|Assault Suspect: Fugitive LV Priest Caught
Manhunt Ends near Phoenix
By Brian Haynes
Las Vegas Review-Tribune [Arizona]
February 2, 2007
The Rev. George Chaanine's time as a fugitive ran out Thursday after his car was pulled over on an Arizona highway.
The priest surrendered to local authorities about 3 p.m. near Apache Junction, roughly 30 miles east of Phoenix, ending a six-day manhunt that began with an attack on a church worker at Our Lady of Las Vegas Catholic Church.
Chaanine was stopped in his cream-colored 2005 Buick LeSabre. He was wearing glasses, a dark flannel shirt, leather jacket and blue jeans as he was handcuffed and driven away in a patrol car.
The arrest came within hours of a tip to Las Vegas police that Chaanine might be in the Phoenix area, said Lt. John Bradshaw, head of the sexual assault detail.
"We got the information we did. We got it to our affiliate in Phoenix, and they were able to take him into custody," he said.
Bradshaw could not provide the nature of the tip but suggested the traffic stop might have been happenstance.
"Sometimes we get lucky in police work," Bradshaw said. "And there's nothing wrong with that."
A team of detectives was headed to Arizona to try to interview Chaanine, who will face an extradition hearing before being brought to Las Vegas to face charges.
The 52-year-old has been charged with attempted murder with a deadly weapon, attempted murder, sexual assault with a deadly weapon, kidnapping and other charges in connection with the attack of Michaelina Bellamy, a professional singer who has performed on the Strip.
He has been charged in federal court with fleeing to avoid prosecution.
Bellamy feared for her life while Chaanine remained on the run, and she welcomed news of his capture, said her lawyer, Bob Massi.
"Everybody's relieved," he said.
Bellamy, 54, told police she was sitting at her desk in the office of the church, which is on Alta Drive near Rancho Drive, when Chaanine belted her over the head with a wine bottle until it shattered.
He then dragged her across the floor by her hair and fondled her breasts and genitalia while she was in and out of consciousness, a police report said.
Bellamy fought back, but the priest pinned her on the ground and began strangling her, the report said. She was losing consciousness when Chaanine stopped and stood up.
"I am over the edge," he said, according to the report. "I am going to kill myself. Wait for fifteen minutes. I will get you an ambulance."
He was gone by the time police showed up and surrounded the area. Bellamy was treated at University Medical Center for a gash in her head, a broken hand and bruises.
News of the attack and manhunt made national headlines, and tips began pouring in.
One of the best came Tuesday afternoon when Chaanine visited a Bank of America in the Northern California city of Monterey. Police searched more than 45 area hotels but did not find any sign of the fugitive priest or his car.
Another sighting in Monterey came the next morning by a citizen who said a man fitting Chaanine's description asked for directions to a conference center where a ceremony was held the day before to install a new Roman Catholic bishop, authorities said.
Bradshaw said Thursday that he did not know where Chaanine might have been headed.
"It's no secret he had ties in Texas, in El Paso," Bradshaw said, referring to Chaanine's time as a pastor in the border town.
Since coming to the United States from his native Lebanon in 1995, Chaanine has worked at churches across the country, including in Detroit, Wheeling, W.Va., and El Paso.
He began working in Las Vegas about three years ago, spending the past year and a half at Our Lady of Las Vegas.
Bishop Joseph Pepe, head of the Diocese of Las Vegas, praised authorities.
"We are relieved that Father Chaanine has been found, and now justice can be served through the legal process," the bishop said in a statement. "We have worked closely with the authorities and are hopeful that the information we provided proved helpful."
Bradshaw said the diocese was helpful.
"As far as I'm concerned, they answered our questions and were willing to help us in any way we asked," he said.
Pepe said in the statement that he "wanted to thank the Las Vegas community and the parishioners of Our Lady for their support and prayer throughout this difficult time."
Upon hearing news of the arrest Thursday, Butch Benda, a parishioner picking up his niece from the church school, said: "I hope everything turns out OK for everybody. I like Father George. I hope he didn't do anything."
Parishioner John Hunt expressed relief.
"I'm glad he has been apprehended so ... we can sort out what happened and our parish can move forward," he said.
Review-Journal writer Keith Rogers contributed to this report.
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