Transcript: 102. Death at a Funeral Home | USA

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Our cases have been researched using open source and archive materials. It deals with true crimes and real people. Some parts are graphic in nature and listener discretion is advised. Each episode is produced with the utmost respect to the victims, their families and loved ones.

It was a mild winter’s day in Hudson, Wisconsin on February 5th, 2002. St. Croix County medical examiner, Marty Shanklin, was doing his rounds just after lunch. He stopped by the O’Connell Funeral Home at 1:40pm to obtain signatures on a death certificate, a routine chore. It was always nice to see funeral director, Dan O’Connell, but something was different on this Tuesday.

The funeral home was very quiet, but Marty did not find that too unusual. He walked straight through to Dan’s office, where he walked into a nightmare. He found both Dan O’Connell and his young assistant, 22-year-old James Ellison, killed in a bloody scene. Dan was slumped over on his desk and James had fallen backwards onto a chair. Marty was overcome with panic and thought the killer could still be in the building. He left as quickly as he could and alerted law enforcement.

In a small town like Hudson, it did not take long for news of the tragedy to spread. Crowds gathered as police taped-off the scene. There was a feeling of shock and disbelief, something like this simply didn’t happen in a place like Hudson. Especially not to two well-loved and upstanding members of the community.

Police questioned over 2000 people but came up empty-handed. The case went cold and it looked like who-ever killed Dan and James got away with murder. When the case was given to detectives Jeff Knopps and Shawn Pettee, they looked at it with fresh eyes. They found one man’s statements and movements rather unsettling. The man was beyond reproach, he was, after all, a priest.

>>Intro Music

Ryan Erickson was born in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, on the 17th of January 1973 to parents Dennis and Mary. He grew up in Campbellsport and had two siblings: Sonya and Travis. When Ryan was a teenager, his parents moved away, and he went to live with a priest. Every summer, he caught up with his family again at a campground in Eagle River.

Coming from a devout Catholic family and having lived with a priest, Erickson found his calling in life was to be a man of God. He studied at a seminary in Winona and was ordained as a priest in 2000. Soon after, the ambitious young man of the cloth was assigned to St Patrick’s in Hudson.

Hudson is located 15 miles from Twin Cities, on the banks of the St. Croix River. It is a small town that 12,000 people call home. People go to church and help each other out when needed.

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When the young new priest first came to Hudson, the congregation welcomed Father Ryan with open arms. He was an interesting character. On the one hand, he was charismatic and well-liked by the young members of the church. But despite being young himself, only 28, the new priest was very traditional. His sermons were all ‘fire and brimstone’ – repent your sins or you won’t go to heaven. He wanted to bring more traditional values back into the church: Mass had to be performed – at least partially – in Latin. Midnight Mass was to be AT midnight, not earlier. Father Ryan was passionate and often cried during his sermons.

As youth pastor, it fell on Father Ryan to teach sex education at St. Patrick’s School. Instead of a basic introduction to the topic, he shocked the children with his approach. Anything to do with sex was a mortal sin. Even the temptation of committing a sexual act was taboo. He was obsessed with masturbation and preached feverishly against abortion. Repeatedly. The young priest implored teenagers to confess their impure thoughts to him, as God knew everything, and he, as a priest, was the only one who could absolve them of their sins. Many teenagers weren’t too keen, but the Father forced them to visit him.

Although his beliefs were firmly traditional, he moved with the times and sent out a daily email, called ‘Thought for the Day’. He was very outspoken about the dress code of some of the younger female members of his parish. In one newsletter, he wrote:

“Even Sunday Mass is not safe from the immodest dress of some devils. They come to read, give out Holy Communion, etcetera, looking like an advertisement. Their immodest dress says to all present: I’m easy! Please go home and masturbate to my beautiful body. The sad thing is, that some do…”

Surely not all parishioners agreed with his rant, but he was their moral leader and they accepted his point of view, because in their view, he was simply doing his job. Besides, he was a valued member of the community. A pious priest who played ball with the kids, and went for beers with their dads – Father Ryan was a man’s man who rolled up his sleeves and got a job done.

