Bizarre complaint led to arrest in nun's killing

Grand jury to decide today whether to indict priest suspected by police

May 03, 2004|By P.J. Huffstutter | P.J. Huffstutter,LOS ANGELES TIMES

TOLEDO, Ohio - The murder scene today remains cordoned off, even though the grisly crime occurred 24 years ago.

Many of the witnesses - the doctors, nurses, police officers and nuns who saw the mutilated body of Sister Margaret Ann Pahl in the spring of 1980 - are long dead. Others say they have tried to forget that horrific day.

Early in the morning on April 5, Pahl was discovered inside the sacristy of Mercy Hospital's chapel.

The 71-year-old nun had been strangled, stabbed between 27 and 32 times, and then covered with a white altar cloth. While police say there was no evidence of rape, they acknowledge that the killer positioned Pahl's body to appear as if she had been.

Until recent months, the evidence in this unsolved homicide case has remained untouched, collecting dust in the Toledo Police Department's storage facilities.

But this past week, focus on this case has been revived, with a series of disturbing allegations surrounding the original crime.

And as a result, the Rev. Gerald Robinson, a 66-year-old Roman Catholic priest who presided over Pahl's funeral Mass, has been arrested and arraigned on charges of killing her.

Evidence in the 1980 killing was presented to a Lucas County grand jury Friday. The panel's decision, whether to indict Robinson or not, is expected today.

Robinson has been detained in the Lucas County Jail since his arrest April 23. His bail has been set at $200,000 cash, or $600,000 in property.

Police and prosecutors, noting concerns over media leaks, refuse to discuss the investigation or detail the evidence shown to the grand jury Friday.

Over the years, locals have not only remembered the mystery of Pahl's death, but also say its fantastic nature has woven the grisly tale into part of the town's lore.

For generations, locals have spoken of it in hushed whispers, embellishing the limited facts with rumor. The line between fact and fantasy has long been erased.

Last year, an unidentified woman approached a sex-abuse panel at the Toledo diocese. The woman, described by friends as in her 40s and well regarded in the local Catholic community, alleged that local priests forced her into disturbing rituals.

The statement "described satanic ceremonies in which priests placed her in a coffin filled with cockroaches, forced her to ingest what she believed to be a human eyeball, and penetrated her with a snake `to consecrate these orifices to Satan,'" according to the town's local newspaper, The Toledo Blade.

The woman also alleged that the priests killed two children and mutilated dogs, among other things, the newspaper said.

Robinson is among the priests reportedly named in the statement.

Claudia Vercellotti - co-coordinator of the local chapter of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests - said she has read the letter and confirms its contents.

The diocese commissioners declined to pursue the matter, believing that the accusations were too outlandish, say church officials. But one commissioner, a psychologist who lived in the area, approached the woman and recommended that she alert the police.

The woman turned to Vercellotti, who said she received the statement and other material. Vercellotti and the commissioner met with an investigator with the state attorney general's office late last year.

"No specific details were discussed. But we encouraged them to report the matter," said Kim Norris, a spokeswoman with the Ohio attorney general. "After that, we received quite a bit of information, which we immediately provided to the Toledo police and prosecutor's office."

The police department reopened the case in December and began to re-examine all the old evidence. DNA evidence was not used as part of Robinson's arrest, police said.

Instead, investigators with connections to the case say that there was evidence that involved "blood transfer patterns," or the process of creating a mirror image when a bloody object comes into contact with another item.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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