Man held in cleric's death

Tip leads police to homeless laborer sleeping in his car

'A robbery gone bad'

Detectives seeking evidence in killing of Thomas Wells

June 19, 2000|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

As parishioners of Mother Seton Roman Catholic Church in Germantown gathered for Sunday Mass yesterday, word of the arrest of a suspect in the killing of their pastor, Monsignor Thomas Wells, spread through the pews, down the aisles and out into the steamy morning.

Montgomery County police announced earlier in the day that they had arrested a 25-year-old homeless man and charged him in Wells' killing in the predawn of June 8.

Robert Paul Lucas, a self-employed day laborer and landscaper from Clarksburg, was picked up by police at 7 a.m. Saturday while he was sleeping in his car outside a house in the 14200 block of Comus Road in Clarksburg.

Police were executing a search-and-seizure warrant on the car -- where Lucas was living, they said -- based on a tip called into the state's attorney's office.

Lucas was taken to Montgomery County Police headquarters where, under questioning by detectives, he said he was involved in the burglary but not the killing, police said.

He was charged with first-degree murder and was being held without bail in the Montgomery County Detention Center in Rockville. A bond hearing is scheduled for 1 p.m. today.

In Lucas' car, police found property that had been taken from the church rectory, though police declined to say what was found. No other suspects are believed to have been involved.

"He's the one and only," said police spokesman Derrick Baliles.

At a press conference yesterday morning, Police Chief Charles A. Moose called the crime one of the most disturbing his department had investigated.

"The violent murder of Monsignor Wells was incomprehensible even to our most experienced homicide detectives," Moose said in a statement.

"I only pray that the entire community will find some peace and comfort as a result of this arrest."

Wells' body was found in his second-floor bedroom above the rectory office after he failed to appear for a morning Mass.

Staff members found him on the floor, a desk drawer covering his head. He had been beaten and stabbed. Officers speculated that he had been killed during a struggle with one or more burglars. Basement windows were found broken.

Parish hurt by news

Members of the parish were devastated. Hundreds of families flocked to the church to hug and cry on each others' shoulders.

Church members volunteered to help police search church grounds for evidence. Vigils were held at the church, and parishioners wore black ribbons on their shirts.

At the pastor's funeral on Wednesday, 2,000 mourners, including bishops, nuns and about 200 priests in flowing robes, said goodbye to Wells beneath misty gray skies.

Police released few details of Lucas' arrest beyond saying that a tipster gave information to Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas Gansler, who passed the information on to police.

Baliles, the police spokesman, said the investigation would continue as police sought fingerprints and other forensic evidence from the crime scene.

Detectives said their initial suspicions were correct: that Wells was killed when he was awakened by burglars and that Wells may have attempted to stop them.

"We believe it was a robbery gone bad," Baliles said.

Police and prosecutors will now meet with Wells' family and church officials before deciding whether to seek the death penalty.

"The family, friends and parishioners of Monsignor Wells will probably never be able to understand how such an unspeakable crime could occur," Moose, the police chief, said.

Committed to area

Wells, born in Washington and raised in Chevy Chase, had been pastor of Mother Seton for 18 months.

He had been a priest in the area for 29 years, nine of them as a monsignor, serving in Prince George's and Montgomery counties.

Parishioners described Wells as a family member. He was a grandfather figure to some and a golf partner to others.

People would seek his advice on career changes and family crises.

He was fun-loving and energetic, which fit with the young-and-growing parish of about 2,200 families in this developing corner of Montgomery County, northwest of Gaithersburg.

With so many new homes being built and families moving in, the church -- a prefabricated former condominium sales office -- had become crowded.

Wells had been helping raise money to build a new church and was about halfway toward the goal at the time of his death. Parishioners have said the new sanctuary will now be Wells' legacy.

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