Altar Cloth in Mercy Hospital Hallway May Expose Nun's Killer
Letter Opener, Scissors Could Have Been Weapon

By Robin Erb
Toledo Blade [Toledo OH]
Downloaded April 29, 2003

On her way down a Mercy Hospital hallway, a Sisters of Mercy nun instinctively picked up neatly folded linen lying on the floor outside a chapel door on the morning of April 5, 1980.

Believing it to be a pillow case, she picked it up and took it into St. Joseph's chapel. She laid the simple cloth on a pew and - despite what she later described as an "eerie feeling" - went about her task of preparing organ music for that day's Holy Saturday services.

It wasn't until after her discovery moments later of murdered Sister Margaret Ann Pahl in the adjoining sacristy - and the ensuing chaos of responding doctors, distraught sisters, and a team of Toledo police investigators to the chapel - that someone unfolded the linen.


The stained linen cloth could be a critical piece of evidence collected at the time of the 1980 murder, according to documents obtained by The Blade. With new forensic investigation techniques, it could help prosecutors 24 years later lay out their murder case against a 66-year-old priest, the Rev. Gerald Robinson.

Father Robinson, who served at the hospital as chaplain at the time of the murder, was arrested Friday at his home next to the Scott Park police station. He remained in the Lucas County jail yesterday while supporters try to raise the $200,000 cash, or $400,000 in property, for his bond. He was placed on leave Tuesday by the Toledo Catholic Diocese.

Meanwhile, longtime Toledo attorney Alan Konop joined attorney John Thebes to defend Father Robinson. Though Mr. Thebes has known Father Robinson since childhood, Mr. Konop does not know the priest personally.

A day before Easter and her 72nd birthday, Sister Margaret Ann's body was found shortly after 8 a.m. in the sacristy of one of two chapels at the former Mercy Hospital.

She had been strangled, an altar cloth had been laid on her body, and her neck and torso had been stabbed up to 32 times. Her body was partially disrobed, and investigators at the time said it appeared that her killer wanted to make it look as though she was sexually assaulted.

A window blind in the sacristy had been lowered.

Sister Margaret Ann's eyeglasses lay on the marble floor nearby.

In later interviews with investigators at least three doctors responding to the scene under the code "Mr. Swift" told police they had checked the nun's pulse or breathing. However, they noted, her body was already cool to the touch.

The late Rev. Jerome Swiatecki knelt over her body to give her the last rites.

Through efforts to save the life of the elderly nun and follow the rites of the Catholic church, the original crime scene - where critical evidence such as fingerprints or blood evidence or smudges could provide clues to a killer - was compromised.

Neither investigators nor prosecutors would say just how much of the information taken from the scene is useful, but they have said that blood transfer pattern evidence is a key to the case.

Trying to save a life is certainly something that no one can criticize, said Art Marx, one of the original Toledo police detectives investigating the murder case.

"Your primary responsibility is for the safety of that victim," said Mr. Marx, who retired from the force in 1996.

In fact, investigators collected over the next several days two altar cloths, scissors similar to the ones Sister Margaret Ann Pahl used to cut wicks from candles at the hospital's two chapels, and a unique letter opener "shaped like a sword," documents obtained by The Blade indicate.

New techniques

Those items could now be subjected to new forensic investigative techniques.

"When I started in 1975 blood was something you cleaned up. It didn't have a forensic value to most people," said Norman Reeves, who spent 25 years in law enforcement and is the secretary-treasurer of the International Association of Bloodstain Pattern Analysts.

Members of that group interpret blood stains found at crime scenes, such as the shape, size, and location as they relate to the forces that created the stains.

Blood stain pattern analysis is not new. Information dating to the 1800s shows Europe used and experimented with blood stain pattern analysis, Mr. Reeves said. However, Toledo investigators may not have used the discipline in 1980 because it isn't something every law-enforcement agency was using because they lack knowledge or training.

Blood-stain evidence "can be extremely important or it may be nothing," said Herbert MacDonell, director of the Laboratory of Forensic Science in Corning, N.Y. "It can be a key piece of evidence. In other cases, it doesn't mean anything at all. You have to take each case individually."

