Odor of Pot LED to Bust of Priest, Parishioner

By Charlotte Ferrell, Ashley B. Craig
Daily Mail

September 30, 2008

South Charleston Patrolman S. W. Miller was on duty with his police drug dog, Vader, when the odor of marijuana filtered into his police cruiser.

It was the odor that eventually led to the Sunday night arrest of a local priest, shocking a congregation and a community.

As Miller recounted in a telephone interview with the Daily Mail, strange smells can make their way into vehicles through windows and air vents, but the odor of marijuana is distinct.

With no other cars around except for the silver Chrysler mini-van in front of him, Miller turned on his lights and siren at Kanawha Turnpike and Elm Street. It was 10:35 p.m.

The mini van pulled over, and inside were Jim O'Connor, the pastor at Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in South Charleston, and one of the parishioners, Michael Joseph Deegan, also well-known in the community as a substance abuse counselor.

Miller said the two were smoking marijuana while driving with the windows of the van rolled down. That's why the smell had been so prevalent, the officer said.

Miller wrote in a criminal complaint later filed in Kanawha Magistrate Court that he could still smell marijuana as he approached the van. The officer says he searched the mini-van with O'Connor's permission and found a black bag in the back of the van containing 73 grams, or about 2.5 ounces, of a leafy material that wound up testing positive as marijuana.

The officer says he also found about 10 grams of marijuana on Deegan, rolled up in a white towel. That's about a third of an ounce.

O'Connor was arrested, and his mini-van was towed, Miller said. Deegan was written a city citation for having the small amount of marijuana on him and then released. He walked back to his vehicle, which was parked at Blessed Sacrament.

Miller encountered Deegan again a short time later. The officer said O'Connor had given permission for his home, the rectory on E Street, to be searched, and that's where Miller was headed when he spotted Deegan.

He asked Deegan if he could search the car, and Deegan refused. So Miller got out Vader, his K-9 partner who always rides with him, and sent the dog to the vehicle. Vader indicated drugs were present, Miller said.

That gave him probable cause to search the car. Miller said he found 152 grams of marijuana, more than 5 ounces, there. So he took Deegan to jail, too.

O'Connor and Deegan were charged with possession of marijuana with intent to deliver. State law says possession of more than 15 grams is a felony.

When pictures of the two men popped up Monday morning on the South Central Regional Jail Web site, word spread and the community reacted in disbelief.

O'Connor has served at Blessed Sacrament since transferring there in 2006. He previously served for 15 years at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Madison and St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Whitesville. He was raised in a Methodist family in Wellsburg and was ordained into the Roman Catholic priesthood in 1982.

Deegan is a counselor and once served as president of the West Virginia Association of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors.

By Monday afternoon, the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston had suspended O'Connor while investigating the situation.

O'Connor hasn't been reached for comment, but Deegan apologized in comments made to The Associated Press.

Deegan said: "I feel bad. I feel like I made a mistake. It's just a difficult time right now. I'm trying to deal with it, with my family, and trying to just get, just see what I need to do."

At the church, people were astounded.

"We don't know anything and we have no other comment," Jeanne Haas, director of religious education, said when contacted at the church on Monday.

As news of the incident spread, prayers began for the two men, said Jane Roy, who has attended the church since 1967 with husband, Jerry.

She said the priest has fit well with the congregation since he came to the church two years ago.

"I am just heartbroken," she said. "He has been good for the parish. I am sad for Father Jim and also for our parish. We love him and are totally shocked. We are praying for him and Joe."

Matt Hayes, who has attended the church since the mid 1990s, said O'Connor had "big shoes to fill" when he replaced Father Leon Alexander at the church. He said O'Connor has done a fine job and has a lot of talent. O'Connor, known among many as the singing priest, also has a music ministry.

Hayes said he knows only what he has read about the drug charges.

"If it's true, it's unfortunate," he said. "Father Jim has been wonderful for the parish."

He said it would be sad if the charges against Deegan and O'Connor were valid.

In any event, the church will survive, he said.

"We have a strong community and a strong parish," he said.

The Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston issued a press release late Monday afternoon, offering full cooperation with the investigation.

The release also said, "An internal investigation is being conducted by diocesan officials, as is undertaken in all such incidents. Meanwhile, Father O'Connor is now suspended from his priestly responsibilities and has been removed as pastor of Blessed Sacrament Parish in South Charleston.

"In the diocese, a priest under suspension may no longer publicly celebrate the sacraments. The personnel policies of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston prohibit the use or possession of illegal drugs."

Bryan Minor, spokesman for the diocese, said for the short-term a deacon at the church may administer some sacraments and area clergy will fill in as well until there is a permanent replacement.

Minor said that O'Connor is "in the prayers of the clergy, the diocese and our bishop. We hope he makes this transition peacefully and moves on to the next step in his life."

Contact writer Ashley Craig or 348-4850 and writer Charlotte Ferrell Smith at or 348-1246.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.