Unsettling issues weeks after murder

Posted: July 13, 2011

CLEVELAND JANUARY 2003

The Rev. William Gulas has been dead nearly a month, shot through the chest and left to burn in a rectory fire.

So who is answering his cellphone?

That's what a parishioner wonders when, hoping to hear his greeting, she calls Gulas' number and a young man picks up.

Church officials pull the phone records. The last call before the fire was to voice mail, around the same time Gulas returned to the rectory after a night out with friends.

It lay silent for a week, records show. Since then, the blue Samsung has logged 812 calls, or about 33 a day.

Detectives Jim Metzler and Hank Veverka recognize the pattern. The phone is being used for drug deals.

They call. A man answers, then hangs up.

The detectives try again - and stay on the line long enough to tell the man he's using a murder victim's phone. The man becomes more cooperative. He says his name is Jeffrey Mason, that he bought the phone from his 13-year-old niece, and that he knows nothing about its previous owners.

A week later, the detectives stand with the girl in a grassy lot, two miles from the rectory, in a neighborhood dotted with decrepit homes.

The teen tells them she found the phone there while walking from school with two friends whose last names she can't recall. Then, she says, she sold it to her uncle.

At the detectives' urging, the girl's mother persuades Mason to come to her house. There, police confront him and he comes clean.

His real name is Terry Dobbins and he's wanted on drug and gun charges. Only 21, Dobbins has been arrested three times as an adult for selling crack cocaine. Twice, he was found with loaded guns.

Nine months earlier, Dobbins skipped a sentencing hearing in Cleveland. He has been a fugitive ever since.

 

Metzler and Veverka escort Dobbins to their offices in the county justice complex, the same place Daniel Montgomery confessed five weeks earlier. For more than an hour, they pepper Dobbins with questions about the cellphone and his activities. He denies knowing Gulas, Montgomery, or anything about the crime.

They press Dobbins to admit he got the phone from Montgomery. He won't.

So they jail him on the fugitive warrant.

That day, a grand jury indicts Montgomery on murder and arson charges, saying he killed Gulas and set fire to the rectory. District Attorney Bill Mason announces that he'll seek the death penalty against Brother Dan.

Eleven days later, Dobbins is shipped off to state prison for a four-year term.

For a half-century, the courts have recognized prosecutors' responsibility to disclose evidence that could suggest a defendant's innocence. Convictions have been overturned because of violations.

But police and prosecutors don't tell Montgomery or his lawyer about Gulas' cellphone or the fugitive who had it. They also don't disclose that officers discredited the friar's account about where he got a gun, nor do they report the church business manager's suspicion that a robber killed Gulas.

In a court filing two weeks after Dobbins' arrest - and then again four months later - two assistant district attorneys state: "No exculpatory material is available to or in the possession of the Prosecuting Attorney."

INDEPENDENCE, OHIO JULY 2010

I meet Jim Metzler at a steak house just outside Cleveland. His partner on the investigation had to cancel at the last minute. Metzler tells me Veverka is drained after being paged at 3:30 a.m. for a fresh murder.

Metzler doesn't have to worry about that stuff anymore - the bodies, next-of-kin notification, attorney shenanigans. He retired in 2006, leaving 25 years on the books and zero regrets. It means more time for the golf links, fewer mornings waking up thinking, Who's gonna lie to me today?

He comes to our dinner dressed the part of carefree ex-cop: denim shorts, open-collar shirt, a duffer's tan. He's 52.

 

We take a table. Metzler orders a Maker's Mark bourbon; I get a beer. Months earlier, we had talked briefly by phone. I also sent him copies of the records I had obtained, hoping it would refresh his memory.

Metzler hadn't forgotten the killing. In his years as a detective, he investigated scores of murders. Cleveland has about 100 a year, and roughly a dozen homicide detectives to solve them.

But a priest being shot, his rectory torched? That was new. And it occurred during a busy stretch. "Hank and I, we kept catching case after case after case," he tells me. "It was brutal."

Metzler joined the homicide squad after being a detective on major crimes. I ask him about his interrogation techniques.

