A Priest and Two Murders

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Three years later, the double murder that rattled the peaceful northern Wisconsin town of Hudson still seems inexplicable: a funeral home director and an employee surprised and killed in the middle of a workday by a gunman who disappeared without taking money or valuables. This week Hudson's shock deepened further when a judge ruled that the murders were committed by a local Roman Catholic priest who served the town and spoke at the funeral of one of the dead men.

In an extraordinary courtroom proceeding, a St. Croix County judge found that 31-year-old Father Ryan Erickson murdered the two men to cover his tracks after one of them learned that Erickson had been sexually assaulting a teenage boy. In December 2004, shortly after being questioned by police, Erickson hanged himself outside his rectory. In a suicide note he denied killing anyone, but testimony from 15 witnesses and evidence presented by prosecutor Eric Johnson painted a picture of a desperately troubled priest.

Among the evidence: testimony from a young man who alleged that Father Ryan served him alcohol and sexually assaulted him repeatedly during 2000 and 2001; an eyewitness who described a car similar to Erickson's parked outside the funeral home at the time of the killings; testimony from detectives who said Erickson knew undisclosed crime scene details such as how many bullets were fired (three) and where the victims were hit (in the head); Erickson's own fondness for guns (he owned 16); and a statement by a deacon from another church who said Erickson had confessed.

Evidence also showed that Erickson had been the target of allegations of sexual misconduct before arriving in Hudson, but the charges were never proven and he was never disciplined by the church, nor were the people of Hudson aware of the young priest's record. Because the defendant in this case was deceased, the hearing this week took place without a jury, and the judge ruled that if Erickson were alive there would be probable cause to charge him with sexual assault and murder. Erickson's attorney and parents, who maintain that he is not guilty, refused to attend the hearing. St. Croix D.A. Eric Johnson explained that even though the evidence was not cross-examined and was not heard by a jury, the judge's ruling "can be construed as a finding of guilt."