Dakota Datebook

William Savora

Monday, November 14, 2005

On this date in 1931, Minot residents learned a jury’s decision in the trial William Savora, accused of murdering Mrs. Dena Korchenko. Six weeks earlier, 13-year-old Melvin Korchenko found his mother lying dead behind a hedge outside the boarding house where she worked as a housekeeper, and where she and her three children were living.

Dena was a Russian immigrant – 37 years old – and among people she knew from the old country was John Lodon, of Plaza. Lodon was staying at the house while recuperating from surgery, and at 7:30 the previous evening, Dena left to get him a poultice at the drugstore.

Police were puzzled by the random slashes they found on Mrs. Korchenko’s head and neck. It looked like she’d either been killed with a knife or that she’d been in a car accident and was dropped off at the curb outside – and then later dragged behind a hedge. A couple days later, police discarded the accident theory, and began searching for motives leading to her murder.

Several possibilities emerged. The previous year, Dena’s husband, Alex, died from a fractured skull at their home south of Velva. Korchenko had gotten into a fight with a drinking buddy, John Martin, a coal miner. Dena broke up the fight, but not before Martin hit Alex in the head with a 4-pound iron casting. When Alex died 13 days later, Dena swore out a complaint, and Martin promised to take care of her and her children if she dropped the charge. When she instead went forward, Martin got 15 years for manslaughter. Thus, the murder might have been retribution.

Dena’s children soon sent them in another direction. They said a McHenry County sheepherder came to the house the previous day and asked Mrs. Korchenko to go for a ride. When police learned Dena turned the man down, they started looking for him.

Meanwhile, the ailing John Lodon found a knife in the ashes of the kitchen stove. He said he heard a commotion during the night and found it when he investigated the next day. John Savora, son of the boarding house owner, said it looked like one his father used for cutting soap. But William, the older Savora, said the charred knife wasn’t his.

Police soon learned Savora – as well as several others – had tried to marry the young widow. She had rejected all comers, saying she wasn’t ready. With jealousy as a possible motive, investigators delved deeper and soon found a pair of bloodstained pants in Savora’s closet. When they took him to view Dena’s body, he got tears in his eyes. “She was a good cook,” he said.

Savora was charged with first-degree murder. The evidence was largely circumstantial, focusing on his notorious temper, the knife and the blood stains, which he said he got when Dena fell and cut her head. When Savora was accused of telling conflicting stories, Savora’s attorney protested. He said his client, who was Russian speaking, wasn’t given a translator during questioning.

On November 11th, J. J. Coyle, took the stand. He was Mrs. Korchenko’s attorney, and he said Dena came to him about a month before her death. Two men had asked her to sign an affidavit stating she was lying when she accused John Martin of killing her husband. The men said if she refused to sign, she (quote) would not see sunrise again. (Unquote)

Despite this new twist, the jury found William Savora guilty of first-degree murder, and he was sentenced to life in prison. A deputy sheriff asked him if he understood the verdict, and he said, “I don’t understand it all.”

“You’re going to prison,” said the deputy. “You’ll never get out.”

Savora shrugged and said, “Well, I no can help it.”

Source: The Bismarck Tribune. June 16, 1930. Sep. 23, 24, 25, 26, 1931. Oct. 12, 13, 14, 1931. Nov. 5, 7, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 1931.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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