Ohio prosecutors fight Montco native's attempt to undo guilty plea in killing of priest

Daniel Montgomery at his 2003 sentencing. He signed a statement saying he had killed the Rev. William Gulas.
Daniel Montgomery at his 2003 sentencing. He signed a statement saying he had killed the Rev. William Gulas. (JOHN KUNTZ / The Plain Dealer)
Posted: August 22, 2011

Ohio prosecutors say they didn't withhold evidence or pressure a Montgomery County native to confess to killing a Cleveland priest, and they asked a judge to deny his request to reopen the case.

In a motion filed Friday, the Cuyahoga County District Attorney's Office said Daniel Montgomery, a former Franciscan friar, had mischaracterized their probe and his 2003 guilty plea in a desperate attempt to win freedom.

"Montgomery entered knowing, voluntary, and intelligent guilty pleas," prosecutors Sal Awadallah and Mary McGrath wrote in the 29-page filing. "At no point during the proceedings did Montgomery claim his innocence."

A onetime honors student from King of Prussia, Montgomery, 45, is serving 24 years to life for the December 2002 killing of the Rev. William Gulas, pastor of a renowned Catholic church in Cleveland. His case was the subject of a four-part series in The Inquirer last month.

After an interrogation that he said had lasted eight hours, Montgomery signed a typed confession in which he admitted shooting Gulas, 68, in the St. Stanislaus rectory and setting the building ablaze.

The confession said Montgomery had been angry after being accused of inappropriately touching students at the parish school and learning that his Franciscan superiors planned to reassign him.

On July 7, a lawyer for Montgomery filed a motion arguing that the former friar was a victim of "manifest injustice" and should be allowed to withdraw his plea.

Lawyer Barry Wilford cited records unearthed by The Inquirer that suggested that investigators had failed to pursue other leads and that prosecutors had withheld evidence that might have helped exonerate Montgomery.

In particular, the motion noted reports that showed about $1,500 appeared to be missing from the rectory safe, that police had discredited a section of the confession that said Montgomery had bought the murder weapon for $40 at a local convenience store, and that officers had found the dead priest's cellphone on an ex-con wanted on gun and narcotics charges. That man, Terry Dobbins, has denied any role in the crime.

Investigators never found the gun that killed Gulas, or determined where or how Montgomery, a pacifist who lived under a vow of poverty, might have obtained one.

Montgomery contends the evidence was never shared. He also says his lawyers in 2003 failed to investigate his assertions of innocence and pressed him to sign a plea to avert a potential death penalty.

The prosecutors asked Judge Joan Synenberg to deny the petition without a hearing. They noted that the standards to prove manifest injustice are "extremely high" and argued that Montgomery's contentions did not come close.

Their motion included an affidavit from Montgomery's trial lawyer, Henry Hilow, that says that Hilow told the friar about the missing money and that Gulas' cellphone had been found on a person "from the neighborhood."

The district attorneys also contend that Montgomery had 24 hours between the murder and his interrogation to dispose of the gun. Of the missing money, they wrote: "It is very likely that the contents of the safe, including the box, were disturbed during the fire and/or firefighting operation. Alternatively, it is likely that Montgomery staged the crime scene as a robbery in order to provide a motive for murder."

Montgomery, imprisoned in Marion, Ohio, could not be reached for comment on the prosecutors' filing. His attorney, Wilford, declined to comment.


Contact staff writer John P. Martin at 215-854-4774 or jmartin@phillynews.com.

 

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