In the town of Hudson, every member of the community contributes to the greater good of the town in some way or another. Someone who was exemplary at being an active member of the community was 39-year-old funeral director Dan O’Connell. In the early 2000s, the O’Connell family had lived in Hudson for generations.

Dan was born on the 23rd of February 1962 and attended St Patrick’s Elementary School. He graduated from Hudson High in 1981. He became an EMT in his senior year of high school and went to the University of Minnesota to study Mortuary Science, Dan graduated with honours.

He worked as a paramedic for a couple of years, from 1984 to 1988. When Dan settled down and married his wife Jenny McKnight, he decided it was time to join the family business: O’Connell’s Funeral Home. Dan and Jennie had two children, Kyle and Kaitlin and the family of four was happy to call Hudson home.

Dan enjoyed working for the family business with his dad Thomas and his brother Mike. He always helped people and his caring nature made him very good at his job as a funeral director. But Dan was not the type of person to only do a day’s work and go home. He volunteered his free time at the Rotary Club, the YMCA, the Boy Scouts and the Knights of Columbus. After the 9/11 attacks, Dan and his brother Mike put up a spaghetti dinner for more than 2000 people, raising $25,000 for New York fire, police and ambulance services.

Most of all Dan O’Connell loved his family and never missed a recital or ball game. They all went to church on Sundays and most of their friends, were people they knew from church or friends Dan and Jennie grew up with.

Dan employed a young intern, 22-year-old James Ellison, to help out at the O’Connell Funeral Home in 2001. He was a mortuary science student from the University of Wisconsin – River Falls. James was set to graduate in May 2002 and found his hands-on experience at the funeral home invaluable. Unlike his Catholic employers, James came from a devout Lutheran family. This was also good for the funeral home, as James took charge of non-Catholic burials.

James took a lot of pride in his job, and like Dan, understood the importance of compassion in their line of work. It came naturally to him as he was always kind and thoughtful. His friends loved spending time with him, and his infectious laughter often had everyone in stitches.

James was only just finding his feet as an adult, his future looked bright and he looked forward to graduating. Then tragedy struck…

On Wednesday, 6 February 2002, St. Croix County medical examiner, Marty Shanklin, arrived at O’Connell’s Funeral home to find both Dan and James had been killed, in broad daylight, inside their place of business on a main road. How was this even possible?

First officers discovered that both victims had bullet wounds to their heads. They secured the scene and did not reveal any details to local journalists or concerned passers-by. Dan’s brother Mike heard about the commotion at his family’s funeral home and rushed to the scene. Father James Dabruzzi was also called to the scene, to read the last rites.

A couple of hours later police made the official announcement that Dan O’Connell and James Ellison were the victims of a fatal shooting.

Being deeply religious and active members of the church, priests visited Dan’s family only hours after the murders. Dan’s parents were in Florida at the time, visiting a cousin when they were informed about the deaths of their son and employee.

Daniel O’Connell’s funeral was held on the 9th of February at St. Patrick’s Church and – to this day – is considered to be the largest funeral ever held in the history of Hudson, with 1300 people in attendance. Father Ryan Erickson read a passage at Dan’s funeral and consoled the O’Connell family as best he could.

The people of Hudson needed to know what happened to Dan and James. Investigators had very few clues to work with, but knew the pressure was on to find the killer.

The forensic examination concluded that both men were killed, at close range, with a 9mm handgun. Dan was shot once in the head and James twice. It seemed like a hit, a purposeful murder by someone who was comfortable in firing a handgun – an experienced marksman.

Investigators interviewed more than 2000 people in connection with the murder but could not make any headway in the investigation. They considered the possibility that it was a robbery-gone wrong. There was nothing missing and typically, funeral homes don’t keep a lot of cash on the premises. Could it have been potheads ransacking the funeral home for embalming fluid to boost their marijuana joints? And when they were recognised by Dan (who knew most people in town), they panicked and shot both him and James? There was no evidence to support this theory, and a burglary at the central location of the funeral home in broad daylight did not make much sense.

