Hudson, Wis. — There was only circumstantial evidence against the late Rev. Ryan Erickson. But circumstantial evidence was all St. Croix County Judge Eric Lundell needed.
"I conclude that Ryan Erickson probably committed these crimes in question. On a scale of 1 to 10 as far as strength of evidence, i'd consider this a 10," he announced.
The crimes in question are the murders of 39-year-old Hudson funeral home director Dan O'Connell and his employee James Ellison, 22. They were found shot to death in the funeral home in February 2003. But because the prime suspect committed suicide last year, no charges could be filed. Instead, St. Croix County District Attorney Eric Johnson laid out his evidence against Ryan Erickson in a hearing yesterday.
"It's pieces of a puzzle. Some are bigger than others, but still when they fit together they come to a conclusion that would show guilt," according to Johnson.
The prosecutor says he believes that Erickson killed the two men because O'Connell may have had information about sex abuse allegations against the priest, or allegations that Erickson had provided alcohol to minors.
"I think Ryan Erickson, his life was to be a priest. And I think what happened is, he could see that crumbling and if Dan would have went public with that, or if it had been revealed, his life would have been ruined and I think he had to stop that," Johnson said.
Deacon Russell Lundgren, from St. Mary's Church in Hurley, testified Monday he talked to Erickson after police interviewed the priest late last year.
"He tells me that 'I done it and they were going to catch me,"' Lundgren said during the hearing.
"He was staring out the window. Throughout the whole conversation, we never made eye contact," Lundgren said.
The priest also told him, "Do you know what they do with young guys in prison, especially priests?" Lundgren testified.
Lundgren said they never talked about the deaths again.
School bus driver Mary Pagel testified she had coffee with O'Connell in the morning on the day he died. She said O'Connell asked her whether she ever saw the priest inappropriately touch a child, and O'Connell indicated he had a meeting with the priest later that day.
Pagel said she urged O'Connell to talk with police before meeting with the priest.
"Dan told me, 'I can handle it,"' Pagel said.
Erickson did not become a suspect until November of last year -- nearly two years after the murders. That's when he was interviewed by police. Detectives say he had information about the crime scene that had not been made public. They went back to talk to him again last December. Three days after that meeting, Erickson killed himself.
After the ruling Sally Ellison said she had no doubt that Erickson was guilty after the suicide. But while she was pleased that the judge has found that Erickson probably killed her son, she said there was little to celebrate.
"It's such a sad thing," she said. "There aren't any winners here. Everybody's a loser because our families have lost sons. Their family has lost a son. It's a tragedy the whole way around and we just have to try to find something good to bring out of it and move forward."
About 40 members of Ellison's and O'Connell's families packed the courtroom. When the ruling was read, they wept and hugged one another. But Erickson's family was not present. His parents are represented by attorney Buck Schilling. He said neither he nor Erickson's parents have been convinced by the judge's ruling.
"It's a weak circumstantial case. We don't believe that Father Ryan would ever be convicted by an impartial jury beyond a reasonable doubt in an adversarial hearing," Schilling said.
Schilling noted that Monday's hearing only required prosecutors to prove probable cause instead of reasonable doubt which is the burden of proof in criminal cases.
O'Connell's brother, Tom O'Connell, Jr., said he was unsure what the family might do next, but he hopes the Catholic church looks into the case and does its own investigation into how it occurred and could have been prevented.
Calls to the Catholic Diocese in Superior were not immediately returned.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.