Priest tells jury details of robbery at church

Man took parish's savings and smacked him, he says

July 03, 2004|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

A priest who said he was smacked by a gun-toting assailant during the robbery of his Northeast Baltimore parish described yesterday in Circuit Court how the collection plate savings were stolen after he was forced to open the church safe.

"He gave me a slight back of the hand on the left ear to encourage me," said the Rev. Michael J. Orchik, who has been a priest for 31 years. "He was aggravated."

Barry K. Brooks, whom police describe as a career criminal, is accused of pushing his way past a secretary last fall at the Shrine of the Little Flower Roman Catholic Church and making off with $7,500.

Witnesses said Brooks approached the church saying he wanted to make a donation and enroll his children in school, then pulled out a handgun and angrily demanded money.

Brooks' public defender, Daniel Connell, repeatedly told the jury that police arrested the wrong man and has implied that witnesses have misidentified his client.

"Somebody committed this despicable crime, but it wasn't Barry Brooks," Connell said. "Don't let the government tell you somebody has to burn for this and it's Barry Brooks."

Brooks is charged with armed robbery, assault and handgun violations in connection with the robbery of the church in the 2800 block of Brendan Ave.

On the witness stand yesterday, Brooks told the jury he was at home eating pancakes at 8:30 a.m. Oct. 13, when the incident occurred.

Brooks' landlord, a 78-year- old woman, testified and corroborated his alibi.

But Orchik, wearing his priest's collar and jacket, identified Brooks as the man who took the money his parish had gathered in the collection plate.

He said a man who looked like Brooks pressed a handgun against his secretary, Patricia Jean Erdbring, and threatened to kill her if they didn't open the church safe in the basement of the rectory.

"He put the gun to her head and said, `You have five seconds,'" Orchik testified.

Orchik said that as he and Erdbring fumbled with the combination lock to the safe, the robber became impatient and hit the priest on the left side of the face.

In addition to Orchik and Erdbring, an 86-year-old housekeeper with failing sight and hearing was also in the basement during the robbery, according to testimony.

They opened the safe, which held donations from the collection plate and rent checks from a group of Franciscan sisters who live in the convent, Orchik testified.

The robber put the money in one of the church's green duffel bags, and told Orchik and Erdbring not to follow him. They waited 10 minutes then called police, Orchik said.

When asked how sure he was that Brooks was the robber, Orchik replied that he had little doubt.

"I have a tremendous memory of the event," Orchik said.

Erdbring told the jury Thursday that she clearly remembered Brooks' face.

"That's him. I'm a hundred percent sure," she said. "That's definitely him."

Brooks also testified that at 3 p.m. the day of the robbery, he took a bus to Harrisburg, Pa., to visit a woman he had met on the Internet.

Brooks has been imprisoned for bank robbery, released and returned to prison for violating the condition of his release. He was most recently released from prison in August, records show.

Court documents indicate that since 1985, Brooks has been charged with weapons possession and robbery at least three times, as well as with felony assault.

Closing arguments are scheduled for Tuesday morning.

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