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  Priest Adjusts to Prison As Church Heals
Crandall Serving 51-Month-Sentence on Drug-Dealing Charges

By Derek Pivnick
Pensacola News Journal
June 23, 2003

The cozy confines of the rectory at St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church may be a distant memory for Thomas A. Crandall, the church's former priest.

It has been more than a year since Crandall transferred from an Escambia County jail cell to the federal prison system, where he was sentenced to a 51-month prison term.

Crandall has completed more than one-third of his sentence, handed down after he pleaded guilty in 2002 to one charge of conspiracy to possess with the intent to deliver five grams or more of methamphetamine or Ecstacy.

Crandall, 48, is serving time at Edgefield Federal Correctional Institution in South Carolina. About 3,000 residents make their home in Edgefield, 30 miles north of Augusta, Ga. Crandall is among some 500 inmates assigned to a minimum-security satellite camp, a half-mile from the main, medium-security prison.

Crandall was the popular priest at St. Rose of Lima in Milton for three years, until a drug informant led authorities to the sometimes-flamboyant cleric, who provided the informant drugs for resale.

Some of their meetings occurred in the church rectory, a 2,970-square-foot brick house that Crandall called home.

Crandall now shares space with 128 other federal inmates in a dormitory lined with bunk beds. Four dormitories make up the satellite camp, which is surrounded by 10-foot chain-link fence - without barbed or razor wire seen around higher-security prisons.

His day starts about 6 a.m. Crandall gets an hour for breakfast before going to work for the day.

"All the inmates at our satellite camp are required to work," said Mike Smith, public information officer at Edgefield prison.

An inmate works 7I hours a day in any number of positions - food service worker, orderly, plumber, painter, warehouse worker, landscaper or groundskeeper - depending on his qualifications and what job the camp needs done.

Crandall works in the supply department, said former St. Rose of Lima parishioner Sheryl Champagne, 60, who makes the eight-hour drive once a month to visit the priest.

"He's a very good organizer," Champagne said.

In fact, Champagne said, Crandall has an outstanding rating and has been given a raise from 12 cents to 17 cents an hour.

Champagne has remained loyal to her priest and is one of about a dozen of his former flock who make the drive periodically to see him. They usually travel in groups of about four, in an effort to space out the visits.

Even before Crandall went to jail, Champagne was ministering to inmates. She is the power of attorney for Crandall and has a close relationship with the man whose fall came quickly and unexpectedly for those to whom he ministered.

Crandall has many friends at the prison camp and has come to know many of their family members by name, Champagne said. He warmly greets them during their family visits.

"Father's still being a priest. But Father's always been a good person," Champagne said. "He made a mistake. He took some drugs to keep him going."

Crandall is well-liked and has no discipline problems. He prays with other inmates, writes many letters and reads Scripture. Crandall has access to a law library and a leisure library. The prison has an agreement with the Edgefield County library system to occasionally conduct a book exchange for inmates.

Crandall's dorm has a couple of enclosed television rooms with cable, but no premium movie channels. The camp has no weight room, but inmates have a softball field and walking track for exercise.

There is no set time to go to bed. However "lights down," when the big ceiling lights are dimmed, is at 10 p.m.

Accepting blame

Champagne said Crandall has come to accept his mistakes.

"It's his own fault. He deserves it," she said. "He's lucky he only got four years."

In December 2001, Escambia County narcotics deputies seized more than 40 Ecstacy capsules from an individual, who began cooperating with law enforcement. Deputies and agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration began surveillance on Crandall. In January 2002, they pulled him over on Interstate 10 on his way back from New Orleans. He was found to have drugs in his Jeep and was placed into custody.

After Crandall's arrest, officers searched the rectory and uncovered more than 14 grams of methamphetamine, 10 grams of marijuana and about a gram of Ecstacy.

At his April 2002 sentencing hearing, Crandall told Chief U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson job stress made him use drugs. He pleaded guilty and avoided a trial.

Any money Crandall earns in prison goes first to pay fines and restitution. Court records show Crandall was fined $1,000 but that it was suspended.

The diocese figured Crandall took nearly $100,000 from the church to purchase a condominium in New Orleans and a green, 2000 Jeep Cherokee with vanity license plates that spelled out "FR THOM."

Crandall agreed to sell the condominium and liquidate money he held in a money market account to make restitution to the parish, which has been done, according to Monsignor Michael Mooney, director of communications for the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee. Crandall also agreed to a repayment plan after he is released from prison.

The diocese estimated the proceeds from the condominium sale at $30,000. Crandall also had about $50,000 in investments that were sold to repay the parish.

Crandall's salary was $17,175 a year.

Before coming to St. Rose of Lima in April 1998, Crandall led a parish in Port St. Joe for 13 years. After his arrest, questions were raised there about his behavior and missing money.

Crandall has not been charged with stealing from the parishes.

"He had just celebrated 20 years in the priesthood, so (Crandall's arrest) was totally unexpected," said St. Rose of Lima parishioner Suzanna Jones, 60. "He was so well-liked."

During his tenure, Crandall wasn't a subdued clergyman. Crandall dyed his hair blond and called himself "The Gold Domer" during football season, a show of support for the University of Notre Dame football team. He also was a well-known figure in New Orleans' gay community and a member of the Krewe of Petronius, the city's oldest gay krewe.

Crandall never hid the fact that he was a priest. Upon his release, Crandall won't be able to don the collar.

"He was not officially defrocked, but he will not function as a priest in the diocese," said Mooney, who added that it's unlikely Crandall will perform official duties as a priest in any diocese.

But Crandall still can call himself a priest.

"A priest, once he's ordained ... he's a priest forever," Mooney said.

Life after prison

Providing Crandall continues to have no discipline problems, he'll be released Sept. 24, 2005, after serving 85 percent of the 41*4-year sentence. Federal prisoners get 54 days deducted from their sentences every year for good behavior.

He will be on four years of supervised release after finishing his prison sentence.

Jones said attendance is rising again at St. Rose of Lima. Crandall helped increase church membership during his tenure there, but the numbers dropped after his troubles became public, Jones said.

"I'm still a little angry," she said. "We all are trying to deal with it in our own way. It's definitely time for healing."

It's unclear what sort of employment awaits Crandall when he's returned to the area to live in a halfway house to transition back into society. The transfer to a halfway house usually is done in the final year of the prison sentence.

"I don't think he'll ever be a priest again," Champagne said. "That's his punishment, and he's just now starting to deal with that."

Crandall was a teacher and coach at Catholic High School before entering the priesthood.

"I think that he was absolutely a marvelous priest when he was with us," said parishioner Ann Wilson, 60. Wilson and her husband, Jack, have visited their former priest in prison.

Once at the halfway house, counselors will help line up employment for Crandall, who is required to give at least 25 percent of his pay to help defray the cost of housing.

"It has been a hard time for us, but we're moving forward," Jones said. "We have to deal with it and move on. That's all there is left to do."

 
 

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