Then an interesting piece of information came to the attention of investigators: a cult called ‘Rest of Jesus’ from Augusta, issued warnings to more than 400 funeral homes across the state of Wisconsin. O’Connell’s Funeral home received their letter too. The cult was against embalming. They felt it was a desecration and vowed revenge on anyone using embalming oils. Police confronted members of the cult and established who the authors of the letters were. The group of men who wrote the warnings all had solid alibis for the day of the murders and it was ruled that they were not behind the murders. Yes, they made a lot of noise, but they were harmless, a lot of bark but no bite.

Investigators also had a closer look at both Dan’s and James’ family members. Did someone close to them have a motive to murder either of them? Life insurance perhaps? Or revenge? Police tried their best to find any reason, but in the end, they had to concede that both men had no skeletons in the closet, nor did they have any enemies. No one in their inner circles was ever under suspicion.

The Hudson Police Department approached the FBI as well as the Wisconsin State Department of Justice for assistance with the case. The only lead they had, was an eyewitness who saw a man leaving the funeral home between 1 and 1:30pm on the day of the murders. He was a Caucasian male of medium build, who wore a white T-shirt and a baseball cap. Based on the witness’ statement, they police able to have a photo-fit made up, but no one in Hudson recognised the possible suspect.

Two months after the murders, in April 2002, a $100,000 reward was offered for any information that would lead investigators to the killer. In May, they were no closer to solving the murder and Police Chief Dick Trende appealed to the public:

We need the public’s help. This is a heinous crime, as serious as it gets. We’re not going to quit until we find who did it, but we’re not magicians. Anyone with information has a moral responsibility to come forward and not wait until we contact them. It doesn’t work that way.”

With no new information, and only a handful of clues from the murder scene, the case went cold.

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For two years there was no movement in the case and the O’Connell and Ellison families had to come to terms with the fact that they may never find out who killed their sons. Then, in April 2004, detectives Jeff Knopps and Shawn Pettee were assigned the cold case. They set out to re-interview a few people, among which was a policeman who was a very good shot. Another person who came onto their radar was Father Ryan Erickson.

At this time, a 20-year-old man came forward and said that during his teens, he spent a lot of time at St. Patrick’s rectory with Father Erickson. The boy stayed at the rectory every second weekend with him. Other priests also lived there, but he hardly ever saw them. According to the young man, Father Ryan gave him and his friends alcohol and, on more than one occasion, sexually abused him.

By the time the 20-year-old reported the priest, Erickson was no longer in Hudson. He had been transferred to a parish in Ladysmith, Wisconsin the year before, in 2003. During his time there, the serving pastor sent a request to his superiors, asking to either transfer Erikson OR him. Erickson was sent to Church of St Mary of the Seven Dolors (or Sorrows) in Hurley, on the Wisconsin-Michigan border.

Investigators were determined to get behind the truth and looked into Erickson’s background. What they discovered was unsettling, to say the least. In March 1994, the first allegations regarding sexual misconduct was made against Erickson. He was still a student at the seminary in Winona, another student filed a complaint that he woke up one morning with Erickson in his bed next to him. Erickson denied the allegation and assured his vocation director that there must have been a mistake of sorts. While he was under investigation, Erickson was removed from all apostolic work.

After a four-month investigation, the district attorney informed the church that their investigation concluded that the case could not be backed up and that no charges would be filed against Erickson:

“The allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior do not appear to be significant in the context of this gentleman’s overall psychological makeup. He does not appear to be predatory or exploitative in his overall orientation and he does not seem to be a high risk for acting in a sexually aggressive or manipulative manner in the future. The alleged sexual misconduct behaviors he described to us appear to be benign.”

A psychological evaluation was also ordered, and it stated that Erickson was heterosexual. The Rev. Ronald Bowers wrote that in an analysis filed in October 1996, psychiatrist Dr. Jay McNamara found that:

“[Erickson’s] psychosexual history is within normal limits. It is clear in stating that he is not a sexual predator. He needs to grow in maturity, self-esteem and personal insight.”

Ryan Erickson was allowed to finish his studies and was recommended to be ordained as a priest. From there, he was assigned to St Patrick’s.

In mid-November 2004, investigators tracked Erickson down in Hurley where he had become a beloved spiritual leader. His congregation appreciated his traditional values and the passion with which he conveyed the Lord’s message.

