Murder in the Heights

The Lowe-Rice estate in a photo from around 1950, shortly before the mansion was torn down.

“What about the murders?” 

Several people have said those, or similar, words to me since reading my column in the April Heights Observer, about interesting factoids of Cleveland Heights history.

And, yes, there have been some murders in Cleveland Heights. Most of them have been mundane, but a few have had a little historical significance.

The first big one was that of Willian Lowe Rice, in 1910, when Cleveland Heights wasn’t quite a village yet, but mainly a collection of giant mansions, plus a huge golf course, at the top of Cedar Hill. The developing area was still known as Euclid Heights.

The Lowe-Rice mansion was where the Waldorf Towers stands now, on Overlook Road, literally overlooking the city of Cleveland. Rice was a prominent attorney who had made himself very unpopular through his business dealings with high-profile clients. One of those was John Hartness Brown, who, because of financial problems, was compelled to surrender a major project to Rice, shortly before the murder.

One night, at about 10:30, Rice, whose wife and daughters were out of town, was walking home from the big golf clubhouse (approximately where Euclid Heights Boulevard, Derbyshire and Surrey roads are now), which was about 500 yards from his home.

John Hartness Brown, whose big stone house still stands at the intersection of Edgehill and Overlook roads, was one of the junior developers of the Euclid Heights development. He was the main suspect. But there were several others, and the case was never solved.

What was determined, definitely, is that someone really wanted Rice dead—because he was bludgeoned, stabbed and shot, all within a few seconds.

One of the most-mentioned Cleveland Heights murders is that of a guy whose name most people who talk about the event don’t even know. They know that a young man was shot at the infamous C-Saw Café, a biker bar on Coventry in the 1970s. Most know that the shooter was the bartender. But the rest of the story is hazy. I’ve heard many versions of the event.

But, according to a Cleveland newspaper at the time, “Murder charges were filed in Cleveland Heights today against a 51-year-old Coventry Road bartender in the gun slaying of Brian Hacker, 22.

“Police said William Sobo, the bartender, shot Hacker last night in the C-Saw Café, 1825 Coventry Rd., as they argued over a can of a soft drink Hacker had brought into the tavern. The shooting occurred about 7:45 p.m. Three patrons in the tavern told police Hacker hurled the can behind the bar during the argument. Seconds later, Sobo took a gun from behind the bar and fired at Hacker, police said.

“Hacker staggered out of the bar, wounded in the chest, and collapsed on the sidewalk. He was pronounced dead at Huron Road Hospital 10 minutes later. The victim worked for his mother, Barbara, in her Moonshine Inc. boutique around the corner from the C-Saw at 2806 Mayfield Rd. The boutique contains a coffeehouse, art gallery, craft shop and poetry reading salon. Hacker, his mother and an 18-year-old brother were living together at 2472 Overlook Road, Cleveland Heights.”

So, now you know the real story—something to talk about with new neighbors on your deck this summer. (You’re welcome.)

Another well-known murder that people remember, but aren’t sure what actually happened, also took place on Coventry. And this one was intriguing because it was a so-called “mob hit.”

It took place in garage at Coventry and Mayfield roads called Swann’s Auto Service, on Halloween night 1971. The well-known Irish gangster Danny Greene, or one of his henchmen, bombed Swann’s, killing Arthur Sneperger. What’s not certain is whether they were trying to kill Michael Frato, who owned the garage and who had broken away from Greene’s organization and started his own, or were actually aiming for Sneperger, who had also been a traitor to Greene.

But the car bomb, which was detonated remotely, shook the neighborhood and could be heard and felt fairly far from the site. A few years later, a wildly sensational news story was the tale of Danny Greene himself getting blown up in his car—by a remotely detonated bomb—in a parking lot at Cedar and Brainard roads, in Lyndhurst.

I can think of others, but four murders per article is my limit. When you see me in Dave’s, you can ask me about some others.

David Budin

David Budin is a freelance writer for national and local publications, the former editor of Cleveland Magazine and Northern Ohio Live, an author, and a professional musician and comedian. His writing focuses on the arts and, especially, pop-music history.

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Volume 17, Issue 5, Posted 10:35 AM, 04.29.2024