The Sins of the Father

Two murders and a suicide: The strange story of Father Ryan Erickson and the rift he made in Hudson, Wisconsin

When Father Ryan Erickson celebrated Mass at St. Patrick's Church in Hudson, Wisconsin, the show was on and he was the star.

As he put it in an e-mail to his congregants, he liked his rituals "rich and mysterious"--a stark change from the "orgy of handshaking and hugs" to which they had become accustomed. The way Erickson hoisted the host over his head and held it aloft for a minute or more made a vivid contrast to the perfunctory elevation that the senior priests favored. Tears rolled down his cheeks during the ceremony. The monk's cassock he affected billowed theatrically, hiding the bulge at his waist from the pistol he always packed there.

 

Erickson's energetic performance got mixed reviews. The parishioners who were wowed by his histrionics became known as "kneelers," because they knelt during Consecration. The "standers" were either uncomfortable with his act or oblivious. Mostly they suffered in silence or opted to attend another church. The parish's spiritual life, they believed, was being hijacked by the born-agains, people they wearily referred to as "holy rollers," in reference to the way they demonstrated their fervor. Alternately, they called them "chirpers," after a retreat group that Father Ryan led named CRHP--Christ Renews His Parish.

Among the standers was 39-year-old Dan O'Connell, a member of one of Hudson's most prominent families and the owner of O'Connell Funeral Home. O'Connell was married and had two elementary school-aged children. Several generations of O'Connells had worshiped at St. Patrick's. Dan was no exception, but he wasn't very religious. O'Connell was also a Rotarian and a volunteer ambulance attendant. He served hot dogs at the annual North Hudson Pepper Fest and rode in the Dutch Days parade in nearby Baldwin. He was gregarious and sociable, and not much went on in Hudson that he didn't hear about. He saw the schism in his church firsthand every Sunday. He may have fretted about it privately, but people on both sides were buried out of his funeral home, and he had no interest in getting involved.

On February 5, 2002, O'Connell and his 22-year-old intern James Ellison were shot to death in O'Connell's office. The crime shocked the community because murders are so unusual in Hudson, and because one of the victims was such a prominent person.

The police had no real suspects three days later, when O'Connell's funeral was held at St. Patrick's. Among the priests taking part in the ceremony was Father Ryan, dressed in simple white vestments and behaving with uncharacteristic restraint. He said a quiet homily.

Unbeknownst to the mourners and the police, Father Ryan had exchanged tense words with Dan O'Connell the day before the killings, an incident that left the priest shaken. Investigators wouldn't find out about it for more than two years.

A county medical examiner discovered the bodies in the early afternoon, while he was visiting the funeral home to pick up a death certificate. The scene of the crime that he found clearly suggested that O'Connell had been the target. He was shot to death where he was sitting, behind his desk. Ellison had risen from his chair and was bolting for the door when he was shot in the back. Investigators theorized that an argument between O'Connell and the perpetrator had erupted into sudden violence. Ellison was murdered because he was a witness.

Early in the investigation the police looked into a Wisconsin-based cult, Rest of Jesus, that objects to embalming, before deciding they were harmless eccentrics. The cops also pursued the possibility that crazed potheads might have been ransacking the mortuary for embalming fluid to spike their marijuana. But the idea didn't stand up. "You don't need a license to buy embalming fluid," says Hudson Police Chief Richard Trende, "and it's not expensive. There was just no evidence to support that theory."

In fact there was no evidence to support any theory--
but there were plenty of rumors. One of them had O'Connell and his intern returning to the mortuary and discovering the perpetrator in flagrante delicto with a corpse.

Another involved Father Ryan, but only peripherally. Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, O'Connell had helped organize a fundraiser for the victims, a spaghetti dinner at St. Patrick's. There was suspicion that he'd discovered someone stealing cash. Father Ryan had helped out with the dinner, but there was no evidence that any money was missing, only gossip.

If the investigators had been looking, they might have noticed that the church itself seemed to be a center of intrigue. There were threats against the church school's principal, who'd resigned under the sustained assault of Father Ryan's most fervent followers. There was Father Ryan's gun collection and his history of binge drinking. Something had happened to this once-peaceful 150-year-old parish to cleave it down the middle, and Father Ryan was the central figure in the conflict.

For two years, the questions continued. This week, at last, St. Croix County Attorney Eric Johnson is presenting evidence connecting Father Ryan to the murders. Johnson will offer an explanation for what Erickson and O'Connell were talking about in the minutes before the murder. And he will confirm what has long been whispered by Erickson's harshest critics: that the crusading sexual moralist had been engaging in the same crimes against children that have devastated the Catholic church in recent years.

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