Surprising discovery in the charred rectory

As investigators scour the murder-arson crime scene, a church worker views the slain pastor’s office. Two things catch his eye.

Posted: July 11, 2011

CLEVELAND DEC. 7, 2002

Dan Kane, the business manager at St. Stanislaus, sees the light on his answering machine blinking furiously. He assumes someone has died, maybe even his dad.

Instead, most of the messages are from his father, a retired cop who has lived his life in the same house blocks from St. Stan's, refusing to move even as the neighborhood slipped, becoming the kind of place with a dead bolt on every door. He tells Kane a fire is raging at the rectory.

Kane rushes to the scene. A teary friend delivers the news: The beloved pastor, the Rev. William Gulas, is dead. They found his body in a first-floor office.

But the century-old church wasn't damaged. And Daniel Montgomery, the friar from Philadelphia they call Brother Dan, escaped unharmed. He's the one who called 911.

Kane scans the crowd and finds Montgomery. He hugs the 37-year-old friar, glad he's safe. Montgomery's response is stiff, stilted. As usual.

That's Brother Dan, Kane thinks. Pious, but strange.

In the five months since Montgomery moved into the rectory, Kane, 44, has stopped trying to befriend him. He knows little about him, other than that he has been a Franciscan for several years and splits his time volunteering at the city social-services agency and the parish school.

And that he's quirky.

On countless mornings, Kane has looked up from his desk to see Montgomery, in his brown robe and sandals, trudging from the rectory to the school with a little metal lunch box.

Once, Montgomery came into his office and showed the business manager a bunch of crude, homemade rap songs he planned to share with the students. Inside, Kane cringed. He's trying too hard.

Neither man had discussed what both knew: Montgomery was leaving the parish. The Franciscans had concluded he was a bad fit at St. Stan's and were transferring him.

Kane doesn't mention it now, as the two men stand outside the smoldering rectory.

After removing Gulas' body, arson investigators escort Kane into the pastor's office and ask if anything looks amiss. The ornate, wood-paneled walls are charred; debris litters the floor.

Two things catch Kane's eye. The large wall safe is flung open. On the floor is a gold toolbox where Kane keeps the start-up cash for the weekly bingo game. Last he knew, the box was padlocked in the safe with about $1,500.

Now it's open - and empty.

Kane thinks immediately of the strangers and panhandlers who regularly ring the rectory bell, knock at the door, or wander through the church. And he thinks of the kindhearted pastor who rarely turns them away.

This was a friggin' robbery! the business manager says to himself. Father Willy opened the door, and something went bad - and now he's dead!

Kane shares his suspicions with the arson investigators, the assistant pastor, and a coworker.

 

MARION, OHIO AUGUST 2009

Montgomery wears the same blue shirt he wore during our visit the day before. It has to be the same one, unless he has two identical shirts with a slightly frayed collar and a light stain where a right breast pocket would be, if he were allowed to have shirt pockets.

I don't ask. But it makes me wonder what life is like for my Archbishop Carroll High School classmate after six years behind bars, and with no chance of parole until 2026. What constitutes a good day? Clean laundry?

Montgomery tells me he lives in an honor cube, reserved for inmates with good behavior.

All his possessions must fit in a tiny desk, a dresser with four drawers, and a 2.4-cubic-foot crate. He shares a bunk bed, sleeping on the bottom because of unexplained seizures. Since college, he has taken an antiseizure medication called Dilantin.

Four times a day, the inmates return to their cells for "counts." Montgomery says he spends hours daily in the law library, where he helps inmates on matters from divorces to appeals. About 80 percent of Ohio prisoners are high school dropouts.

Montgomery, a King of Prussia native, graduated with honors from the University of Dayton. He followed with a master's degree in social work from the Catholic University of America in Washington, then moved in 1990 to New York.

But his forays into social work ended badly.

He tells me he was overwhelmed managing a social-work office in Brooklyn and ultimately fired. He lost another job as a foster-care worker for giving cash to a boy he was supervising. According to Montgomery, the boy said he needed shoes but instead bought drugs.

After moving in with his parents in 1995, Montgomery attended an open house for the Franciscans at Archbishop Ryan High School in Philadelphia. He thought he had finally found his calling.

Their namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, was the ultimate social worker, shunning the material world to care for the poor and powerless.

But again, Montgomery struggled. After living in Franciscan group houses in Wisconsin and Indiana, he moved to Chicago in June 1998 to complete his studies and training.

He falters when I ask for the names of his lasting friends in the Franciscans. He concedes he didn't complete his course work at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. And the children's clinic where he volunteered asked him not to return.

