeff was fully reintegrated into the Body of Christ, only a half dozen men attended the Sunday Masses offered in the utilitarian, but not unlovely, prison chapel. Since then, in part due to Jeff’s evangelical efforts, that number has increased at least tenfold. The liturgical ministry, including a music ensemble, at S.C.I.-Somerset is at least as organized as any suburban parish—entirely on the initiative of the Catholic inmates.

On March 25, 1993, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s Board of Pardons unanimously recommended that Jeffrey Cristina have his sentence commuted by the governor. On June 14, 1993, Bob Casey, Sr., underwent a rare and risky heart-lung transplant for the treatment of hereditary amyloidosis, a protein disorder that usually kills within a few years of onset. On October 6, 1994, Reginald McFadden was arrested in Rockland County, New York, for the murder of one woman and the kidnapping, repeated rape, and murder of a second woman. How these three events fit together determined the next two decades of Jeff’s life.

Casey was not stingy with his commutations. But, like other nonessential business, the documents would often languish on his desk. His pace slowed in 1993 as he managed his condition, then stopped entirely for six months as he convalesced after the transplant. When he returned to work, the commutations trickled in, including one for Reginald McFadden.

McFadden had been sentenced at the age of sixteen to life in prison for the murder of an elderly woman. His prison record was mixed, but the information that reached the Parole Board was overwhelmingly positive—including his pacifying role in the Camp Hill riots. On a four-to-one vote the board recommended his release, and Casey approved it in early 1994. After confusion about the timeline and conditions of release, McFadden was delivered to well-meaning volunteer custodians in New York, where he immediately murdered three people.

Mark Singel was Bob Casey’s lieutenant, and he was running to succeed his boss in the governor’s mansion. He was also, as lieutenant governor, the head of the commonwealth’s Parole Board, where he had voted to release McFadden. Casey stopped approving commutations, and Singel lost the election to Tom Ridge, a Republican, who tirelessly exploited the debacle. In January 1995, on his second day in office, Ridge denied Jeffrey Cristina’s commutation, and he never got to the governor’s desk again.

This was an angry time for Jeff, even though, he says looking back, “I never thought I’d never get out”—a hope that was essential even when it wasn’t rational. He would return to the sacraments in the years following this disappointment, an order of events whose meaning is not lost on him. The bitterness of that setback has long faded, and so he can regard those years with clear eyes and wonder if he “would’ve been ready, religion-wise,” for freedom.

Jeff continued to pursue legal recourse, and twenty-one years later an entirely new path opened to him. In Montgomery v. Louisiana, the United States Supreme Court ruled that its previous decision, Miller v. Alabama, declaring mandatory juvenile life sentences unconstitutional, must be made retroactive. Every juvenile lifer in America would have to be resentenced. And Jeffrey Cristina, with his nearly forty years of misconduct-free incarceration, with his thousands of hours of education and mentoring, with his leading role in a thriving prison ministry, would be Pennsylvania’s test case.

The Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office tried to frustrate Jeff’s resentencing in both legal and media maneuvers, including a letter to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that repeated old lies about Jeff’s role in the killing. But the county judge was sympathetic and apologetic at resentencing: He wanted to release Jeff immediately, but state law required that the life “tail” be retained from the original sentence. Now in prison for “twenty years to life,” Jeff applied for parole, which was quickly granted. He stepped out of S.C.I.-Somerset in street clothes—a 2008 Steelers AFC Championship sweatshirt and a Penguins knit cap—on December 4, 2016.

Jeff’s entire extended family was waiting for him. His mother and his siblings and his nieces and nephews had come to see him so regularly that the school cafeteria-like visitors’ room had come to feel like a family parlor. But now they could see him and talk to him on their own terms.

Tony wasn’t there. He had died of hard living fifteen years before, but through letters and visits he and his youngest son had reconciled. Jeff had seen enough brokenness in Brookline and Lawrenceville and Camp Hill and Somerset to come to be able to understand his father’s—his own abuse at the hands of his own drunk father, his lifelong struggle to feel at peace anywhere and at any time. Jeff mourned the man who was most responsible for his losing four decades of freedom more tenderly than Tony, or anyone, would have expected.

Jeff will always struggle with what he calls the “jail mentality”—emotions calloused by witnessing so much everyday cruelty and initiative sapped by decades of trained deference. He describes watching dumbly as his nephew wrangled with a leaky toilet, waiting to be asked (or told) to help before stepping in. Three years on, he still hesitates to pick food off a restaurant menu, though he no longer habitually defers to the choices of his fellow diners. 

Jeff’s life, unlike those of so many other parolees, was given immediate order by an inmate friend who got him a job helping make deliveries for the Pennsylvania Macaroni Company, one of the city’s premier food importers and wholesalers. There’s a pipeline of ex-cons to Penn Mac, by way of the improbably-named Rob Ferrari; if the corporal works of mercy are looking to expand, employing the convicted should get a hard look.

These days, Pittsburgh’s trendiest restaurants are on Butler Street, so Jeff found himself back in Lawrenceville from time to time. He was always worried someone would recognize him, but instead he recognized someone: Cathy, his high-school belle, now a crossing guard and a widow. The idea that there might be something inextinguishable between the two was intoxicating and frightening, but there wasn’t. Forty years is a long time.

It’s said, and it’s true, that prison ages a man. But in other ways the experience results in a kind of emotional cryostasis, with the psyche preserved as it was upon entering. Jeff Cristina feels like a twenty-year-old man with a sixty-year-old body, like he should be looking forward to life landmarks—career, marriage, children—that are part of a past that never was. I don’t know if he will ever be able, or if it is possible, to knit together two lives lived forty years apart.

The Cristina clan remains a constant, bound by blood shared and shed. Jeff lives with and cares for Elsie, who moved a dozen miles up the Allegheny to a modest and well-kept home in Creighton, an old river town two blocks wide by four blocks long. She had a bedroom waiting for her youngest boy, with a teddy bear on the quilt and a crucifix above the headboard. They have opened their home to other parolees who need a place to live and friends to vouch for them. And they go to Mass together—Elsie started going again when Jeff came home—a quarter-mile down the road at Holy Family Church.

“Eventually you have to decide your purpose,” Jeff says about surviving four decades in prison. A glorious purpose needn’t be a glamorous one.

Brandon McGinley is a writer in Pittsburgh.

To continue reading, subscribe to The Lamp.

Get unlimited access to our complete archive when you subscribe.

Already a Subscriber?
Brandon McGinley is the author of The Prodigal Church: Restoring Catholic Tradition in an Age of Deception.