The Unholy Mystery of the Murdered Priests

At least three priests vanished or were killed by unknown assailants—Were the crimes connected?

April 4, 2018 5:00 am
Saint Francis Cathedral, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where Father Reynaldo Rivera worked before his death in 1982. (Photo by Robert Alexander/Getty Images)
Saint Francis Cathedral, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where Father Reynaldo Rivera worked before his death in 1982. (Photo by Robert Alexander/Getty Images)
Getty Images

The man came in from the rain. He was heavyset, tan. He was dressed in western style, with a bolo tie and a distinctive belt buckle. December 4, 1982 was a wet, chilly day in Boise, Idaho. Inside Boise’s Sacred Heart Catholic Church, the man in the bolo tie would have seen a modern sanctuary, airy and open, long wooden pews and wooden beams arching overhead. Perhaps it was warm, a relief from the damp outside.

He appeared to be there for confession, and who knows? Maybe he was. If so, he changed his mind at some point. He swallowed cyanide capsules. He died laying on his back, blood and drool in a thin stream under his head. Once investigators arrived they confronted a bewildering scene. The dead man had no ID. He was carrying $1900 and a note which said the money was for his burial costs. He wanted anything left over to go to the church. He signed the note Wm. L. Toomey, but that wasn’t his name. Wm. L. Toomey was the name of a robe manufacturer based in Boston, Mass.

Thirty-five years later, he’s still a mystery. So are the fates of at least three Catholic priests across the west and southwest who died or disappeared around the time of his suicide, including one later found on a list of pedophile priests. So is the question of whether they are all linked by a web of deadly secrets.

The unknown suicide’s belt buckle could be the key.

Father Patrick “Paddy” Ryan

Patrick Ryan was two men. On the outside he was a parish priest in Denver City, Texas, pop. 4700. As James Harry Reyos would find out, the priest had a different side, one he was surely desperate to keep from his congregation, from the church itself. That side was a man Reyos only knew as “John” when they met.

Reyos, a Native American, was convicted of murdering Father Ryan in 1983. He’s been insisting he is innocent ever since.

Ryan, 49, picked up Reyos on a December night in 1981 as Reyos was heading from Denver City to Hobbs, New Mexico, looking for a job. In an in-depth article published in 2005 about the difficulties Reyos faced seeking exoneration, Austin Chronicle writer Jordan Smith wrote that Reyos—a closeted homosexual—and Ryan “had several friendly encounters over the next two weeks, until the evening of Dec. 20, when Reyos says that Ryan assaulted him in the rectory living room.”

Reyos left in a hurry. The next day he had an opportunity to pick up his car, which was held by a bail bondsman after Reyos was arrested for driving without a license. The only person he could think of who might give him a ride was “John.”

Ryan apologized for the night before when Reyos knocked on his door and gave the younger man a ride, picking up a hitchhiker along the way. As Reyos was retrieving his vehicle, Ryan drove away, dropping off the hitchhiker down the road.

About 9 hours later, Ryan was dead.

The priest was found at an Odessa, Texas motel, having checked in on December 21 using false information, including a fake name and address. His suffered a gruesome death. The room was in shambles, blood everywhere, and Ryan was face down on the floor. He was nude, covered in blood and surface wounds, hands bound with a sock. According to the Austin Chronicle there “was a long, superficial slice wound” across his buttocks.

Reyos was convicted of the murder and sentenced to prison, despite the fact that no forensic evidence linked him to the crime, and despite evidence he was over 200 miles away at the time. True, he had confessed early on, but immediately recanted. His confession, he indicated later, was borne out of feeling guilt related to his sexuality.

Father Reynaldo Rivera

If you’ve ever watched Unsolved Mysteries, there’s a good chance you’ve seen the mysterious story of Father Rivera’s murder.

The night of August 7, 1982 Rivera received a call at the rectory of St. Francis Cathedral in Santa Fe, New Mexico. A man who said his name was Michael Carmello pleaded for a priest to come and give last rites. Father Rivera acted as most priests might and immediately headed out to the Santa Fe rest stop where Carmello was located. He never returned.

He was found three days later and three miles away. He’d been shot at another location and dumped where he was found. His car had been moved from the rest stop.

Father Rivera didn’t appear to have skeletons in his closet like Father Ryan, and he was attempting to do his duty. As one of the investigators in the original Unsolved Mysteries segment said, the priest’s killer (or killers) wasn’t after that particular clergyman. “A Catholic priest was a target, for whatever reason. Robbery was not a motive because there was nothing taken from the priest, other than his last rites kit. And that’s a possibility for a souvenir. Apparently, the killer would like to relive the experience, every time he looks at it, he remembers killing a priest.”

The Mystery Man

The tan on “William L. Toomey,” the John Doe who committed suicide in the Boise church, wasn’t typical for an Idaho resident in December. His western-style clothes were odd, too. They were just about the only concrete evidence police had. They made some headway with his unique belt buckle.

