Two Charged in Attempted Extortion of City Priest
By Robert Mills
Lowell Sun [Lowell MA]
Downloaded January 24, 2003
LOWELL A Springfield man posing as a Catholic priest on the Internet has been arrested, along with his wife, on charges they extorted $2,300 from the pastor of St. Margaret Parish in the Upper Highlands after the pastor began a sexually explicit correspondence, police said.
Dominic and Brianna Martin are accused of demanding separate payments of $1,500 and $800 from the Rev. Joseph A. Ruggeri in exchange for keeping quiet about the sexually explicit nature of Ruggeri's writings, police said.
Ruggeri, known as "Father Joe" to parishioners, is cooperating with the police investigation but has been suspended from his parish duties by the Boston archdiocese. Police suspect he used parish money either fees collected for marriage ceremonies or money from the collection plate to make the initial $1,500 payment.
Ruggeri's attorney, Kevin Murphy, declined comment but said the priest continues to cooperate with the investigation. A person who answered the phone at the St. Margaret rectory this morning said Ruggeri was not there.
Ruggeri, 70, has been pastor of St. Margaret since 1991. The church, located on Stevens Street in the Upper Highlands, is one of the more established parishes in the city, with 2,000 families.
Police Superintendent Edward Davis III said the scheme began three to six weeks ago. Ruggeri had made contact with Dominic Martin through an online site, either a bulletin board or a Web site.
Ruggeri believed Martin was a fellow priest and began a correspondence that became sexually explicit, Davis said.
At some point, however, Martin threatened to reveal the sexual nature of the material to the media if the pastor didn't come up with some money, Davis said.
The priest dropped an envelope with $1,500 at a predetermined spot, the 99 Restaurant on Chelmsford Street, and watched as a woman picked up the cash, police said. Police believe the woman was Brianna Martin.
Last week, the couple demanded another payment, this time threatening to reveal Ruggeri's sexual writings to the St. Margaret congregation at last Sunday's 11 a.m. Mass if the priest didn't agree, according to sources.
Ruggeri contacted police, and undercover police were on hand at the Mass in the event the pair attempted to hand out copies of Ruggeri's correspondences to church-goers, sources said. The Mass, however, was uneventful.
With the cooperation of police, arrangements then were made to make another payment near the restaurant at 10:45 a.m. yesterday, Davis said.
Dominic Martin, 32, and Brianna Martin, 39, were arrested after they picked up an envelope containing the $800 payment. Police watching the drop spot stopped the couple as they drove off on Industrial Avenue.
Both were charged with extortion and larceny over $250. They were held overnight at the police station on $5,000 cash bail.
As part of the investigation, Ruggeri gave police several tape-recorded messages the couple left on his answering machine. Police also confiscated the priest's computer, as well as the Martins' computer in Springfield, and plan to examine the hard drives.
It's not clear at this point if anyone else was involved in the extortion scheme, but additional charges are possible in the case, Davis said.
Dominic Martin was born Tod F.X. Biltcliffe. He lists himself on a Web site as a bishop of a fringe Christian sect, the Traditional Western Rite Archdiocese of the Holy Christian Orthodox Church.
A Web site describes the church as "the spiritual home for those faith families who wish to worship according to one of the ancient Western liturgical rites."
"Our communities worship according to one of the traditional Western Rites, all expressing the cultures and customs of the people they serve," the Web site states.
Davis said he knew little about Dominic Martin's religious background, but said police did find identification suggesting that he is a minister of some kind. "We're trying to determine exactly what that means," Davis said.
A spokesperson for the archdiocese declined comment on the case, although sources said the archdiocese plans its own investigation.
Davis said Ruggeri has been suspended from his duties at St. Margaret's and that the archdiocese is seeking a replacement.
Parishioners said they were surprised and saddened as word spread this morning.
Ernest Houle, who plays the organ in church, declined comment.
"I'm a little upset," he said.
George Cormier said he believes Ruggeri returned from earlier missionary work in Africa and was overwhelmed by the technological world around him.
"He got the computer and got so involved in it and got so overwhelmed by it," Cormier said. "He probably tried some tricks didn't know what kind of mess he could get into.
"I think he is a fantastic man he just got overcome by the world."
Reporter Jack Minch contributed to this story. Robert Mills e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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