He also clashed with the older priest assigned as his mentor. That friar concluded Montgomery was emotionally troubled and sent him to a psychiatrist.

As Montgomery tells me about Chicago, he gets intense, and his speech accelerates.

More than once, I ask him to slow down and repeat himself. There's no doubt this side of him alienated people, made it easy for high schoolers - and even adults - to tag him as odd, a misfit.

I can't help but wonder: Is he boiling over? Is this what happened seven years ago?

It's true Montgomery has a reputation as a social-justice activist. He was into community service long before high schools required it from students. In college, he marched in peace rallies and joined a sit-in at the university president's office to protest CIA recruiting on campus.

That doesn't mean he can't get angry or explode. I tell Montgomery I vividly recall him and another teen tumbling over desks in a fight during an honors English class. I can't recall the reason, but think it had been a bubbling feud, one in which Montgomery was pushed to a brink.

He dismisses the fight with a shrug. Had there been others?

I ask if he has had trouble in prison. He says he once spent 12 days in protective custody - the hole - after being caught smuggling contraband under his shirt.

According to Montgomery, the contraband was cookies and envelopes for an inmate trying to repay a gambling debt to the Latin Kings gang.

I stifle a grin. There's something surreal about the image of Montgomery - a classmate who read Shakespeare aloud in a British accent - spending time in the hole and on the run from a notorious prison gang.

In other ways, he seems settled in prison. He says he belongs to a Bible study group and attends Toastmasters, a public-speaking class. He says he has friends, including a central Ohio drug dealer and a Cleveland man who contends he was wrongly convicted of raping a 9-year-old girl.

Montgomery writes his parents regularly and talks to them for 15 minutes by phone most Sundays.

His father, Joseph, is a retired community college professor. His mother, Janice, is a retired college secretary. They drive to the prison every few months, if weather and their health cooperate. His older brother and sister are the other regular visitors.

I always assumed Montgomery had a crowd of his own in high school. But it's clearer now that friends have been hard to come by.

He tells me he was secretly molested as a young boy by a neighbor, suggesting this may have played a role in his struggle to form lasting relationships. I ask about girlfriends; he says that there was a girl once, when he worked in New York, but that he scared her away. I'm not sure what to believe, or if any of it is relevant.

Mine is not an authorized press visit. Because most prisons give broader access to relatives and friends than to reporters, Montgomery has registered me as a friend on his visitors' list.

The trade-off is having to pass through metal detectors with my pockets inside out, unable to take anything through the two thick metal doors into the visiting room.

So each day, I borrow a pencil and paper from a guard and scrawl notes inconspicuously as Montgomery talks.

His contention is not outlandish: He says he was unstable and suicidally depressed over his impending move when police told him he must have killed Gulas. He says he didn't eat during hours of interrogation and was anxious because he had not taken his antiseizure medication. He says detectives drafted the confession, then persuaded him to sign it.

Montgomery tells me that his lawyers ignored his assertions of innocence and desire to fight the charges. That they insisted his only option was a plea deal - to spare him the death penalty and his family, parish, and religious order the pain (and expense) of a trial he would not win. That he was broken, and surrendered.

Believing him requires a bit of conspiratorial thinking, of course, accepting that somehow, others - perhaps many others - let an innocent man take a murder rap.

I've met enough decent people in the criminal-justice system to think such a scheme would be too hard for anyone to pull off.

But I tell Montgomery I do understand how pressure to quickly solve a high-profile case can lead to shortcuts and mistakes, sometimes with tragic results.

Still, he has little to stand on. He was the one who took the plea instead of a trial. I also expect that somewhere - probably in police files Montgomery says he never saw - is incontrovertible proof he murdered Gulas.

Then there's the way he acts. We have talked for nine hours, yet often his responses seem guarded, hesitant, even robotic. I can't help but think: Is he trying to convince me he's innocent, or himself?

CLEVELAND DEC. 8, 2002

The Cleveland Justice Center complex fills almost a full block on the city's northeast corner, just off Lake Erie and a 20-minute ride from St. Stanislaus' neighborhood, Slavic Village. It includes a 26-story tower with courtrooms, the Cuyahoga County District Attorney's Office, and police and arson headquarters.

That's where the arson investigators take Montgomery after picking him up outside the church. The leader of his Franciscan province, the Rev. Thomas Luczak, goes, too.

Montgomery repeats for Lts. Albert Lugo and Daniel Kovacic his account of the fire: He ate breakfa

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