"When you're interviewing a suspect, you have to come in there and make this guy think that you know everything he did," Metzler tells me. "As long as you could get a guy sitting there talking to you, you had a chance. If he said, 'I want an attorney, I'm done,' then you're done."

Such methods are legal, I know. The courts have repeatedly upheld a limited amount of deception during interrogations. Sort of an end justifying the means. These days, more police departments, including Cleveland's, routinely record interrogations, so there's less confusion about boundaries. Back in 2002, there were no such rules.

Metzler recalls walking into the interrogation room and seeing Montgomery kneeling and praying in the corner.

That was odd enough. Then he heard him speak. "Machine-gun Mulligan," Metzler tells me. The detective thought Brother Dan's behavior might all be an act.

He had joined the interview almost four hours after arson investigators picked up Montgomery. Metzler estimates he questioned him for three hours until Brother Dan broke down. It took an additional 90 minutes to draft and finalize the typed confession.

The interrogator's role was to persuade the suspect to go where he didn't want to go. Metzler says he believes he did that by appealing to Montgomery's faith, his desire to do the right thing - and his need for treatment.

"You're the actor, man," he explains to me. "You're giving this guy whatever he needs to believe that you've got him, dead bang - and he's going to tell you."

But did you have anything? I ask.

"I had nothing," he says.

We eat and talk. Music plays overhead in the restaurant. I recognize Light My Fire by the Doors.

Metzler's account matches almost everything I've seen in the investigation files. I'm struck by the facts he says he didn't know or focus on back then: the missing money, witnesses' seeing someone in the rectory before the fire, reports the priest was unclothed. All were mentioned in officers' reports after the arrest.

Metzler knew Montgomery's confession was an incomparably powerful piece of evidence, but still a starting point. In the end, the friar's admission became the cornerstone of the case.

"All the way through all this, if he wouldn't have gave us that statement, going to trial would've been a problem, a big problem," Metzler tells me. "Would've maybe never gotten to trial."

The detective says he has no clue where Montgomery bought or stashed the murder weapon, or how the priest's phone ended up a few miles from the church in the hands of a wanted drug dealer.

"There's a few things that I scratch my head about," Metzler says. "The phone is definitely one of them. And the gun - I wish that I had it."

That doesn't mean Montgomery is innocent, he says. "You get a feeling of working with people for years and years and years," he says. "You know if somebody is telling you the truth, you know? And I don't coerce nobody."

The real world isn't like TV, Metzler reminds me. Detectives don't routinely beat confessions out of innocent suspects. No, he concedes, there were no fingerprints on the candlelighter, or gunpowder residue on Montgomery's clothes. But fingerprints don't come cleanly off items. Shooters don't always get residue on their hands. Not every investigation ends logically.

This is Cleveland, home to one of the more debated prosecutions of the last century, the case that spawned The Fugitive. Rest assured, Metzler tells me, Dr. Sam Sheppard killed his wife - and Brother Dan shot Father Willy.

End of story.

"He did it," the detective says, shaking his head. "There's no doubt. He did it. Believe me, you're not going to fool me."

Metzler says it's futile trying to understand why Montgomery turned into a killer. People like that aren't wired like the rest of us, he tells me.

Is it possible, I ask, that the friar's so disconnected that he might falsely confess?

"No," Metzler says.

He's never had such a case. Just the prospect riles him. Who admits - twice - to a crime he didn't commit?

"Now, what if you didn't do it? You're going to plead?" he asks me, his voice rising as he mimics a false confessor.

"Let's go to the can, so I can [get raped]! Yeah, I'll take that plea!" he says. "Come on, man! Did he do it? What do you think?"

I don't know, I say.

I really don't.

I don't tell Metzler that my newspaper has arranged for Montgomery to take a lie-detector test the next day.

CLEVELAND FEBRUARY 2003

Prison is cold. From his cell in the Cuyahoga County jail, Montgomery has a view of Browns Stadium on the edge of Lake Erie. The whipping lake wind adds an extra chill to his cell. He's hoping for another blanket; he thinks inmates can't have long-sleeve shirts for security reasons.

Two months have passed since Montgomery's arrest. He's no longer on a suicide-watch floor. In the beginning, he didn't mind being there, among the men who claimed to hear voices in their heads or were prone to outbursts. At least they didn't judge him. But he knows he's safer in a regular block, with less-volatile inmates.

