By Rose Quinn
Published in the Delaware County Daily Times on September 4, 2022
Editor’s Note: Interviews with members of the Kilman family were conducted before they were aware that Delaware County authorities identified Michael Klein as the main suspect in the murder of John Kilman). See update below for additional details.
John Patrick William Kilman was a 15-year-old high school sophomore when he started telling people that April 18, 1986, was going to be, in his words, “My lucky day.”
No explanation. Just an enthusiastic prediction nearly four years into the future by the popular, God-fearing Norwood kid, an aspiring artist known as much for his big heart as his big family with 14 siblings – and the colorful bus their parents drove them around in, reminiscent of the 1970s Partridge Family TV show.
“He even had a little poster he made of it, being the artist that he was,” his sister, Kathy Harkins, 58, of St. Louis, recalled in an email last month, referencing John’s prophecy. “He truly knew God was going to do something great on that day for him.”
But when his “lucky” day finally came, John Kilman was gone.
His life snuffed out, violently, in the early hours of what played out to be anything but an ordinary Friday.
John had been shot twice during a robbery at the 24-hour Stop-N-Go convenience store in Norwood where he worked to earn tuition money for the Art Institute of Philadelphia. He was pronounced dead at nearby Taylor Memorial Hospital at 3:59 a.m. on April 18, 1986. He was 19.
“God carried me that day,” John’s mother, 80-year-old Billie Kilman of Divide, Colorado, said as she looked back, remembering her son’s life during a series of telephone conversations in recent weeks.
In the sense that Billie believes her son was united in heaven with God, the devoutly Catholic matriarch added, “I do think it was a lucky day for John.”
John Patrick William Kilman
June 19, 1966 – April 18, 1986
- John Kilman, 19, was alone and working in the 24-hour Stop-N-Go at Chester Pike and Huron Avenue in Norwood early on April 18, 1986, when he was shot twice during a robbery that netted the shooter $82.76.
- On Aug. 31, 2022, authorities in Delaware County identified 57-year-old Michael Klein, formerly of Prospect Park, as the main suspect in Kilman’s death, based on a confession he made and other details he provided in June that only someone with intimate knowledge of the crime would know. Klein died of a heart attack on July 4.
- With no conviction in the case, and no statute of limitations on murder, the Kilman case will remain open but inactive, unless new information emerges.
- Anyone with information may contact Sgt. Lawrence Patterson of the Delaware County Criminal Investigation Division at 610-891-4700, or Cpl. Christopher Kennedy of the Norwood Police Department at 610-461-2308, or 911.
A mother’s gratitude
Billie Kilman has no room in her heart for bitterness, only gratitude for John, and the time she had with him.
From the little boy who used to draw on the walls of their home on Mohawk Avenue in Norwood, to the talented young man who dreamed of making it big as a professional artist – and buying his mother a big house with all the bells and whistles she could ever imagine.
“He was kind, considerate and loving,” Billie said. “He was always thinking about others.”
She still marvels how during a summer John spent living with his older sister, Kathy, and her husband, John, in Queens, New York, that he was able to charm a bus driver into waiting for him whenever he was running late.
“That just doesn’t happen in New York,” Billie said.
“John was special,” Kathy shared in her email. “I think John’s name meaning ‘gift of God’ was so correct for him.”
‘A million memories’
“His loss was devastating to the whole family. But at the same time, it brought the family closer together,” Paul Kilman, 52, of Albuquerque, New Mexico, said of his brother during a telephone interview in July.
Among Paul’s fondest memories is when he was in the second grade and John taught him how to ride a bicycle. And the one season he played Little League, John not only went to every game, but he also walked Paul to the park, and as they walked back home, they would rehash the game.
“He was a very supportive brother,” Paul said.
“He was ever present for almost 20 years of my life and then he was gone,” another brother, David Alexander Kilman, 57, of Colorado Springs, Colorado, shared in an email.
From stickball and kick-the-can games they played in their neighborhood, listening to Led Zeppelin IV backwards for hidden messages and digging tunnels under the snow after the Blizzard of 1978, David Alexander wrote, “There are a million memories.”
Kathy was still living in New York the last time she saw her brother, about three weeks before he was killed.
They reunited with some former coworkers from a previous summer when John lived with her and interned for the advertising agency where she worked.
And they talked a lot about family.