Mr. Reeves gave an example of how a blood transfer pattern works: A knife handle with the name Chicago cutlery on it becomes bloody because it was in a suspect's hand. The suspect puts the knife on a counter. The Chicago cutlery wording could leave remains on the counter when the knife is picked up because the blood transferred the pattern.

Aside from determining where blood is found, it is crucial for investigators to determine where blood is not found, he said.

Mr. Reeves said experts do not generally form an opinion on one blood stain or one small group of blood stains if they are looking at photographs. However, if a blood transfer pattern that has identifiable characteristics is transferred to a surface they can study, the evidence may become more than circumstantial.

"It can be helpful in a case. Sometimes it can be pivotal," Mr. Reeves said.

From what he has heard about the Toledo case, he said, "I believe there is a contact transfer pattern that is significant in this case."

Many possibilities

Among the items seized at the time was a letter opener with a unique medallion taken from the room of Father Robinson at Mercy Hospital, documents show. Tests on the opener for blood proved inconclusive at the time, but a coroner's office review by Dr. Renate Fazekas, a forensic pathologist, indicated the letter opener "could have been the weapon used" in the stabbings.

Dr. Fazekas also determined at the time that a pair of scissors - requested by investigators and comparable to a missing pair of scissors that Sister Margaret Ann used to cut wicks from candles - "very well could have been the weapon" but would not say "with 100 percent certainty."

There were other possibilities too.

One hospital worker told police that she had lent a knife or scissors to one of the men who delivered laundry and that he had failed to return them. Another nun found a pocketknife that did not belong to her in an old cake box, where she stored odds and ends.

A housekeeper who had helped Sister Margaret Ann clean the chapels told police she had found a window open in a board room on the first floor the night before Sister Margaret Ann was killed.

Noting there had been recent thefts of hospital property, she was concerned enough to call security to search the room for her. They found nothing.

A medical records clerk told police that she was praying in the chapel, also on Good Friday, when the lights mysteriously went out and curtains near an emergency exit seemed to move.

Police conducted dozens of interviews with Mercy nuns, hospital employees, and even jail inmates.

Crime tips were few but had investigators seeking out suspicious loiterers and disgruntled employees.

In the days following the murder, investigators also sent clothes and fingerprints to evidence technicians. It is unclear how much of it proved helpful.

Fact or frenzy?

Today some of the frustration for investigators is the mingling of fact and rumors that have been believed for so long.

Among them, that lit candles were found around Sister Margaret Ann's body.

Despite numerous broadcast news reports, both locally and nationally, as well as a news wire report, candles were never found out of place in the sacristy, investigators have told The Blade.

Such misinformation frustrates people such as Lucas County Prosecutor Julia Bates, who this week issued a statement that her office no longer will comment on the case.

She said the national media "frenzy" over the case endangers both Father Robinson's right to a fair trial and the public's right to have him tried in the jurisdiction where the crime occurred.

"It's unfair to him and it's unfair to us," she said.

The case has been reviewed more than once.

Former Toledo police Officer Dave Davison, who this week accused Toledo police of failing to aggressively pursue Father Robinson as a suspect, said he asked police to look at the case again after he retired in 1990 as a result of a disability.

Former Toledo Police Chief Gerald Galvin remembers Mr. Davison's request well, he said, because investigators in the case that occurred long before he took the top post felt they knew who the killer was but were frustrated by a lack of proof.

"We had blood evidence, but we didn't have the DNA technology then," he said.

The now-retired police chief also recalled Mr. Davison's accusations of a coverup, but he dismissed them.

"There's always the concern on some people's part that this was a Catholic priest; so [the claims were that] we were reluctant to move forward," Mr. Galvin, a Catholic himself, said. "I never found that evidence."

He forwarded the original investigation files to then-Lt. Rick Reed, who attempted to interview Father Robinson, but the priest declined, Mr. Galvin said. Lt. Reed, who has since retired, could not be reached for comment.

Mr. Marx, who first handled the case, said he was certain at the time that whoever the murderer was, he or she was familiar with the hospital and with the routine of the sisters.

"My thoughts were: You're in the hospital, and you're not just in a hospital - you're in a chapel where there is a dining room and a religious community down the hall.

"And then you're in a chapel, and you go in the sacristy. What are the odds that a stranger is going to end up there?"

Blade Staff Writer Christina Hall contributed to this report.

Contact Robin Erb at: 419-724-6133.


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