Since being jailed, Montgomery believes, he has come out of a fog. He contends that a state of schizophrenia and suicidal depression made him tell police "what they wanted to hear" and confess to a murder he didn't commit.

"I was suffering from delusions of grandeur," he tells his lawyer, Henry Hilow, in a Feb. 28 letter, "that perhaps if I were no longer to be a Franciscan, then I was to die as a martyr for a sinner, the killer & arsonist who committed the crimes."

Montgomery wants Hilow to pursue a false-confession defense based on his mental state. A prison psychiatrist reports to the lawyer that Montgomery could suffer from bipolar disorder or be "borderline psycho."

Montgomery also urges his lawyer to discredit the confession by interviewing the owner of the market where he allegedly bought the murder weapon. Hilow doesn't.

As the weeks go on, Montgomery thinks prosecutors are trying to make him sweat in prison, fold, and take a plea deal.

He rarely discusses the case in calls or letters to his parents or siblings. They've been warned their conversations and correspondence may be monitored. So their contact never dives too deeply below superficial topics: movies, the weather, books, family comings and goings.

But Montgomery's letters to his attorney grow more insistent as the case drags on.

"I hope we can meet soon so I can sign the letter to the prosecutor stating I wish to take this case to trial," he writes Hilow in July, after seven months in jail. "I realize that I face the death penalty."

Then, in September: "I do not wish to pursue a plea bargain but rather wish to go to trial. . . . Nothing you can say or do will change my mind. . . . I want you to excuse yourself if you cannot do this."

Almost eight months after the indictment, Hilow and his partners have not challenged the confession - the only piece of evidence in the case - and have received only limited discovery from prosecutors.

Montgomery urges his parents to look for another lawyer. Hilow "seems to be avoiding us," he writes to them in mid-September.

At the same time, Montgomery is adapting to life as a prisoner. It's as if he has found someplace he belongs.

"Though the legal front may not look so bright right now, the spiritual front is strong. I've had some great Bible study with the inmates here," Montgomery writes. "I've found more faith here than in the seminary."

PHILADELPHIA AUGUST 2010

Brother Dan lied.

That's the conclusion from Bill Evans, whom The Inquirer hired to give Montgomery a lie-detector test.

Evans administered the test in July at the state prison in Marion, Ohio, a day after I talked to the lead detective on the case. The test wasn't recorded, and I didn't see it. Evans gives me a brief phone update that day and a typed report weeks later.

It says the test centered on four key questions:

Do you know for sure who shot Father Willy? Did you shoot Father Willy? Did you set that fire in Father Willy's office? Are you the one who killed Father Willy?

Each time, Montgomery answered, "No."

Each time, Evans detected "physiological changes indicative of deception."

Translation: The suspect lied.

Evans is a veteran examiner who has administered tests for prosecutors and defense attorneys in Ohio for nearly 20 years and has no apparent stake in Montgomery's fate. He says that the results weren't a close call, that he sensed Montgomery was trying to use countermeasures like irregular breathing to beat the test. When Evans told him he failed, Montgomery took the news stoically, according to the examiner.

 

"I told him flat-out that there was no way he was telling the truth," Evans tells me. "His response was interesting in that it was not shock. It was just him [saying], Uh-huh, nodding, a 'What's next?' kind of thing."

I know the results don't equal a smoking gun, don't mean Montgomery killed Gulas. There is no shortage of polygraph critics - scientists and other experts who insist that the mere idea of a machine detecting a lie is pure folly. That's one reason results are rarely admissible in court. I've talked to lawyers who believe polygraphs should never be administered to mentally troubled defendants.

But there's no disputing the impact. Lawyers might not be allowed to introduce them as evidence, but often privately let judges and prosecutors know the results, if they're favorable. And such tests inevitably carry weight in the court of public opinion - the potential jury pool.

This exam was probably the last barrier Montgomery needed to clear to win me over. If he passed it with flying colors, he would have eased any lingering doubts.

