The Vanishing of a Priest

John Patrick Kerrigan disappeared in Ronan 35 years ago, and his bloody clothes and car were recovered, but his body never was. The case remains unsolved.

By Brian D’Ambrosio
Sacred Heart Catholic Church on Round Butte Road in Ronan on Dec. 1, 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Living

Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the winter 2019 edition of Flathead Living.

Shortly before 11 p.m. on July 20, 1984, Father John Patrick Kerrigan walked into Deneault’s Bakery on 4th Avenue Southwest in Ronan. It was a Friday evening that flirted with freezing temperatures, the kind of chilly summer night well-known to people living in the Mission Mountains. The Ronan assignment was Kerrigan’s 13th church since he started ministering 30 years earlier. The next day, he was scheduled to deliver his first sermon as “permanent pastor” at Sacred Heart Parish, located across the street from the bakery.

Wearing red shorts, a white T-shirt and tennis shoes, Kerrigan greeted the late-night gathering of locals at Deneault’s. The 58-year-old priest made an impression on bakery owner and parish member Bob Deneault, who took notice of the man’s “broad smile” and observed that at 6 feet, 200 pounds, Kerrigan appeared physically fit “but from his nature it appeared he couldn’t harm anyone,” according to a newspaper interview he later gave.

Several other patrons also chatted amiably with the priest, who told them that he was enjoying the brisk summer air and that there was no better way to get acquainted with Ronan than by taking an evening walk. He also informed them that he planned to attend a funeral and a wedding in Plains the following day. Saturday was going to be a full, exciting one. He then headed home to the red brick Catholic rectory next to his new church.

The following day, members of Ronan’s Sacred Heart Parish gathered for 5:30 Mass. More than 100 parishioners awaited their weekly service, eager to meet the new pastor. Sacred Heart Catholic Church had gone without its own priest since April, and though Kerrigan had transferred from Plains, only about an hour’s drive, most of the attendees knew little or near nothing about him.

Fifteen minutes elapsed, and impatience filled the church. How could he miss his first service? Most of the parishioners began clearing out, although several expressed concern and called the rectory. No answer.

Then when Kerrigan missed Sunday morning Mass, too, the collective concern of parishioners deepened. “He would never miss his weekend liturgies — he just would never miss,”  Connie Erickson, at the time an administrative assistant to the chancellor in the Helena Diocese, later said on an episode of nationally televised “Unsolved Mysteries.”

Father John Kerrigan. Courtesy photo

Sunday night the first phone calls trickled in, and on Monday, July 23, Father Kerrigan was legally declared “missing.” Then a woman setting up a roadside fruit stand made a grisly discovery: a heap of bloody garments at her feet.

The small crimson mound seemed to have been intentionally stacked alongside Montana Highway 35, five miles northeast of Polson. Placed at a turnout along the east shore of Flathead Lake, the pile included a shirt, shoes and a windbreaker. A $100 bill was reportedly stuffed in one shirt pocket, and “his wallet, containing about $200, was left with his clothes,” according to published news reports. While not the same outfit he wore to the bakery, crime lab reports later revealed that hair found on the items matched Kerrigan’s. Near the abandoned clothes, authorities quarantined a blood-splattered and “deformed” hanger, an object that might have been used to strangle or hold down the priest.

About one week after Kerrigan went missing, his Chevy Impala was found on a hill overlooking Polson several miles away from the rectory and just a few miles south of where his blood-stained clothes emerged. At the base of the radio towers off Skyline Drive in Polson, the large, boxy-looking Impala had “been wiped clean of fingerprints,” according to police and Associated Press reports. But there were copious amounts of blood in the interior and the trunk. Heavy smatterings were detected in the front seat, on the passenger-side door, and spread across the passenger-side floorboard. In the trunk, police discovered a red-drenched pillow, a bloodied shovel, and “Kerrigan’s wallet, stuffed with more than $1,000 in cash.” (Press accounts of Kerrigan’s case are riddled with inconsistencies, including varying reports as to the location of Kerrigan’s wallet and the amount it contained.) The keys to the car were said to be found in weeds about 30 yards away.

Hearsay and fear spread through the Mission Valley, and for good reason. The priest’s presumed murder was just one of several frightening events to unfold in the area within a single week, including four inmates fleeing in a state-owned vehicle from the minimum-security unit of the Montana State Prison at the Swan River Youth Camp, about 50 miles to the northeast, on the same day Kerrigan visited Deneault’s Bakery. Two of the escapees kidnapped and raped a woman in Evaro. And in an unrelated incident, on July 22, 18-year-old Reed Nevins murdered a 41-year-old woman in her Polson home.

