Hunting for a gun and prodding for details

Posted: July 12, 2011

CLEVELAND DECEMBER 2002

Since finding a dead priest in the ashes of the St. Stanislaus rectory, detectives have made notable progress.

They pulled a .38-caliber bullet from the body of William Gulas, the popular pastor. And they extracted a confession from Daniel Montgomery, the quirky friar and onetime Philadelphia-area honor student who said he had killed Gulas and set the fire.

Now, on the second morning after the blaze, more than a dozen officers and firefighters, plus a K-9 dog named Kindle, gather at the scene with a mission:

Find the murder weapon.

Montgomery's confession, typed by a detective after nearly eight hours of interrogation, says the friar bought the loaded gun for $40 from a clerk at a corner store. After shooting Gulas in the chest, he tossed the weapon in the pastor's office and used a candlelighter to ignite papers on Gulas' desk, the statement says.

In the 24 hours between his call to 911 and his detention, Montgomery had been with other friars or parishioners. He attended a service at the church and spent the night in the parish convent. No one saw him leave the grounds.

In the pastor's office, arson investigators rake the debris, shovel it into small cans, then dump the contents into larger containers. At each stage, a different officer sifts the remains, all with the same result: no gun.

A detective has Montgomery pulled from the county jail and brought to police headquarters. Tell us again: Where is the gun? he asks. Montgomery says to check the pastor's office, or other rooms on that first floor.

Back at the rectory, officers search the hallway, other offices, then the bedrooms. They remove Montgomery's journal, clothing, and computer. They see the candlelighter in its usual spot, on a hallway bookshelf. Still, no gun.

The next day, dozens of cops and firefighters arrive. Their search extends under the building and around the block. They look in the sewers and burrow in neighbors' flower pots.

The result doesn't change. No gun.

On the third day, detectives return to Montgomery in jail.

Tell us where it is, they plead. Don't let this weapon fall into the hands of a child, or another criminal. Don't let someone else get hurt.

Montgomery again agrees to cooperate and starts spitting out locations. Look in the rectory garage, he tells them. Try the bell tower. Or the patio between the church and rectory.

 

Each suggestion proves to be a dead end. They stop searching.

"Montgomery kept rambling; his speech pattern was almost like a rap artist," Detective Joseph Chojnowski writes in his report that night. "He claims that he can't remember where he took the gun, his mind is a blank to the details."

 

CLEVELAND DECEMBER 2009

Seven years after the murder, the Rev. Michael Surufka has a theory: He was Brother Dan's real target.

"I think Willy took my bullet," he tells me.

Surufka is sitting in the pastor's office - now his office - at St. Stan's, a few feet from where Gulas died.

Surufka, a Midwesterner, is 51, with a boyish face and glasses. Under his brown friar's robe, he wears a gray T-shirt and dark corduroy pants. As he speaks, he drops his right hand to his side and twirls a knot on his friar's rope belt.

I've explained to Surufka that Montgomery and I were high-school classmates back in the Philadelphia suburbs, that I was pursuing a story about when and why this peace-activist honor student turned murderous.

I don't share any opinions about the case because I haven't formed any. Montgomery seems to be the same tightly wound guy I recall from our youth, a guy that more than one classmate agreed could have been voted "Most Likely to Snap." But there are aspects of his case - of him, even - that seem illogical.

Surufka, I expect, is the one person who can shed some light, ease any doubt, help me decide if there's a story worth telling. As far I as I know, no one had a better view of Montgomery, Gulas, and events leading to the murder.

The pastor's office, restored since the fire, is arranged much the way it was in 2002: a wall safe just to the right of the room entrance, the pastor's desk in the corner opposite the doorway.

When the fire broke out, Surufka, then the assistant pastor, was at a conference in Wisconsin. He had worked closely with Montgomery - and been one of his critics within the Franciscan order.

"Willy was the one who would always take his side," he tells me. "And I was the one who was working with the formation directors to move him out. And Dan would know that."

Just a few years apart in age, Montgomery and Surufka shared little in common. A former law school student, Surufka once represented the Franciscans at the United Nations, a job that carried him around the world. After teaching at Archbishop Ryan in Northeast Philadelphia, he became assistant pastor of St. Stan's in 1999.

Surufka was outgoing and articulate. He got along well with parishioners, the elderly, even the children. Connecting with anyone seemed to be Montgomery's main problem. School administrators fumbled to find appropriate tasks for the new, socially awkward friar, Surufka says. Students were confused, even a little creeped out, when Montgomery fancied himself Eminem and wrote cheesy raps for them. Even his fellow clerics didn't embrace him.