Erickson seemed surprised that police wanted to talk to him and agreed to an interview, which took place in the first week of December 2004. Detectives Knopps and Petee stated the interrogation by asking him about serving alcohol to minors at the rectory in Hudson. Erickson admitted that he gave the young men something to drink, as he remembered that he enjoyed drinking when he was at a similar age, but he never associated it to be an evil thing. He recognised that what he did was wrong in the eyes of the law. Then the pious priest who loved preaching about mortal sins defended himself, saying the kids’ mother knew about the alcohol and that she was okay with it.

Police moved the conversation forward, gently constructing the questions to get a better understanding of what happened at St Patrick’s rectory over weekends. They asked Erickson if the boy in question ever got so drunk that he passed out. Erickson recalled an incident and explained that the boy had vomited on himself so he (Erickson) took off the boy’s clothes and showered him. Police felt the heavy implication that there was more to the sordid story, but Erickson stopped there.

Then the investigators asked Erickson what he knew about the O’Connell’s Funeral Home murders. Something he said made them uncomfortable. Father Ryan was able to describe the positions of Dan’s and James’ bodies when they were found. He also mentioned that they had both been shot in the head and that three shots were fired in total. This information had never been made public – only police and the killer would know. When they asked him how HE knew, Erickson said he must have overheard some chitter chatter around town. Then he recalled that Father James Dabruzzi as well as Dan’s siblings, Mike and Kathi O’Connell, were also at the scene and had told him. The detectives then asked him where he was between 12:30 and 2:30pm on the day of the murders, but that he could not remember.

At the end of the interrogation, investigators asked him: if he was guilty, would he confess, or would he try to get away with it. His answer:

“Human nature is that you’d try to get away with it. But I, personally myself, I would tell you. I really believe that. I believe that if I did something that heinous I would tell you. Because I don’t think I could live with myself.”

The officers did their due diligence and asked Father Dabruzzi and Mike and Kathi about giving Erickson information about the murder scene, and they all stated that they never gave him any details. There was also interesting information that came in from Betty Caruso, who lived across the street from St Patrick’s rectory. Erickson often took naps at their home to escape the onslaught of phone calls and unannounced visitors at the rectory. Betty said that Erickson visited her home of February 5th at 11:15am and asked if he could take a nap. She came home at 1:30pm and found him asleep on the sofa. Yet, when Erickson was questioned after the murders, he never mentioned the nap at Betty’s house.

Russel Lundgren was a deacon at St Mary’s, and by the accounts of Erickson’s colleagues and friends, his best friend in Hurley. After Hudson police first knocked on his door in Hurley, Erickson told Lundgren:

“I done it and they are going to catch me.”

Instead of reporting him, Lundgren simply turned to a higher power and prayed to God that Erickson wasn’t telling the truth. Lundgren did however tell his wife and a church secretary.

Erickson told his superiors that he had nothing to do with the double murder and they took him at his word. A diocese spokesman later said:

“There was no reason not to believe him.”

Back in Hudson, another young man came forward and confirmed the allegations that Erickson had served alcohol while he and his friends were underaged. He also said that, on one occasion, he had seen Erickson standing at a window overlooking the entrance to the church, pointing his gun at members of the church whom he disliked and pretended to shoot them.

On the 13th of December the public defender informed police that Erickson would not attend the polygraph test that was scheduled for the next day. Three days later, Hudson Police executed a search warrant of St Mary’s rectory and office. They took Erickson’s personal computer, some documents and clothing for examination. They discovered a last will and testament for Erickson, as well as a letter written by him. In the letter he denied committing the murders and stated that there was no DNA tying him to the scene, his guns could not be linked to the murder and that no one ever saw him leave the funeral home. This in itself seemed strange – an innocent man would simply say ‘I didn’t do it’ – why did he bring up DNA and ballistics?

On the weekend of 17 December, two of Erickson’s priest friends went to visit him. Richard Reams and Tom Burns made the 200-mile drive from Hudson to Hurley, as they were concerned about his well-being. They knew he was being investigated and wanted to show him their support. Erickson seemed quite depressed about everything, but by Saturday night, his friends felt that his spirits had lifted. They went out for a meal and watched a movie. When they went to bed, they agreed to meet for morning Mass.