I had already started considering another unnoticed case that intrigued me: Weeks after Gulas' murder, two addicts on the east side of Cleveland robbed a drug dealer, shot him once with a .38-caliber bullet, and set his home ablaze.

But Montgomery failed the test. My doubts return.

Still, I share with Evans the litany of things that perplex me about Montgomery's case: the missing gun, the flawed confession, the signs of a robbery, the victim's cellphone ending up on a drug dealer two miles from the crime scene, the friar's bizarre responses to police, the lack of any defense investigation.

He says it's possible Brother Dan plotted it all - the robbery scene, his odd answers and flawed confession - to derail investigators. "I do believe this guy is smart enough," Evans tells me.

I pore over the documents I've amassed - the legal filings, clippings, notes from interviews. I scan letters Montgomery wrote to his lawyer and parents. Some lines suddenly seem more prominent, as if written in bold.

". . . Henry and I did go over my confession line-by-line, but it was back in Dec. or Jan., when I was still so delusional I thought I might be guilty. ..."

". . . a lifetime of people-pleasing and lying by telling people what I think they want to hear . . . I became a master of lies and deception. . . ."

Is that it? Is Montgomery continuing the deception? Is he telling me, his family, maybe even himself, lies we want to believe? Or is it possible he's guilty - but of something else?

I look up the possible side effects for his antiseizure medication, Dilantin: mood and behavior changes, suicidal thoughts, acting on dangerous impulses.

My mind wanders to a theory that some suggested: Did he plan to kill himself - but couldn't, then turned the gun on Father Willy?

I send Montgomery a copy of Evans' report. A week or so later, I receive his one-page, typed reply. He disputes the conclusions, saying that Evans told him the results were more mixed, that he passed specific questions about the crime, but failed more general ones, like "Are you guilty?" or "Did you have anything to do with this shooting?"

"I see my failure of these questions stemming from my overdeveloped conscience that still feels guilty about what I possibly could have done differently 71/2 years ago to prevent these events from happening," Montgomery writes.

He ends by saying the investigation records I found have given him new hope for an appeal, a chance at freedom.

"Thank you for all you have done for me," he writes. "May God bless you."

I'm not sure why, but his letter unnerves me.

KING OF PRUSSIA OCTOBER 2003

Montgomery's parents find the envelope waiting when they return from his sentencing in Cleveland. He mailed it before the hearing.

"Dear Mom and Dad," it begins. "God willing, I will make a plea to murder and arson on Thursday 10/09/03. . . ."

Montgomery explains that he knows he could be acquitted. But he also knows that, if he loses, he could get the death penalty or life in prison with no parole. "As Pope Pius XII says, when you're facing two evils, you must choose the lesser of two evils," he writes. "A jury trial would be evil, and plea bargaining is evil, but I consider it the lesser of these two evils."

He urges them to avoid the media "in order to let me quietly and peacefully begin God's work in prison." Montgomery says his lawyers have told him he might qualify for a prison reserved for men over 40.

"Trust in God," he writes. "He cured me of my depression, and I am in peace with God."

CLEVELAND JULY 2011

Last Thursday, a lawyer for Montgomery asked a judge to let him withdraw the guilty plea.

In a 20-page motion claiming "manifest injustice," appeals attorney Barry Wilford argued that Cleveland police ignored evidence that Gulas may have been killed by a robber, failed to question other legitimate "persons of interest" in the crime, and based their case on a confession he called "a model of unreliability" after "a marathon investigation."

The motion also accuses prosecutors of intentionally withholding exculpatory evidence - about Gulas' cellphone and the drug dealer who had it - and criticizes defense attorneys for failing to properly respond to or investigate Montgomery's innocence claims.

The filing notes that such motions are rarely granted.

Asked to comment, Ryan Miday, a spokesman for Cuyahoga County District Attorney Bill Mason, issued a one-sentence response Friday: "This office will review the motion."

Once prosecutors reply, a judge could grant Montgomery a hearing on his claim. Or she could reject it outright.

A ruling could take months.

Since his release from prison in 2007, Dobbins, the drug dealer, has been convicted three more times on narcotics charges. He was arrested again last fall, and I waited outside court one morning to approach him after his latest hearing. He was more than willing to talk to me, friendly even. He also insisted he knew nothing about Gulas' death or Montgomery's role.

