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Saturday, June 20, 2009

Redemption - the story of the brothers Kilbane


JC Sullivan

On July 13, 2003, the Cleveland Plain Dealer Sunday Magazine published a front-page story titled “They’ve Done Their Time”. The story was about two young Irish-American Cleveland gangsters, Martin and Owen Kilbane. The headline of the article was quoting FBI Special Agent Robert Ressler, who investigated the young brothers and helped put them behind bars. “They earned their freedom,” he said. However, the back room politics of using little fish to catch bigger ones surround this very public case, one that isn’t over yet. What follows is the story’s history.

● July, 1968. Richard Robbins shot and killed Ted Brown in Cleveland Heights,
Although the Kilbanes had no part in it, the event would later link them
to Robbins.

● August,1968. Phil Christopher shot and killed Arnie Prunella, a rival gangster of the
Kilbane Brothers.

● January, 1969. Richard Robbins shot and killed Marlene Steele in Euclid, Ohio. She
was the wife of Euclid Municipal Judge Robert Steele.

Brothers Owen and Martin Kilbane, and their sister Peggy, grew up in Cleveland Heights, raised in the home of their paternal grandparents, Anthony J, Kilbane, a plumber and emigrant from Achill, County Mayo, Ireland and Mary McCoy Kilbane. Their mother Ruth was a Registered Nurse. Their father, John J. Kilbane, was absent during their childhood years, a result of alcoholism. As children, they attended St. Ann’s Grade School. Their grandfather would later provide the boys with two years of military academy discipline.

Owen was just 16 years old when he went along with an older friend who robbed a Cleveland Heights delicatessen. The friend was caught and dropped a dime on Owen, who then became the youngest inmate in the old Mansfield, Ohio prison. Owen said, “I became angry and bitter and had to fight for my life. I wasn’t old enough to get the offer eighteen year old first-timers did back then - go into the military or go to jail. Had I been given that option you wouldn’t be talking to me from prison.” Martin added, "What came back was a mean, nasty person, who was going to get back at the world for screwing him like that.”

When he was finally released, a hard-bitten Owen put his organizational and prison-learned skills to work. He was a millionaire by age 25. With Martin as a partner, they amassed their fortune through gambling, loan sharking, and prostitution. One of their clients for the latter trade was Judge Steele. Both regret the day they met him.

Steele commissioned the brothers to hire someone to murder his wife, who would not agree to a divorce. Owen at first tried to talk Steele out of it. He mentioned it to his brother Martin and both were amazed a Judge would do such a deceitful deed. When Richard Robbins, who was AWOL from the Marines, found out about Steele plan, he immediately requested the job.

Because of his high-profile racketeering investigations, the FBI’s Robert Ressler, was assigned to investigate Owen’s activities. While doing so he uncovered information that implicated Robbins, the Kilbane brothers and Robert Steele in the murder of Steele’s wife.

Cleveland Heights Police were convinced Robbins killed Ted Brown. Knowing Robbins was a weak link, they built a case on him and in 1976 he was convicted for Browne’s murder. Sentenced to life, he contacted Euclid, Ohio police from his cell in a Chillicothe, Ohio prison and began to deal for his testimony in the Steele case. The deal got Robbins immunity in the Steele murder and a commutation in the Browne murder. For his testimony he was freed after serving only six years in the Brown murder and NO time for the Steele murder.

The Kilbane brothers and Steele were convicted of the Steele murder in 1977 and sentenced to 15 years to life for the crime. However, after serving four years, they were released on bond after, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, “a federal judge ruled that the prosecutor had made prejudicial remarks and that the trial judge had erred by allowing FBI agent Ressler to read to the jurors a statement he had taken from Carol Braun.” That prosecutor was Carmen Marino.

While out on bond for his wife’s murder, Robert Steele began working with the prosecutor, trying to convince them he had nothing to do with his wife’s murder. The prosecutor knew better but wanted any other information Steele had on the Kilbane Brothers. Steele said he was aware they had a problem with a rival gangster named Arnie Prunella who had been killed and dumped in Lake Erie.

Police had information that Phil Christopher had killed Prunella, so now it seemed all the pieces were together to make a conviction in this murder. In 1983, while the Kilbanes were still out on bond on the Steele murder, they were arrested and charged with the Prunella murder. The Prunella case ended in a mistrial when Christopher took a Plea Agreement and, without his cooperation against the Kilbanes, the case had to be dropped at that time.