The buckle was tracked to a gift shop in Phoenix, Arizona. With the man’s clothing and his tan, it wasn’t hard to infer he’d traveled up to Idaho from the southwest. But why did he show up almost a year after Father Ryan’s murder, four months after Father Rivera was killed, and three weeks after James Harry Reyos was arrested?

It seems tenuous to try and link the three men using this threadbare set of facts. Yet Frank Richardson, a retired Boise investigator, long believed “Toomey” was connected. Richardson also believed the man was a priest. He had good reason—there was no trace of the mystery man in any database, no fingerprints, no evidence of arrest for any crime. No documents past what he had on him. As Tim Wyatt, a reporter who along with Richardson investigated the possible connections between “Toomey,” Ryan, and Rivera, told the Austin Chronicle: “Catholic priests move in circles and travel gratis and can literally pop up in places.” Even Father Ryan had a mysterious past, with no driver’s license and a vague history of hopping parishes from Ireland to Texas.

The journalists and police investigating these connections in the years since have sometimes included yet another priest murder—one with notable similarities to Father Patrick Ryan’s murder.

Father Ben Carrier

Father Ben, as he was sometimes called, did much of his work on the west coast. Mentions of the priest can be found in various California newspapers from 1967 through the early 70s. But he was found dead in a Yuma, Arizona motel on November 10, 1982. Two white males were mentioned as suspects early in the investigation. They may have been hitchhikers, and one was described as carrying a cane with a skull on top. They were never found.

The mystery men, seen by more than one witness, may well have killed the priest, who had a reputation for trying to help the homeless and down-and-out. Yet like Father Ryan,  Carrier was murdered in a motel. He was found face down like Ryan, his hands bound. Father Ben died from asphyxiation.

The Outlier

Three dead priests in the same region within one year. One mysterious suicide in a Catholic church in Idaho. Little threads connecting them all, but very thin threads, based on the publicly known facts.

Then there’s Father John Kerrigan, the outlier, whose disappearance was also covered by Unsolved Mysteries. When Kerrigan vanished from Ronan, Montana on July 20, 1984, the John Doe from Boise had been dead for nearly two years.

The last time anyone saw Kerrigan he was at a bakery. He walked out the door and was gone.

The following day blood-stained clothing was found on a state highway near Ronan. A $100 bill was found in the shirt pocket. A bloody coat hanger lay nearby. The clothes belonged to Father Kerrigan, as did the Chevy discovered outside Polson, MT seven days later. More tell-tale evidence was in the trunk of the car: the priest’s wallet, stuffed with a little more than $1200, a blood-stained pillow, and a blood-stained shovel.

While there was blood all over the car, it was clean in one key way: No fingerprints.

Though the last time anyone saw Kerrigan was at the bakery, local papers reported investigators assumed the priest had been kidnapped from the rectory.


In the years since the murders, the suicide, and the vanishing, a long-simmering scandal kept quiet by the Catholic church has exploded in the news: Long-term cover-ups of sexual crimes committed by priests. Rape, molestation, physical abuse. Reporter Tim Wyatt told the Austin Chronicle in 2005 about priests moving in closed circles, and revelations in the last ten years of the way bishops coped with sexual predators in the pulpit add new meaning to the word “closed.”

There was a long-term pattern in the Church of shuffling priests around, only to shuffle them again when they offended. And the worst offenders often ended up at Servants of the Paraclete in Jemez Springs, New Mexico.

Jemez is far from Odessa, Yuma, or Phoenix. It’s far from Boise and Ronan, Montana. It was originally where the church sent alcoholic priests for counseling and recovery, but over time it began taking in priests with a host of issues—including pedophilia.

Once the counselors at Servants of the Paraclete concluded their charges were ready to preach the Gospel again, those men were assigned parishes throughout the southwest.

As the Missoulian reported in 2015, John Kerrigan was one of those troublesome priests.

In April 2015, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Helena posted a list of 80 priests and nuns accused of sexual abuse in western Montana. Among them was Kerrigan, whose postings never lasted very long, often a subtle indicator something was wrong.

Kerrigan was never conclusively linked to the Servants of the Paraclete—as one of the priests there for counseling, that is. The Missoulian reported he was simply in New Mexico for a while, and just happened to be “at the Congregation of the Servants of the Paraclete in Jemez Springs.”

There is no single, satisfying conclusion here. There is simply the nagging feeling these are connected, supported by coincidences, locations, profiles. It feels a little too much like a conspiracy theory—a killer, maybe more than one, stalking priests across the deserts in the west, motivated by vengeance. Father Ryan assaulted James Harry Reyos, and two teen boys later said he propositioned them. Father Kerrigan hopscotched all over Montana as the Church tried to sidestep his predations. But Reynaldo Rivera was never accused of anything, and as far as anyone knows, neither was Ben Carrier.

It’s like the plot of a novel, which is why it should be questioned. Why the notion of connections might even be disregarded.

Still, the man dying from his suicide pills on the floor of the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Boise… he knew something.

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