When John pulled out a family photograph he always carried in his wallet, Kathy recalled being struck that it had been taken during a family reunion in Colorado in the summer of 1983, capturing their whole family plus grandparents, an uncle, an aunt and cousins.
“It made me realize how much broader his view of who counted as ‘family’ and what a great person he was in that regard,” Kathy wrote.
Kathy also shared how delighted she was that her brother and her husband, who took a night off from his law school studies, enjoyed “hanging out” together on the last night of John’s brief visit.
“I remember thinking what a joy they were spending time – then I chided myself thinking they had years ahead to spend time,” she wrote.
The next morning, after she noticed that John had double locked the doors to the basement apartment, he confided that he had a nightmare “where something evil was trying to get to him and he woke up paralyzed for a while.”
He told her that when he fell back to sleep, the nightmare returned. He eventually fell back to sleep with the lights and TV on.
“Later that morning, he had to drive back to Norwood. The last thing John said to me as he left was, ‘Well, I’m history,’ which was a thing you would say in those days but felt profound the few weeks later when my mom called me early in the morning to tell me what happened,” recalled Kathy.
When John left for home, he forgot the family photo on her coffee table. Kathy has regarded it a treasure ever since.
‘Gift of God’
“I used to think about how there was a killer at large who might do more harm, but it has been 36 years and I don’t think about that anymore,” David Alexander went on to share in his email.
“John is dead,” he wrote. “There can be no restorative justice because life can’t be restored. And retributive justice seems like hollow revenge.
“Yes, there can be justice in the form that helps protect society from killers, but can there be justice for John and those who loved him? I don’t think so. Just loss.”
Given the opportunity, David Alexander said he would have nothing to say to John’s killer, unless “Maybe if they were to ask for forgiveness, I might be able to offer that.”
Paul Kilman said during his interview that he had long “made peace” with John’s death and moved on with his life.
“Whatever justice is meant to be, will happen,” he said.
In her email, Kathy wrote that she believes that God was with John, and with his killer, in those final moments in the convenience store. She has prayed for John’s killer over the years. She wanted him caught and behind bars – so he could not hurt another person, another family.
“In the eternal scheme of things, I want his salvation,” she wrote. “I know 100 percent that John wants the salvation of his killer.”
Strange,’ but true
In conversation and writings, Billie recalled moments with John, both wonderful and devastating.
Among the wonderful:
The time John returned home from a trip with a red dress with polka dots he bought for his little sister, Elizabeth, just because. Sophia, Elizabeth’s daughter, still wears it.
And the time John, age 5, proudly dressed himself for a school picture, picking out a smart red jacket and a plaid shirt.
Anytime he would wrap his arms around you in a bear hug.
Among the devastating:
“What do you do when you are taken by the police to the hospital to see your 19-year-old son lying there dead from bullet wounds? You get sick,” Billie and her husband, David Kilman penned in memoriam for their son, which Billie shared along with photographs and a personal writing by John on his thoughts on life.
“This is your son, your beautiful son, your talented son, the son working his way through school all night, and he is very gone. It is evident that all you see is a body. You hurt and you cry, and you pray,” the couple’s memoriam, which they wrote for The Christian Family Movement organization, goes on to say.
“You pray for your son, you pray for you and your family, and you pray for the person in the prison of need for which murder is acceptable to get $82.”
Billie Kilman’s memories may have faded some over the years. But she clearly remembers the steady support from friends who arrived at the house as the news of John’s murder spread.
By then, hours had long passed since the Norwood patrol officer’s knock on the Kilman’s front door, about 4:30 a.m., and Billie’s frantic race to the hospital, only to be told that John had already succumbed to his injuries.
When she saw the officer at her door, Billie first thought that his presence had something to do with the license plate her husband, David James, had reported missing in Gaithersburg, Maryland, where the Boeing engineer was working on a special project. David was 2 ½ hours away when he got the message to immediately return home.
“A lot is a blur,” said Billie. “When I left the hospital, I went home. Then I went to Mass.”
At home, after Mass, Billie’s mind continued to race with a million thoughts, none of which she said involved “the date.” Until one of her friends reminded her.
“My friend, (the late) Mary Pullin, asked me the day of the month,” recalled Billie. “I didn’t even know what day it was and then I realized it was April 18.”
It stopped Billie in her tracks.
Time has not brought Billie any new understanding as to why John pulled that month, day and year out of his proverbial hat.
“It is strange, isn’t it?” Billie said, matter-of-factly. “It’s nuts, I know.”
