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  Mystery Surrounds Life of Priest Who Killed Himself

By Kevin Harter and Alex Friedrich
Duluth News Tribune [Wisconsin]
January 30, 2005

When he was assigned to a cluster of churches around Hurley, Wis., last August, everything seemed to come together for the Rev. Ryan Erickson.

Four years after fulfilling his boyhood dream of becoming a priest, the 31-year-old had his own parish.

Clad in a traditional cassock, he conducted Masses in a style comforting to his older parishioners but with an energy and flair that drew the younger crowd as well. Attendance at worship increased by 50 percent.

He seemed happy, friends said, trading practical jokes with the church staff and getting a dog -- a golden retriever mix he named Beast.

But in early November, his life started to unravel when investigators from Hudson, Wis., arrived to question him about a double homicide at the O'Connell Family Funeral Home in Hudson in 2002 -- during the time he served a church there.

He denied any involvement, but the questioning rattled him, friends said. Five weeks after investigators first met with him, he hanged himself from a fire escape outside the Hurley rectory.

All of a sudden, the public learned he was a "person of interest" in the Hudson slayings and, a few weeks later, that he also had been questioned by Hudson police about a possible crime involving one or more minors. No details were given on the case involving minors.

Erickson's story has become the highest-profile lead in the three-year-old homicide case, but, six weeks after his suicide, his reputation remains in limbo: He has not been accused, or cleared.

Interviews with more than two dozen friends, colleagues and parishioners paint a picture of a fervent, funny, high-strung priest who was hitting his stride professionally but fell apart after being questioned about possible criminal activity.

Those close to him say the things in the news about Erickson don't sound like the man they knew.

"If they can prove it, I'll feel like the biggest fool," said Tanya Ewer, 33, of Ladysmith, Wis. "And he should win an Oscar."

TRAINING FOR PRIESTHOOD

Erickson had a deep love for the teachings of the Catholic Church, particularly those that preceded the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. He was out to fight what he saw as decay in a church he viewed as increasingly soft.

He had rules, and he insisted on them.

Bow and say "Amen" during Communion. No whispering. Genuflect -- don't just bow -- when approaching the altar. Certain parts of Mass should be said in Latin, and Midnight Mass should be at midnight.

HUDSON

His insistance on the rules sometimes led to clashes, including during his three years at St. Patrick's Church in Hudson, where he served as associate pastor after graduating from seminary in 2000.

"He wanted people to repent. Sometimes he came on so strong people didn't like it," said the Rev. Peter Szleszinski, whom Erickson assisted at St. Patrick's.

Szleszinski said he got plenty of calls and office visits from parents after their kids were told things by Erickson such as "missing Mass was a mortal sin, and if you didn't go to confession, you could end up in hell." Such pronouncements angered many parents, said parishioner Darla Meyer, an Erickson supporter, but he also formed deep friendships.

After three years in Hudson, Erickson was told he was being transferred about 124 miles northeast to serve as associate pastor to churches in Ladysmith, Hawkins and Tony, Wis. It is common for young priests to move after three years in their first assignment.

LADYSMITH AND HURLEY

Erickson wasn't a man about town in Ladysmith, but he had no trouble mixing with the locals. He could be seen playing pool, taking visitors out for dinner in his street clothes or singing karaoke.

In August 2004, Erickson was transferred to Hurley to take over for an ailing priest. The Rev. Philip J. Heslin, chief administrator of the Superior diocese, said Erickson's move after 11 months was not unusual.

Parishioners were happy to have him.

"He was the best thing to ever happen to that church," said Mike Prenderville, 53, a Hurley parishioner.

His funny, topical homilies were drawing new people into the pews, and he was having fun with his new colleagues.

THE LAST DAYS

But as Thanksgiving and Christmas neared, it was clear the investigation into the Hudson slayings was gnawing at Erickson.

Marion Shaw, a friend of the priest from Hudson, told investigators he thought they were pushing Erickson -- who was known to be emotional and got so nervous before sermons that he wouldn't eat -- too far.

"Very obviously, Father was disturbed," he said.

Worried about their friend, Rick Reams and Tom Burns made the 250-mile drive from Hudson to visit him Dec. 17 and 18. They stayed with him at the rectory, talking, going to dinner and having a few beers.

"He was upset Friday," Reams said, "but by Saturday we felt we had lifted his spirits and that it (the investigation) was on the back burner."

It was Reams who found the priest's body the next morning.

WHAT'S NEXT

Erickson is not being called a suspect in the funeral-home slayings, says Hudson Police Chief Richard Trende, but the chief says police had good reason to talk to Erickson and that they conducted the questioning with professionalism.

Erickson is a "person of interest" because he knew details of the crime scene that had not been made public, the chief said. He also made inconsistent statements, matched the physical description of a man seen at the funeral home the day of the killings and drove a car similar to one seen outside the business.

The allegation about a crime involving at least one minor came before police turned their attention to Erickson in the homicides, Trende said. He declined to elaborate on that allegation or to say whether it was related to the slayings.

Trende said he could not reveal any information about the status of the investigation. Forensic evidence from the computers and guns seized at Erickson's living quarters has been sealed, and the contents of the two suicide notes and unsigned will that he left have not been released.

Erickson has no previous criminal record, according to Wisconsin and Minnesota court records. Neither was his name known to local and regional advocates for children abused by clergy. Jennie O'Connell, widow of one of the slaying victims, says she knew of no problems between her late husband and Erickson.

One of the things the priest used to tell kids repeatedly was that suicide is a mortal sin, and several have come to Szleszinski, the St. Patrick's pastor, distraught their former priest might be in hell.

The theological answer is complex, Szleszinski said, but he has been giving the youths the bottom line, which has been a comfort.

"We don't make that decision," he said. "Only God knows."

 
 

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