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Cold-case murders: The Ski Wing Murders

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Two men killed in cold blood, one from Cuba NY

Michael T. Baldwin special report

February 6, 1978 in Allegany, NY (Cattaraugus County):

On Sunday evening, February 5, 1978, in Allegany, NY, employees of the Wing Hollow Ski Resort, also known as Ski Wing, were busy preparing the slopes. Everything seemed normal on this bitterly frigid evening at the former Grosstal Ski Resort. The temperature dipped as low as nine degrees, according to the National Weather Service

Two of the ski trail groomers, Michael R. Forness, 29, of Cuba, and Stephen C. Bender, 30, of Olean, were working the overnight shift. At some point, the snow grooming machine broke down, so between midnight and 1 AM on February 6, the duo headed for the chalet to warm up or perhaps grab some tools to make the necessary repairs.

Unfortunately, they showed up at the wrong time.

Inside the building, burglars were in the process of trying to extract a safe from the concrete floor of the manager’s office. It is likely that the pair walked in on the crime in progress. The burglars shot Forness and Bender three times each in the back of the head.

After the brutal double homicide, the killers hauled away the safe filled with $18,000 in cash (which is approximately $82,000 adjusted for 2022 inflation).

The murdered men were discovered at 3 AM when a janitor walked in on the gruesome scene. The janitor, Donald McCartan, was supposed to be at work at midnight, but he accidentally overslept. Police think that may have prevented him from becoming the third victim.

About a month later, the nearly 200 pound safe was discovered in the Allegheny River under the Vandalia Bridge by a New York State trooper. At the time, the one-lane bridge connected Route 417 just east of the community of Vandalia to County Route 60, known as South Nine Mile Road (it was closed for safety reasons in 1989). The empty safe had a hole cut in the side.

According to New York State Police senior investigator Gulio Giardini, “We believe it would’ve taken at least a couple people to grab it. We believe the safe weighed approximately 175 pounds. It was a floor mounted safe so it would’ve had to been pulled from the floor.”

The janitor who found the murdered men is not a suspect, although investigators still believe it could have been an inside job.

“We think there might have been some prior knowledge, and we also believe that they were surprised and again, removing that safe from the floor, that would take some work,” Giardini said. “That’s not something that you’d be able to do in just a few minutes. That would take some time to remove that from the floor.”

The killers also didn’t have the combination, but they were prepared.

“Saws or any other type of equipment that it would be able to pull it from the floor, because it was mounted to the concrete floor,” Giardini said.

The Ski Wing case also frustrated J. Thomas Stofer, a retired State Police investigator who was at the murder scene that morning and spent more than 30 years trying to run down hundreds of leads. “What bothers me is these were two innocent working men, out there working a midnight shift on a bitter cold night,” Stofer said. “The guys who did this were hard-core criminals. They went there with guns, and they were ready to use them to make sure there were no witnesses.”

Ski Wing closed a few years later due to financial problems.

Despite hundreds of leads over the years, the case remains unsolved.

“To the living, we owe respect. But to the dead, we owe only the truth.” —Voltaire

Anyone with information on the case can contact the New York State Police-Olean barracks at 716-373-2550.

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