Any motherly insight is rooted in her deep faith, which John shared in abundance, and his heavenly reward is her bittersweet consolation, she said.
An artist is born
John Kilman was born on Father’s Day, June 19, 1966, at The Huntsville Hospital in Alabama. He was the fourth in the line of 15 children, including a sister, Gabriella, who was stillborn in 1987.
Along with his parents, Billie and David, brothers Paul and David, and sister Kathy, John is survived by Mike, 61, and Andrew, 45, both of Castle Rock, Colorado; Tom, 54, of Scappoose, Oregon; April Farley, 51, Anne LaMartina, 49, Elizabeth Modray, 43, and Daniel Kilman, 37, all of St. Louis, Missouri; Peter, 48, of Colorado Springs, Colorado; and Genevieve Ross, 41, of Toronto, Canada; and Joseph, 39, of Norwood.
Describing John as a supportive brother, Paul can only assume that John had a similar connection with their other siblings.
“The way that he connected with me, did things with me, and made sure I knew he had an interest in me, whatever I was doing. I think that’s unique for a sibling four years old than I was,” Paul said. “Most siblings do not even want their little brother around.”
But John also had a mischievous side, like the time at a beach in Florida when he showed Paul how he could spin a bucket of water in a circle without spilling a drop.
When it was Paul’s turn, John suggested his brother see what would happen if he stopped the bucket over his head.
“Of course, I did, and the water poured on my head,” resulting in a lesson from John on centrifugal force, only he called it “centrifical,” recalled Paul.
While he was annoyed, John just laughed, Paul said.
That each had their own special bond with John became clear over the years after his death, and how their grief affected life choices they made, according to Kathy.
“You realize our baby brother Dan was just 15 months old, yet our oldest brother was almost 25,” her email states.
The Kilmans moved around a bit.
In addition to Huntsville, they lived in Collingdale for a time, and Seattle, Washington, before the family settled in Norwood. And they camped throughout the country for summer vacations.
Billie Kilman still has John’s baby book, documenting his first haircut, and even a stay in the hospital when he got pneumonia, among other milestones and experiences.
When John started to talk, he loved saying hello – to everyone, his mother said.
“There were no shy kids in our house,” Billie said.
John was always positive and upbeat, his family said. If he ever got mad, they never saw it.
He knew what it felt like to be smitten with a girlfriend, and deeply felt the highs and lows of young love, according to his mother.
John attended kindergarten at Norwood Elementary, and first through eighth grades at St. Gabriel’s Catholic Grade School. He was a 1984 graduate of St. James High School.
John liked school.
“He was a good student; the work came easy to him,” his mother said.
He was an altar server, stood as godfather for his brother Daniel, and when Pope John Paul II visited Philadelphia, he was among the crowd at Mass in Logan Circle.
When he made his First Holy Communion, John wore the same white suit jacket his father wore for his as a young boy, like all the Kilman sons.
For a time, John played football for the Norwood 65-pound, and later, the 75-pound team. He also tried baseball for a while.
Mostly, he loved his art.
Billie said John was about 3 ½ when his interest in art emerged – sketching an image of Santa Claus. His talents matured over the years – evident by the artwork brother Paul has hanging on a wall in his home.
John’s thoughts on life
As John got older, Billie said he kept a journal, mostly filled with sketches, but included some random thoughts on life as well.
“Life is a series of experiences of which you go through, feelings, learning, logic, material experience, faith, all of which combine to make you whole” begins a narrative by Kilman, handwritten on a page in one of his sketchbooks, the year he died.
According to John, “One experience that is essential for a person to be complete is a relationship with the Lord. This is logical. He created me. He knows me and I’m on a path of destiny which he is in control of, unless I choose otherwise. He is all good, all the positive energy in the universe … hopefully, I will follow correctly and the end result, if I do, can be nothing but good. Finding out about him should and hopefully will always be my ultimate goal before all others.”
On another page, John wrote, “where and how do I apply what God has given to change and clean up the mess the world is in now, beyond money, beyond the world? What is the answer?”
Said Billie, “I always thought John was mature beyond his age.’
David Alexander last saw John April 17, 1986, and their conversation was mostly about music, and the Rush-Blue Oyster Cult concert David attended the previous night. John asked his brother, who was working at a bookstore, to pick him up a newly released paperback copy of “Hammer of the Gods,” an unauthorized biography of the Led Zeppelin rock band.
