Hearing May End Puzzling Case
Answers May Emerge in Funeral Home Killings

By Kevin Harter
Pioneer Press [Hudson WI]
Downloaded October 3, 2005

An unusual court proceeding beginning Monday may finally offer answers, if not justice, to relatives of two men killed in 2002 at a Hudson, Wis., funeral home.

The hearing could mark the close of a bizarre case that began with the shooting deaths of the men, followed by an intense investigation and the shocking news that a well-known priest had hanged himself after being questioned about the killings.

The Feb. 5, 2002, slayings of Dan O'Connell, 39, and James Ellison, 22, at the O'Connell Family Funeral Home have sparked a steady stream of rumors and theories in Hudson, a growing riverside community of about 10,000 that hadn't had a murder in more than a decade. Now residents have a chance to separate the fact from the fiction.

And to some extent, it will be the community that decides this case in over-the-coffee conversations.

No jury will take part in the so-called John Doe hearing, overseen by St. Croix County Judge Eric Lundell. After reviewing the evidence, the judge will issue an opinion stating whether the Rev. Ryan Erickson was likely responsible for the killings or if the matter is too murky to pin the blame on anyone.

Regardless of what the judge decides, a dead man can't be charged with a crime, so the John Doe hearing will probably be the final act in the investigation.

John Doe hearings, which aren't legal in Minnesota, can be used as an investigative tool in a host of ways, including gaining the testimony of witnesses who are hostile to an investigation.

"I don't know the facts of the investigation, but they are being proactive. I think they are being creative and doing what they need to do by using the only tool left," said Everett Doolittle, a Metropolitan State University professor of law enforcement and criminal justice.

"Who knows? Maybe they will find that one pearl, and maybe they won't," said Doolittle, the former director of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension's Cold Case Homicide Unit.

The difficulty is that Erickson can't defend himself, he said.

"Only a handful of states use them, and Michigan is the other notable in the Midwest," said Daniel Blinka, a law professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee and an expert in criminal procedure.

Grand juries are often largely a rubber stamp for a district attorney, he said, but in John Doe hearings, a judge can quickly make an informed decision. This can prove more valuable and less time consuming than impaneling a group of citizens.

St. Croix County District Attorney Eric Johnson has been a prosecutor for 23 years. He said he has sought John Does, primarily as an investigative tool, about 20 times.

The hearings are similar to grand juries in Minnesota, in that both are generally conducted in secret. But in grand jury proceedings, the prosecutor asks the questions and a jury determines the outcome. A judge can ask the questions in a John Doe or leave that to the district attorney, but there is no jury.

The purpose of this John Doe is to enable a judge to make a legal finding on the evidence and testimony, and if possible to say who is responsible for the slayings.

If the judge decides Erickson was responsible, the case would be closed. If not, an investigation could continue or the killings could be considered an unsolved cold case.

Johnson has convened several John Doe hearings in the funeral home killings, but this proceeding will combine the evidence gathered by investigators and testimony given by witnesses.

The proceedings won't be open to the public. The transcripts, minus names of minors, are expected to be made available within days of the hearing's conclusion, and the finding will be announced in open court.

Erickson, 31, was an associate pastor at St. Patrick's Church in Hudson at the time of the killings but was later reassigned to a Ladysmith parish and then to Hurley.

He was questioned about the homicides after a separate investigation was launched last fall into a sexual abuse allegation involving a minor or minors.

Hudson Police Chief Dick Trende has said investigators were interested in Erickson because the priest knew details of the crime scene that had not been made public.

Police said Erickson denied any involvement in the slayings.

Erickson killed himself Dec. 19 outside his parish in Hurley after police used a warrant to search his church residence and office. Shoes, guns and computers were among the items taken.

Jeff Anderson, a St. Paul-based attorney known nationally for representing victims of clergy sexual abuse, said he hoped this week's hearings would answer questions about the puzzling killings and help the victims' relatives and friends move on with their lives.

"There needs to be some resolution for the family members of the decedents. The legal closer and resolution would be for the public good," Anderson said, "and worthy of a great deal of energy."


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