On Sunday morning, the 19th of December 2004, three weeks after police interrogated the priest for a second time in five weeks, Father Ryan Erickson hanged himself from a fire escape in between the rectory and the church, just before Sunday morning Mass. His friend Richard Reams found him there at 7am. He was 31 years old. He had only been at St Mary’s for 4 months. At St Mary’s Church of Sorrows, he expressed his last lament with this dramatic ending – almost poetic.

In his room, his friends found suicide notes. He had made two false starts before he found the right words. One note was addressed to his parents. The other thanked his friends for their support. It also said:

“I’ve lived a hard, but exciting life. I learned and I taught. I helped people, and I hurt them. But I NEVER killed anyone. My ego, my pride, my lust, my envy have always stopped me from being the best person I could be. I am tired.”

Erickson’s funeral was held just after Christmas, at 1pm, December 27th 2004, at St Matthew’s Church in Campbellsport.

Investigators saw Erickson’s suicide as an admission of guilt. They were determined to prove the priest was a murderer and bring closure to the O’Connell and Ellison families.

Police re-interviewed everyone who was questioned in the weeks following the murders. They also subpoenaed Erickson’s personnel file from the diocese, early in 2005. The information was rather explosive and useful in the case against Erickson. What they discovered, was that, in April 1999, seminary officials filed a copy of Erickson’s third-year review, including…

“…concern about excessive use of alcohol … academic performance, his tendency to buffoonery ….”

A psychologist for the diocese wrote that Erickson said he was only six, and a cousin of his four, when a sexual incident was flagged. A second allegation was made by a 14-year-old boy from Vilas County, who accused 17-year-old Erickson of interfering with him. The psychologist said Erickson told him police investigated both incidents and never charged him with anything.

Police also found out, that, aside from allegations of molestation, Erickson was known to have a volatile temper. He had an alcohol problem and abused animals. At church camps, the priest was blowing up fish with firecrackers. He also harmed his own dog, burning him with his cigarette butt.

The conservative priest owned no less than 18 firearms and habitually wore one under his priestly garments. However, none of his registered firearms matched ballistic evidence found at the murder scene in Dan’s office. On his laptop, damning evidence was discovered: teenage pornography, hidden in a folder named “Holy Mass Prayers.”

So, investigators now had an arsenal of evidence showing that Erickson was a paedophile with a drinking problem, who also had no qualms in harming others. Erickson was everything but the holy man he pretended to be… But why would he kill Dan O’Connell and James Ellison? Without a motive, investigators could not prove that he had anything to do with the double murder.

It was not till 2005 that bus driver, Mary Pagel, came forward with information that broke the case wide open. After Erickson’s death, stories went around Hudson that he was the one who had killed Dan and James. Mary had a vivid recollection of a conversation she had with Dan shortly before he was murdered. It all finally made sense. She went to police and told them what Dan had told her on that fateful day.

Mary, who went to the same church as Dan and his family, ran into him at Wal-Mart at 9:45 on February the 5th. They had coffee together and Mary could see that Dan had something on his mind. He asked Mary, in her capacity as bus driver to St. Patrick’s Catholic School, if she had ever seen Father Ryan act inappropriately with children. Mary said she hadn’t seen anything, bad, but it was quite obvious that Erickson seemed to ignore the girls, while giving a lot of attention to the boys.

Mary advised Dan not to get involved without notifying police first. Dan wasn’t deterred and said that he could handle it. He told Mary that he intended to confront the priest that same day.

At 11:15am, Mary saw Erickson leave the rectory in normal clothes, not in his cassock or customary black suit. She saw him drive off in his light silver Buick Regal. Police asked Mary to take a polygraph test, which she passed. This information was the final piece of the puzzle in the case against Erickson. It proved the motive – he killed Dan to prevent him from exposing his deeds. James was a witness and paid for it with his life.

With all the evidence in hand, investigators constructed a timeline of events, surrounding the deaths of Dan O’Connell and James Ellison.

