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.
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, painstakingly recounting a piece of parish history I know that he, other friars, and members of St. Stan's would prefer to forget.
He's eloquent and makes a persuasive argument. It's not hard to embrace it, or to see how Surufka - and his success both in the parish and thereligious order - might have stoked such resentment from a friar who would likely never achieve it.
I leave the rectory with less uncertainty. Should I trust the word of a priest - or a convicted murderer? It's not a tough choice.
Two months pass before I discover Surufka left out an intriguing detail about the case. He didn't tell me about Father Willy's cellphone.
CLEVELAND DECEMBER 2002
For Marilyn Mosinski, the holiday season is deeply painful. It isn't just that Gulas, one of her closest friends, is gone. It's how he died, why he died, even when he died. Christmas is one of the most festive occasions at St. Stan's. Now her pastor is dead, the rectory in ruins. A pall hangs over the parish.
A few weeks after his arrest, Montgomery takes a step that baffles and outrages parishioners. He sends the church a Christmas card.
"All the words and tears in the world cannot express my sorrow over the tragic events of 12/07," it says. "I love you and pray for you every day. I also pray that God will help me get the treatment I need to cure my illness. I thank God for the time we spent together, and I mourn its unfortunate ending."
Surufka reads the card aloud at the altar one Sunday, then gives it to police.
Some at St. Stan's have no trouble accepting that Montgomery was the killer. They profess to have seen signs.
Mosinski isn't one of them.
Yes, he was odd, she thinks. Yes, he seemed utterly unable to interact with people, especially adults. But a killer?
She didn't see that coming.
Still, she resents him. Brother Dan snatched something precious from her: a chance for her to say goodbye to a friend. She'd just like to hear Gulas' voice one more time.
An idea strikes Mosinski. She thinks of that cellphone message she had listened to countless times: Hi, this is Father William Gulas, thank you for calling. . . .
For once, she wouldn't mind getting that voice mail.
Mosinski opens her phone and dials Gulas' number. Nothing has prepared her for what happens next.
A young man answers.
PHILADELPHIA FEBRUARY 2010
"God, I've just had a ton of bricks hit me . . . people at St. Stan's school said I have a lack of socialization skills, I 'lurk' around. . . ."
I'm reading entries from the journal Montgomery kept during his stay in Cleveland. Prosecutors had suggested that his writings offered a motive for the killing. I obtained copies from Montgomery's parents. The pages were in a deep, brown box haphazardly piled with other letters, news clippings, legal documents.
To say his handwriting is uneven would be kind. It is often an indecipherable scrawl.
Some entries are clumped together, at all hours, especially toward the end. He writes at 2:26 a.m., 3:11 a.m., 4:13 a.m. I envision a bleary-eyed Montgomery, his left hand wrapped around a pen, scribbling furiously in his bedroom. It's not hard to interpret these as his unraveling.
"Look at my pattern of early horrendous mistakes each year. Maybe Franciscan life is NOT for me . . . Be an adult, Dan. All this time with kids is making people nervous. ..."
For weeks before the murder, Brother Dan had been privately castigating himself, predicting his dismissal, mulling options. In one entry, he angrily disagrees with a sermon by Surufka, the assistant pastor. Others are expletive-filled attempts at rap songs.
Still, there's rarely a mention of Gulas, and no murderous, end-it-all rant. At times, Montgomery exhibits a sense of resignation about his future. He makes many references to his faith.
"Lord help me be who you have called me to be."
I find the last entry, written three days before the fire, but just after the exit interview, in which Gulas, Surufka, and another Franciscan discussed Montgomery's transfer. They cited his hyper-fast speech, his inability to make friends. He's bitter.
"... I still speak too fast (I'm f-d.) Also they say I make people uncomfortable 1-on-1 and in group situations. How the f- am I supposed to change other people?"
Was that it? Did he find himself on a ledge with nowhere to go? That's how prosecutors presented it. I find a story in the Cleveland Diocese newspaper that quotes a police commander saying there were "several potential suspects" for the murder, without elaborating. Virtually every other news account at the time presented the same narrative: On the brink of another failure, the outcast exploded in a fit of rage.
Montgomery's mother accepted the idea, telling one reporter about the call after his confession in which her son asked if he had a split personality. "He's divorced from reality," Janice Montgomery told the Cleveland Plain Dealer in January 2003. "I think it's buried so deep, he can't face it. Maybe he's right - there's two different Dannys sitting there."
That same story quotes Montgomery's defense lawyer, Henry Hilow, saying that "mental-health issues" would play into the defense. Montgomery lacked "an understanding of what happened or the events he's supposedly responsible for," Hilow said then. "There's no connection to those events."
The lawyer didn't question Montgomery's guilt, just his memory.
Hilow is a prominent name in Cleveland legal circles, with deep roots in the prosecutor's office, I have discovered. He spent 11 years as an assistant district attorney before switching in the early 1990s to defense work. His father had been a prosecutor, and his sister was an assistant district attorney when Gulas was killed.