Surufka tells me about a friars' gathering he attended before Montgomery was sent to Cleveland, but after he had been a Franciscan for several years. During a coffee break, all the brothers mingled.

"There's Dan, standing in the middle of the room. Just kind of looking at everybody, a kind of like a half-smile on his face," Surufka says. "And him not going to anybody and nobody going to him. And I thought: My gosh, after years in the community, and he had nobody that he knows or likes well enough to connect to, to gravitate toward?" 

 

That's one reason the province leaders in 2002 sent Montgomery to Cleveland. How better to see if he was ready for his final vows - the ones that would make him a Franciscan forever - than to have him live and work with one of his chief skeptics?

Surufka says the decision stunned him, but he understood it. And he knew that Slavic Village, a neighborhood facing the worst sort of urban decay, might be fertile ground for a friar passionate about social work.

But almost from the outset, Surufka says, Montgomery was a failure.

"He wanted to be on the streets with the people, but he had absolutely no people skills," Surufka says. "The people didn't want to be with him."

Gulas wasn't as harsh. The 68-year-old pastor was more tolerant, almost grandfatherly about Brother Dan. Surufka recalls Gulas' sticking up for Montgomery.

You know, there are a lot of people in the church and in the world who have a hard time fitting in, Gulas once told him. And maybe Dan's place is to be with those other people. Maybe that's his niche.

Surufka describes for me a visit he got, the day after the fire, from Cleveland Mayor Jane Campbell and Bishop Anthony Pilla, then head of the Cleveland Diocese.

When the mayor told him that Gulas died from a gunshot, not the fire, Surufka assumed, as most did, that the killer was a local thug, an addict or thief hunting for cash. He also worried about the racial tensions that had already been bubbling in the historically Polish neighborhood.

I ask Surufka about the part of Montgomery's confession that says he had been caught "inappropriately touching" children at the parish school.

According to Surufka, the complaints weren't sexual. One girl said Brother Dan sat too close to her in church; another complained he roughly grabbed her arm. A third said he cursed at the kids.

Still, the timing could hardly have been worse. The clergy-abuse scandal was spreading across the country.

"You couldn't smile at a child," Surufka tells me, "without thinking that someone was going to take a picture and send it to a prosecutor."

As in Philadelphia, authorities in Cleveland had launched a criminal probe into clergy sex abuse. It ended just days before the fire, when Cuyahoga County District Attorney Bill Mason said investigators had identified more than 1,000 possible victims and nearly 500 suspected offenders, including 143 priests.

Mason, a Catholic himself, said he couldn't prosecute - and wouldn't identify - most of the suspects because the allegations against them fell outside the statute of limitations.

Around the same time, Brother Dan was invited to a meeting in the school principal's office to hear the students' complaints against him. Sweating profusely, he apologized to each of the complaining students. Then he was asked to stay away from the building.

Montgomery already knew he was being shipped to Cedar Lake, Ind., to care for elderly friars at a retirement villa. What he didn't know was that the Franciscans planned to dismiss him from their order once he arrived.

Surufka tells me he tried to warn Montgomery. "I said, 'If I were you, I would begin to think what I would do if I were not a friar,' " he says.

According to Surufka, Montgomery took the advice passively. But the priest thinks Montgomery's resentment toward him slowly boiled in the ensuing days, reaching its peak the day of the fire. Surufka theorizes that when Brother Dan couldn't find him that Saturday, he projected his anger onto the next Franciscan he saw.

Gulas.

I bring up one of the more puzzling aspects of the case: the gun, where it came from and where it went. I tell Surufka that Amer Alahmad, who owned the market where Montgomery allegedly bought the weapon, told me that that assertion was false and that the police knew it.

So if not there, where would a misfit pacifist who wears a friar's robe and lives on $200 a month get a firearm? I ask. And if he was willing to confess to the murder, why lie about the gun?

 

Surufka agrees such a lie would be "kind of strange," but then again, so was Montgomery. And the pastor tells me that in his neighborhood, any street-smart kid could get me a loaded gun within minutes.

He has no doubt who killed Gulas.

"As I stand before God, he did this. Now, the mystery of exactly why, exactly how - where the gun was, or not, where it is now, where he got it - now that's interesting to know, and for the first year and change, I really wanted to know these things," he says. "But the answers that I have are adequate to fill in the blanks for me. Because the nub of the thing is: Willy's dead - and Dan did it."

Surufka is so sure of this, he says, that he'd fight to keep Montgomery in prison when he comes up for parole in 2026. I ask if he's afraid Montgomery might want to kill him. "If he can kill Willy, why wouldn't he kill me?" the pastor says. "His life is already ruined."

For nearly six hours over two days, Surufka generously answers my questions, painstakingl

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