Dan was involved with many clubs and associations in Hudson. If there was a rumour or story going around town, Dan knew about it. Also, he volunteered as a scout leader and helped out at the YMCA, if a young man needed to confide in someone, Dan would have been a good choice. He was a good person who lived to help others. What exactly Dan knew, isn’t clear, but he was going to confront the priest about his behaviour with teenage boys.

On the 4th of February, Dan called Father Ryan Erickson, and said that they needed to talk. He did not tell him what it was about, but the priest had a couple of secrets, any one of which could have ended his career.

Between 1:15 and 1:22pm on Wednesday February 5th, 2002, Erickson arrived at the funeral home. He found Dan O’Connell at his desk, walked up to him and pulled his weapon, a 9mm semi-automatic pistol and shot him point blank in the head. Dan died instantly. As Erickson left, James arrived. He saw Dan slumped over and bleeding and rushed over to him. Erickson turned around and fired a shot at James’ head, also killing him. James fell backwards onto a chair with the bullet casing behind him. The priest fired a third shot, to make sure James was no longer alive.

An eyewitness, Thomas Evenson, saw a man leaving the funeral home at 1:15. He took notice because the man was wearing a light T-shirt, which is unusual in Wisconsin. He also had a baseball cap on and drove off in a white sedan. Evenson later said that the man could very well have been Erickson. From there the priest went to Bettie Caruso’s home where he pretended to sleep on the couch.

Nuns at the Carmelite Monastery said that Erickson came there between 2:30 and 2:45pm and told them about a ‘terrible tragedy’ at the funeral home. He said that Dan O’Connell and his assistant had been shot. However, the crime scene was only just being secured at that point in time and no one knew how the victims had been killed.

From the Monastery, Erickson made his way to the church where, at 3pm, some of his colleagues were discussing the commotion at the funeral home. He acted surprised, like it was news to him.

Erickson mentioned to a parishioner that he had had an argument with Dan the night before his murder. Police verified the parishioner’s statement by polygraphing him, he passed.

Hours after the murder, Father Ryan Erickson donned his priestly robes and went to the O’Connell family to console them in their time of shock and grief. He was a part of their most trusted inner-circle, who provided spiritual guidance to the heartbroken family, he even read the scripture at Dan’s funeral.

In Wisconsin, when a murder suspect ends his own life after being charged, a John Doe Hearing takes place. Evidence is presented to a judge to determine IF a crime was committed, and also to decide if there is probable cause that the accused person, albeit deceased, committed the crime after all.

This one-day hearing was held on the 3rd of October 2005 at St Croix County Court. Erickson’s family, who refused to believe he was guilty, refused to attend the hearing. 15 witnesses testified, among them the young man, who said that between 2000 and 2001, when he was a teenage boy, Father Ryan Erickson served him alcohol when he visited the rectory and sexually assaulted him.

Presiding judge Eric Lundell stated that, on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the most likely, he believed 10/10 that a crime was committed and 10/10 that Erickson was the perpetrator. Father Ryan Erickson was found guilty of the murders of Dan O’Connell and James Ellison.

The O’Connell and Ellison families decided to have something positive come from the tragic loss of Dan and James. They set out to finish what Dan had started: a plan to reform policies in the Catholic Church regarding molestation by members of the clergy. The families presented a 5-point plan to the National Conference of Bishops and Dan’s father even applied to meet with the Pope. The plan includes taking action, like releasing the names of all priests who have been proven to be molesters by the Church. The O’Connell and Ellison families have a website for their cause, if you’d like to check it out, find the link in the show notes.

James’ family has set up a non-profit corporation entitled The James Ellison Foundation for the Protection of Children, Inc. They state their cause by saying:

“It is our hope that some good can still come out of this tragedy. We want to do what we can to prevent the pain of child sexual abuse, but also to provide counselling and after-care for those who have been abused in the past. That is our vision for the foundation.”

Like the firearm hidden beneath his robes, Father Ryan Erickson concealed his true identity and evil intentions to the world. He said to investigators:

If I did something that heinous, I would tell you. Because I don’t think I could live with myself.

In the end, he proved that he could not, in fact, live with himself…

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