Hilow had also been active in the Catholic Church and represented a priest during the clergy sex-abuse investigation. Days after he began representing Montgomery, he mentioned the scandal, saying that getting a fair trial for Brother Dan might be hard given "the circumstances in society today, with all the cases involving priests."
How Hilow came to the case is unclear. Surufka, the assistant pastor, told me attorneys for the Franciscans and Cleveland Diocese had asked Hilow to take the case because Montgomery had no money or local ties to the legal community. One story suggested Hilow expected to be paid by the church, but that deal fell through.
Montgomery and his parents have told me Hilow called them unsolicited and offered his services. They say he took their $25,000 check - a meager fee for a high-profile murder case - then did little, other than to push the friar to accept a plea deal.
Hilow also told them how difficult a case it would be. The lawyer gave the family a copy of one of the random e-mails he said he received from the public after agreeing to defend their son. "I think you are a pig for representing the man who murdered the priest," it said.
The Montgomerys haven't seen or heard from Hilow since the day of the guilty plea and sentence. To this point, he also hasn't responded to my calls or letters.
(In 2006, after multiple requests, Hilow's office had forwarded his files on the case to an appeals lawyer hired by Montgomery's family.)
Cuyahoga County District Attorney Bill Mason had taken the unusual step of declaring he would personally handle the friar's case. And he vowed to seek the death penalty.
The plea Hilow negotiated was a bargain. Many defense lawyers in a capital case would consider anything short of execution to be a victory. In that vein, 24 years to life was a good deal.
Reading coverage of the case, I'm struck that no stories touch on what to me seemed a central mystery: how and where the cash-poor pacifist friar acquired a gun - and what he did with it.
Days later, I receive a packet that I hope might have the answer: copies of the police and fire records in Montgomery's case. I had requested them five months earlier. Montgomery has said he had never seen them and predicted I wouldn't either. I assumed he didn't want me to see them - that maybe he was afraid they would erase any uncertainty about his guilt.
Different court systems operate under different rules. Ohio's, I have learned, is one of the more archaic. Under a process known as "closed discovery," defendants and their lawyers don't get access to all the evidence before trial.
Instead, prosecutors were simply required to tell the defense team - in person or over the phone - what the evidence would include. The idea, in part, was to prevent a defendant from intimidating witnesses or or tampering with evidence against them. But the impact was broader: Preparing for a trial, or weighing a plea deal, was more difficult if you didn't know the evidence or trust the authorities to share it fully.
Ohio defense attorneys had complained for years that the system was unfairly tilted against them. A few convictions in Cleveland had been overturned because prosecutors hid evidence.
The public-records laws there that allow any Ohio citizen to see copies of investigative files on closed cases also have a curious loophole: They don't apply to defendants or their lawyers. So Montgomery never saw these files.
My packet includes nearly 26 police and fire reports, about 80 pages in all. Most are records documenting the first few days after the fire. I notice that many of the papers were prepared or filed after Montgomery confessed and was charged, fitting the narrative the confession spelled out.
The reports largely gloss over the interrogation, summarizing hours of questioning in a few lines. One, from a fire-arson lieutenant, filed five days after the fire, says simply that investigators "continued to interview Brother Dan until it became apparent that he may have been responsible for what happened in the Rectory."
Another report, quoting students and school officials, corroborates that Montgomery had been reprimanded for inappropriate - but not sexual - misconduct around children. A third says the police lab found no gunpowder on Montgomery's clothes.
Still another recounts the business manager's description of the missing bingo money. A fifth mentions that another parish employee had been seen going into the rectory late that morning, though that man was never questioned. A sixth, from a firefighter on the scene, describes how the dead pastor "appeared to be undressed" in his first-floor office at noon on that frigid December day. The coroner's report states that when Gulas' body arrived at the morgue, it was "partially unclothed."
Several reports outline the frantic hunt for the gun, Montgomery's odd responses to investigators, and his willingness to cooperate, but inability to recall the crime.
I find two reports describing detectives' interview with Amer Alahmad, the owner of K&S market, four days after Montgomery's arrest. Alahmad has told me - and the police - that Montgomery couldn't have bought the gun at his store, and said he invited police to review his surveillance video to prove it.
"This male appeared to be telling us the truth," said a statement signed by Metzler, the homicide detective.
None of these details was in the news accounts back then. Each seems to be another stone tipping the scales in Montgomery's favor.
As I thumb through the documents, it's clear the case against him is built solely on his confession, one that police drafted - and he signed - after more than eight hours in custody.
No witnesses. No gun. No forensic evidence.
I expected this packet to hold proof of his guilt. It doesn't. Could he be innocent?
Before I started reading them, I had arranged the records in chronological order, to absorb the investigation as it unfolded. Without realizing it, that meant I saved the best for last: a report filed five weeks after the shooting and fire. It was dated Jan. 13, 2003, the same day a grand jury indicted Montgomery for murder and arson, ending the investigation.
It was also the day, the report shows, that police found the dead priest's cellphone.
And the gun-toting drug dealer who had been using it.
The path to a plea deal ends the case, but not the questions.
Contact staff writer John P. Martin
at 215-854-4774 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.