January 19, 2013 in Washington Voices

School report on ancestors uncovers details around decades-old murders

By The Spokesman-Review
Jesse Tinsley photoBuy this photo

Joselynn Tensley, 14, holds a photo of her great-great-grandmother Lena Malito, seen at left in the photo displayed on a smartphone Wednesday. Joselynn did a report for school about her heritage and found that Malito’s husband was murdered on a Spokane street and that she later married the alleged killer.
(Full-size photo)

Google news archives of The Spokesman-Review and Spokane Daily Chronicle coverage of the Potestio trial:

Two Men Dead Following Local Shooting, Sep. 6, 1932 - Spokane Daily Chronicle

Potestio, Slayer of Two, Tells Reason for Crime, Sep. 8, 1932 - Spokane Daily Chronicle

Ex-wife of Man Slain by Potestio, Sep. 15, 1932 - Spokane Daily Chronicle

Many to Testify in Murder Trial, Nov. 28, 1932 - Spokane Daily Chronicle

Potestio Trial Will be Drawn Around Motive, Dec. 5, 1932 - Spokane Daily Chronicle

Dozen Jurors Called Today, Dec. 6, 1932 - Spokane Daily Chronicle

Unravel Italian Romance in Potestio Murder Trial, Dec. 10, 1932 - Spokane Daily Chronicle

Widow of Slain Man on Stand, Dec. 10, 1932 - The Spokesman-Review

Sprang at Man Who Killed Him, Friends of Potestio Say Peter Malito Didn’t Cringe, Dec. 13, 1932 - The Spokesman-Review

No Verdict Yet in Potestio Trial, Dec. 15, 1932 - Spokane Daily Chronicle

Order Insurance To Be Paid Off, Sep. 7, 1934 - Spokane Daily Chronicle

Charles Potestio Taken by Death, June 24, 1941 - Spokane Daily Chronicle

When 14-year-old Joselynn Tensley scrolled through rolls of microfilm for a school project, she uncovered the juicy details her great-great-grandmother hid from future generations: a sensational murder trial and a scandalous romance.

Reporters described Lena Malito as a pretty Italian woman who was the star defense witness in Charles Potestio’s murder trial. On Labor Day 1932, Potestio was accused of killing her ex-husband, Peter Malito, and his friend John Mauro on the street outside what is now the Bing Crosby Theater, after they reportedly stalked him at local hotels.

To Joselynn’s shock, she learned Lena married Potestio less than a year after he was acquitted of the murder charges.

“How do you get away with murder and why would she go and marry him?” Joselynn said.

Potestio worked in theater advertising, later becoming a lithographer, according to his obituary published in 1941. Lena never remarried after his death at the age of 62.

Lena’s descendants say she didn’t like to talk about the trial or the deadly encounter. She hid most of the drama from her two children, Ralph and Mary Malito, who were taken to their aunt’s home near Dishman Hills the night of the murder.

Joselynn’s mother, B.J. Tensley, remembers going to local cemeteries with her grandmother, Mary, when she was a little girl. They would regularly place flowers on the graves of Lena and Peter Malito. Never Potestio’s.

When Tensley would ask her grandmother about her parents, she never really got a good answer.

The research sparked more curiosity for Joselynn. At Central Valley High School, Joselynn was studying Italy for her world geography class. Her family’s history was the perfect way to learn more.

Lena immigrated to the United States from Italy with her three sisters and settled in Spokane, according to Spokesman-Review archives. She married Peter Malito in 1917 and they eventually lived in a house at 3312 E. Euclid Ave. A year after the birth of her first child, she met Potestio.

“We always looked on him as a relative. He came home with Malito and later came with others,” Lena testified during the trial. “Potestio would tell Malito to have me cook dinner and he always paid well for the meals, paid more than they were worth.”

She divorced Peter Malito in May 1932. She claimed Potestio did not break up their marriage.

During the trial, Lena Malito consulted a pastor who claimed to be a medium to the dead, reports said. He turned over to prosecutors a list of questions Lena Malito asked him, including if she would marry Potestio.

Peter Malito threatened Lena Malito before and after their divorce, she said.

“He said: ‘You marry him or any other man, I’ll kill him, the children and you and save the last bullet for myself. I swear this over the bones of my dead brother. I’ll do it.’ He hit me and I fell down,” Lena Malito told the court.

B.J. Tensley is skeptical of the romance between Lena and Potestio.

“I don’t know if they were truly in love, but some of the stories my family was told, it may have been out of fear. He may have had some ties which is how he got acquitted from his trial,” B.J. Tensley said.

They’ve hunted for family photos since the discovery and found plenty of Lena and Peter Malito, but none of Potestio.

The Tensleys wonder what piece of their history is still in Italy. They’ve identified distant relatives near Grinaldi, Calabria, but the language barrier makes communication difficult.

The history they do have is stored on aging archives and a family’s intrigue passed down the generations, but nobody really knows why two men died and what role Lena and Potestio played. Not even the trial could answer that.

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