"I didn't know this man from Adam," Dobbins told me. "I bought the phone [from a niece] because it was a decent phone, and I could conduct it to do my business."

That same week, I finally met Henry Hilow, the lawyer who negotiated Montgomery's guilty plea, but who had ignored my calls, e-mails, and letters for about nine months. Hilow and his partner Bill McGinty agreed to give me a few minutes after I showed up unannounced at their office.

Hilow said he had no regrets about his representation of Montgomery. He said he was never told that police found the victim's cellphone on a drug dealer. Hilow said he did know about the missing bingo money, but didn't think it material. He also told me he didn't feel a need to verify the confession because, Hilow said, Montgomery repeatedly admitted to him that he killed Gulas - an assertion that conflicts with what he said publicly eight years ago.

When pressed, Hilow said he couldn't recall specifically when Montgomery confessed to him. He also declined my requests for any case notes or records that might substantiate his recollection.

"This case was a tragedy on many levels," the lawyer later told me in a letter. "Daniel Montgomery admitted his involvement in this case, and we were able to negotiate a plea that saved his life."

Around the same time, I also sat down with the Rev. Tod Laverty, the Franciscan who served as Montgomery's mentor in Chicago before he moved to Cleveland. During those years, Laverty met often with Montgomery to discuss progress and goals; he also moderated small-group discussions with the new friars.

Montgomery had told me he disliked Laverty; he thought the older priest was too tough on him, and he blamed Laverty for his struggles to be accepted by the order. Laverty told me he recognized Brother Dan as emotionally tortured the first time they met. He was the one who arranged for Montgomery to see a psychiatrist.

As Laverty and I shared breakfast in a Detroit diner, I recounted almost everything I learned about Montgomery and his case in the preceding 18 months. He asked what kind of story I planned.

I'm not sure, I told him. I couldn't say for certain that Montgomery didn't kill Gulas. What bothered me was that no one could definitively say that he did. That we were once classmates was immaterial; it happened to be my window into his case.

I got no closer to understanding Montgomery than anyone else who spent time around him. I told Laverty that despite multiple conversations and letters with Montgomery, I still had the sense that he was holding back, hiding something behind a wall. Much the way Metzler, the detective, said he felt when he met Brother Dan in the interrogation room: Something's not quite right here.

But what struck me about the case was how people in a system designed to seek justice - not for Montgomery, but, maybe more important, for Gulas - were satisfied with such an outcome. How could they not have had doubts, or acted on them?

Montgomery was absolutely a legitimate suspect, and the police and firefighters and prosecutors were right to scrutinize him. I know that time is critical in solving any case, especially a murder.

I knew Montgomery's arrest ended up being the best outcome for the neighborhood. Even Jane Campbell, the former mayor of Cleveland, described the sense of relief that washed over her when she learned Gulas' killer was the newly arrived friar and not someone whose arrest would rock the community. "In an odd way," she told me, "it was merciful."

But isn't there a time when logic intervenes? Wasn't anyone bothered that they couldn't explain how he got a gun or where it went? Didn't anyone want to know how the pastor's cellphone ended up in the hands of a crack dealer? And what happened to the money? Didn't they all add up to doubt?

I also knew that Montgomery's case probably wouldn't unfold the same way today as it did back then. Interrogations are now routinely recorded and available to the defense. And last year, Ohio's judicial system agreed to end the practice of "closed discovery" that let prosecutors withhold key evidence from a defendant until trial.

Still, I asked Laverty the same question I had pondered eight years earlier, when a friend e-mailed me the headlines about Montgomery's arrest: Was he surprised? Did he think Montgomery was capable of being a killer?

"Now, before the event, no, I never would've predicted that," Laverty tells me. "After the event, yes. We all went back to our initial impressions of, well, this is a guy that should never have been accepted to begin with."

But, I ask, could Brother Dan have been so emotionally damaged that another option was possible - that he would confess and plead guilty to a murder he didn't commit?

"Yeah," Laverty says. "I could see that."


Contact staff writer John P. Martin

at 215-854-4774 or jmartin@phillynews.com.

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