John wasn’t even on the work schedule for the 11 p.m. – 5 a.m. shift, overnight Thursday into Friday, April 17-18. But no one was surprised that he agreed to extend his evening shift to cover for a coworker so she could study for an exam, according to John’s mother.
Earlier in the day on Thursday, April 17, Paul said he and John were watching “Dune” on television when John got the call asking him to cover late work shift. Paul continued watching the show when John started getting ready for the double shift.
As John was getting ready to leave the house, according to his mother, he did something he did not often do.
“We were standing in the hallway, and he picked up Joseph and hugged him. Then he picked up Daniel, who was just a baby, and he said something about him being my little godson and kissed him,” Billie said.
As she often did during one of John’s shifts, Billie stopped by around dinnertime to give him a couple slices of pizza she had made.
“It was the last time I saw him alive,” his mother said.
“My son Tom was the last in the family to see John alive. He and friends had had gone to a movie Thursday night and Tom stopped in the store to chat with John, I think around midnight,” Billie said.
John’s body was found in the convenience store, located at Chester Pike and Huron Avenue by police after receiving an anonymous phone call about 2:55 a.m. on April 18, 1986.
He had been shot in the head and abdomen. There were no signs of life, though John was taken by ambulance to Taylor where he was officially pronounced dead.
While John had been working at the Stop-N-Go for years, his mother said he had expressed some frustration about the graveyard shift.
“He used to say there were no customers between 11 at night and 5 in the morning,” she said.
The Kilman murder file has always remained in Norwood Police Mark DelVecchio’s office, close at hand should any new information become known.
Norwood Police Cpl. Christopher Kennedy, who along with Sgt. Lawrence Patterson of the Delaware County Criminal Investigation Division led the homicide investigation more recently, grew up in the borough and knew John. Since he became a police officer 28 years ago, and even more so when he was promoted to his current position in 2003, he made a vow to himself that he would make every effort to solve his murder, Kennedy said.
A convenience store remains at the location but has changed ownership over the years.
Three days after John’s murder, more than 1,000 people gathered at the Cavanagh Funeral Home to say goodbye. His viewing was six hours long to accommodate the expected crowd.
“One of our friends talked about how far away he had to park and walk,” brother Paul recalled of the massive turnout.
Among the mourners were coworkers who, the summer before his death, gave John a plaque for his birthday. Engraved was an acrostic poem using adjectives that spelled out his name: Joy of friendship; Older and wiser; Heart of gold; Nice to all; Promises in keeping obligations; Warmth of heart; Kindness every day; his great Ideas; his special Love and Laughter; a Million things he does for others; Allegiance in his devotion and loyalty to God, his family and friends; for the special Need we all have for a friend like him.
“Many people at the funeral mentioned how John helped them in some way. We knew he was so special but found out it went far beyond our family,” sister Kathy said.
One woman told the family that John had been visiting her 13-year-old with a heart ailment every week, according to Billie. A nun told them that “God had granted her a special favor through John’s intercession.”
Paul said one girl at the funeral told him that she had just met John at the convenience store and that they connected.
“He would talk to people and give them his heart,” Paul said. “John didn’t have to know someone to want to help them.”
The following morning, at St. Gabriel Roman Catholic Church, there were 12 priests on the altar concelebrating John’s funeral Mass. Every pew was filled.
John’s oldest brother, Michael, delivered the eulogy, Billie said.
Paul remembers the long stretch of cars in the procession to SS. Peter and Paul cemetery, where John is buried, with his stillborn baby sister, Gabriella.
He also remembers grieving hard for more than a year and leaning on friends for support.
“Our friends, too, were devastated,” Paul recalled.
“Everyone one was in shock, especially the children. You think you are going to live forever, that you can do whatever you want and be fine, be safe,” Paul said.
Paul misses his brother’s companionship, and he thinks about the countless conversations missed over the last 36 years.
“John would talk with me about any subject,” he said.
When John died, Kathy was pregnant with her second child. On the first anniversary of his death, she returned to St. Gabriel’s for her daughter’s baptism.
“All the years since I always give myself full permission to have a day off to simply grieve or whatever. Some years are easier than others, and you really don’t know ahead of time,” she wrote.
Kathy imagines John working in the art field and helping others like he always did.
Brother Joseph and his wife, Kristen, are raising their children in the same Mohawk Avenue house where he and his siblings, including John, spent much of their lives.