In early 1990s, Phil Christopher was convicted in a drug dealing case and made a deal to get his time cut. He made a statement against the Kilbane Brothers about Prunella.
The word on the street was the Kilbanes had been having trouble with Prunella, who was threatening them. When he became belligerent, he was killed.

In August 2003, the Kilbanes went to the Parole Board and were told they would be paroled in one year. In December 2003, the Prosecutor indicted the Kilbane Brothers on the Prunella murder. Although Court records indicate the Prosecutor’s Office had Christopher’s statement since the early 1990s, t seems the back-room deal made back in the 70s to free Robbins was still at work.

The Kilbanes have been in prison for over 30 years while Christopher, who killed Prunella, received no time for that murder. Robbins, who killed both Brown and Steele, only served six years for Browne, and no time for Steele. Where is the justice in that?.

The Kilbanes allege they have become political prisoners because of the “backroom deal.” Their may be some truth to their claim. In an almost identical case, Crawford v Washington, the United States Supreme Court held that the use at trial of out of court statements made to police by an unavailable witness violated a criminal defendant's Sixth Amendment right to confront witnesses against him. Carol Braun's statement to police was used to remand the brothers back to jail after an Ohio court ha freed them.

They are asking Friends of the Kilbane Brothers for help by signing the
on-line petition at

Sullivan is an Irish-American writer residing in northeast Ohio. His publishing credits are numerous, including Irish America Magazine, the Plain Dealer Sunday Magazine, Irish Echo Newspaper, County Mayo News, Western People (Achill), Ohio Irish News and others. He can be reached through


  1. I was a friend of both brothers in my teens and I believe them to be rehabilitated. They have served their time, more than most prisoners. I always found Owen to be a nice person. - Len Berman

  2. (What's a URL?) If people have done their time, if they're model prisoners, if they have saved lives in prison, if they have mentored prisoners and helped keep the peace, if an FBI Agent says to parole them, they should be paroled. Why are we paying to support law-abiding people? The Kilbanes need to be furloughed and paroled. - Anne

  3. There is so much more!

  4. Victim's Services should never be a lynch mob. All crime goes back to childhood and the reaction of the "Justice" system. It's PTSD. Owen was jailed and labeled a felon at the age of 16, for a tag-along robbery with no weapons. He was locked up with sexual predators and adult criminals with no protection, for over one year. The 18 year old robber received probation, with no life-long felon label. Congratulations to the judge for stupidity. Thousands of inmates are released nationally every single day, especially when they are seniors. Our prison system has become job security for the employees and for private prison industries. Release the seniors!

  5. PLEASE NOTE: For a list of "Achievements and Education" of the Kilbane brothers while in prison, please click on "2009" under the "BLOG ARCHIVE" listed above, on the right side of the page. Then, scroll down to the "Achievements and Education - Owen Kilbane" and "Archievements and Education - Martin Kilbane" (Martin's name is mispelled on the site). Please consider signing the petition. In both cases the triggermen received zero time. The Kilbane brothers were in their late teens and early twenties at the time of the crimes, and they have been in prison for 35 years, over 20 years in minimum security. They are now 62 and 64 years old. To continue to keep them is to waste your tax money for their food, clothing, shelter, and health care. A prison should not be a senior care community. Their families are waiting to take care of them. Thank you for your support. (Supporters for the release of the Kilbane Brothers)

  6. My apologies - Martyn's name is spelled as noted here. The "Martin" spelling is incorrect. My mistake. We pray for their release.

  7. Time to come home. God be with you both. A friend of BA's.

  8. Release them.

  9. It is long overdue for them to be released. My daughter and granddaughter need to get to know and meet their Dad and Uncle. Life isn't going to wait forever. I beg they be released. My daughter needs her Dad . I have known the Kilbane's for over 40 yrs they are respectful people. I believe in second chance's. I lost my youngest son a year ago and my husband 11 yrs ago. Sadden's me to think my daughter and granddaughter might never get to know their Father and uncle. Please release them.

  10. an unjust justice, release them, they have served their time.

  11. Let em rot.... Three people died at their hand either directly or indirectly... Steel was a bum and Robbins was a murderer... those two did not pull the trigger but did pull the strings.

  12. When the people they killed come out and start walking around then they can come out and do the same.

  13. If that was your mother they arranged to have killed would you want them out?

  14. i knew both brothers while incarcerated, they inspired me to be a better person, i worked out with marty and often talked with owen who coached our softball team, tthey have paid yheir debt, release themm it is the right thing to do

  15. Paul castelliono from Youngstown ? , I agree let em go and live what life they have left ,