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The Rich Rossi Project

Tuesday, August 31, 1999

By Tony Norman

One of these days I'll have to assemble a camera crew and capture some of Pittsburgh's weirdness on film. One of the strangest things about this town is how people who've lived here all their lives manage to overlook the region's persistent and unrepentant strangeness.

When I moved to Pittsburgh in '87, I was amazed by the audacity of a town so sure of itself it didn't believe in street signs. The feeling seemed to be: "If you don't know where you are, maybe you don't belong here."

While not as goofy as the fictional Alaskan town in "Northern Exposure," it was creeping up there. Remember the ninja who terrorized the East End in the early '90s?

After staging a few bold attacks in the early morning hours, he (or she) tussled in a hospital parking lot with a middle aged guy who knew how to defend himself. The so-called 'Shadyside Ninja' barely got away with black tights intact. Now few people even remember that fool.

And what about the B-25 that crashed into the Monongahela within spitting distance of the Homestead High Level Bridge in January 1956? Forty-three years later, the bomber continues to elude high-tech searches of the Mon's murky bottom. Was its carcass spirited off by the government? If so, why?

Then there are rumors of a Green Monster that roams the North Hills, though where it's supposed to live with new subdivisions constantly crowding out its natural habitat is beyond me. An even bigger North Hills mystery is how the blond, blue eyed Christina Aguilera managed to sound so "black" on her eponymous debut. Who knew that WAMO-FM's signal even reached that far into suburbia?

The mysteries of Pittsburgh range from the exotic to the mundane, from the ghost that "haunts" the Pittsburgh Playhouse to Brentwood Borough's decision to hang onto Sgt. John Vojtas. Who knows why this region is cursed with so many embezzling priests, frisky dentists and randy gynecologists? Just last week, the SEC began investigating another church for financial impropriety.

It's too late for a film crew to chronicle the felonious career of the late Walter J. Benz, the priest whose oxygen line and IV were cut off last year in the Vincentian Home in McCandless. Benz was suspected of stealing $1.3 million from several parishes before he was ushered to his great reward, allegedly by a mysterious couple who visited him on his deathbed.

Pittsburghers pride themselves on taking death and mystery in stride. If I were to put a documentary together about all the weirdness that happens here, I'd probably call it "The Rich Rossi Project." Richard Rossi, you'll recall, is the guitar-playing minister who was charged with attacking his wife on an isolated back road near Evans City several weeks after O.J. made spousal homicide a national pastime.

Unlike Nicole Brown Simpson, Sherri Rossi lived. The police accused her husband of doing the deed, but he countered with a likely story involving a murderous "double." The cops and the DA were skeptical. After emerging from a coma, Sherri implicated Rev. Rossi. But during the trial, she insisted someone who looked like him did it, sparking Freudian analysis from the media peanut gallery.

Still, Rev. Rossi managed to get a hung jury in Butler County. Folks were embarrassed because the "it-was-a-demon" defense hadn't really worked in these parts for 200 years. But one juror felt that since every doppelganger wasn't accounted for on the day Sherri was attacked, there really was room for reasonable doubt.

"The Rich Rossi Project"? Naw, who'd believe a story like that?

Tony Norman's e-mail is: tnorman@post-gazette.com.

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