“Living in my house that I grew up in is fun, telling my own children crazy stories, and them being able to understand where they happened,” Joseph stated in an email.
“Just like anyone else who has lost a family member, it is a nice thought to think John is in heaven looking down on us all, maybe sometimes laughing with us,” he went on to write. “I believe in the idea of God having a crazy awesome plan for everyone. We don’t know it and can’t understand but He knows what is meant to be.”
Had he lived, John he would have loved his role as an uncle to 58 nieces and nephews, his family said.
John’s mother likes to think that John is praying for her, and the whole family.
And when she looks around her big, beautiful home in Colorado, where she and David James moved to following his retirement from Boeing, she believes John had a heavenly hand in making it happen.
For Billie Kilman, one thing is absolute: “I would much rather be John’s mother than the mother of the boy who killed him.”
(Tenth in a special and occasional series in partnership with the Delaware County District Attorney’s Office.)
A Suspect is Identified
After 36 years, authorities in Delaware County have identified a main suspect in the shooting death of 19-year-old John Kilman of Norwood.
Michael Klein, 57, of Millsboro, Delaware, and formerly of the 1000 block of Pennsylvania Avenue in Prospect Park, died July 4 of a heart attack in prison in Delaware before he could be formally charged in the Kilman case, Delaware County Criminal Investigation Chief James E. Nolan IV said last week.
Kilman was shot during a robbery early on April 18, 1986, at the Stop-N-Go at Chester Pike and Huron Avenue in Norwood where he worked as a clerk.
Authorities believe the gunman entered the store shortly before 2:55 a.m. and ordered lunch meat.
As Kilman’s back was turned slicing the order, he was shot in the head, and again in the stomach after he collapsed on the floor. Making off with $82.76 from the cash register, the alleged shooter remained elusive, until Klein confessed to the cold case, turning the investigative heat up in recent weeks.
Kilman’s parents, David James and Billie Kilman of Colorado, and several of John’s siblings, were notified about the development in a Zoom call Wednesday (Aug. 31) afternoon with CID Sgt. Lawrence Patterson and Cpl. Christopher Kennedy of the Norwood Police Department, the lead investigators in the case.
The family was informed that local investigators were notified on June 21 by authorities in Delaware that Klein had confessed to shooting Kilman, according to CID Lt. William Gordon.
Klein, who was already in custody in Delaware for an unknown offense, was charged on June 16 in the stabbing death of a 64-year-old Millsboro man, whose body was found June 7 on a golf course.
While Klein denied involvement in the stabbing death, at some point, according to Patterson, he voluntarily confessed his role in Kilman’s death, even identifying Kilman by name, to a correctional officer at the Sussex Correctional Institution.
On June 30 in Delaware, during an interview with Patterson and Kennedy, Klein was described as “uncooperative,” though he made two admissions as the investigators attempted to validate his earlier confession.
Nolan said Klein provided information that only someone with intimate knowledge of the crime would know, but he died before investigators could pursue charges.
“From an investigation standpoint, and given the information we have, I am comfortable with us identifying him as the main suspect,” Nolan said, a sentiment echoed by Norwood Police Chief Mark DelVecchio.
“It is my opinion that it is a logical conclusion that he committed the robbery and murder,” Nolan said. “We have no evidence to the contrary.”
Patterson described Klein as having an extensive criminal history in Delaware County, having served time over the years for offenses including drugs and burglary.
Nolan stopped short of calling the case officially closed, but rather “cleared by exceptional means,” a status where an offender is not arrested and formally charged due to some element beyond law enforcement control.
By definition, a case is only considered closed by a conviction, he said.
“Moving forward, the case will remain open but inactive, unless any new information comes to light, and we encourage anyone to come forward,” Nolan said.
“We hope that this information gives the family a measure of comfort,” Margie McAboy, director of policy and public engagement for Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer, stated in a release.
Meanwhile, Billie Kilman said Thursday she has always prayed for John’s killer, and that she never expected that her son’s murder investigation would come as far as it has as the years began to pass.
But she is grateful for the new information.
“I always worried it would turn out to be someone we knew. I am so glad it wasn’t,” she said.
“I pray for him,” she said of Klein, specifically. “I feel sorry for him, and anyone who comes to such a desperate point in their lives.”
She was especially saddened to learn from authorities that at one point many years ago, Klein’s mother had a protection from abuse order against her own son.