Moreover, rumors circulated that a serial killer of priests was on the hunt and that Kerrigan’s fate in Ronan was connected to the disappearance of an Episcopal priest in Townsend two years earlier. Reverend James Otis Anderson was last seen driving east on Highway 12, toward White Sulphur Springs, on the morning of June 13, 1982. On the day of his disappearance, he too failed to show up for services at his church. The two priests were said to be friends and had worked together in White Sulphur Springs at the same time. Now both of them were gone.

The rectory adjacent to Sacred Heart Catholic Church on Round Butte Road in Ronan as seen on Dec. 1, 2019, where Father Kerrigan would have been living. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Living

Social Autopsy of the Father

Despite red-hot speculation and an abundance of DNA evidence, the investigation of the missing priest, however, chilled within months.

Paul Choma, the chief investigator in the case, told the Associated Press that he had been surprised at the reluctance of many, including church officials, to provide critical information that he had to “learn from other sources.”

“They are nowhere with the investigation, and it leaves people very sad and frustrated,” Father Ernest Burns of Polson told the Missoulian in the fall of 1984. Deneault, the bakery owner, said for several months the priest’s whereabouts were “the prime topic of conversation.”

Police conducted what’s now commonly referred to as a “social autopsy” or a “victimology” assessment, scouring the past life of the priest in search of clues into why he seemed to be targeted. The report was initially unspectacular. Born January 10, 1926, John Patrick Kerrigan was a Butte native and attended St. Joseph Grade School and Central High School before going to Seattle, where he attended St. Edward’s Seminary. He was ordained in Butte and began work in the ministry in the city’s St. Patrick’s Church in 1954.

“He loved rural parishes,” Father James Gannon of Stevensville told the Associated Press in 1984. Gannon, who said Kerrigan assisted him for a couple of years in Dillon in the early 1960s, recalled Kerrigan as “outgoing” and said he “developed many friendships across the state.” Gannon also noted that “Kerrigan loved to cowboy — he’d get all dressed up and help brand and work cattle.”

But something about Kerrigan’s transience, his shuttling from parish to parish, aroused the suspicions of detectives. After all, Ronan was Kerrigan’s 13th parish assignment since being ordained in 1954. After his first assignment in Butte, he was sent to Hamilton and then back to Butte, then Dillon, Butte again, and then to Browning, Bozeman, Drummond, White Sulphur Springs, Choteau, and eventually to St. James Parish in Plains from 1980-84. Why, in 1965, was he ministering at three separate churches?

And there was another curious stopping point on Kerrigan’s trail: he had spent time in New Mexico at a rehabilitation center for wayward clergy. Why specifically had he been sent to the Congregation of the Servants of the Paraclete in Jemez Springs? It troubled investigators to learn that the priests who were at Jemez Springs were there for alcoholism, depression, or sexual delinquency. Could the key to Kerrigan’s death be extrapolated from the details of some clerical abuse or excess? Police started to operate under a new belief that perhaps it was the priest’s own shadowy interior, hidden behind the “broad smile,” that sealed his fate.

A pullout off of Highway 35 about five miles northeast of Polson as seen on Dec. 1, 2019. The killer placed a stack of Father Kerrigan’s clothes near this location. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Living

Connection to New Mexico Murder?

Choma, the chief investigator on Kerrigan’s case, told the Associated Press that he contacted New Mexico authorities after he learned of a Catholic priest’s murder there that occurred nine months before Kerrigan arrived in the state. On the night of Aug. 7, 1982, according to church officials, Father Renaldo Rivera answered a phone call from a man who was desperately seeking “the last rites” of a loved one. Three days later, Rivera’s body was discovered riddled with bullets on a dirt road outside of Santa Fe. Rivera’s sacrament bag, wallet and glasses were never found. His car was located at a rest stop. The keys were missing.

There are a number of parallels between Father Rivera’s murder and evidence relating to Kerrigan’s disappearance. Some are compelling: wire coat hangers were believed to have been used in the two crimes; robbery was excluded as a motive; both were members of the Order of Franciscans. Additionally, both victims’ cars were apparently driven away from the crime scene, then wiped clean of fingerprints and abandoned. Kerrigan was 58, and Rivera was 57. Rivera’s body was discovered near a road a few miles out of town, as was Kerrigan’s bloody clothing. There were broader resemblances, too: Both men died in the summer, one shortly before August 1, the other less than a week after, and both drove brown Chevrolets.

For several years, New Mexico authorities publicly sparred over the relevance of the Montana case to their investigation. Santa Fe Deputy Police Chief Gilbert Ulibarri told The Santa Fe New Mexican that he had “a gut feeling” the disappearance of the Montana priest and the killing of Father Rivera were tied to the same individual, perhaps even a serial killer. New Mexico State Police detective Eric Lucero rejected his counterpart’s claim, telling The Santa Fe New Mexican in 1994 that there was “no connection whatsoever.” Ulibarri countered, “Whoever killed Kerrigan left his clothes in a neat pile right by the road. If he didn’t want people to know (Kerrigan) had been killed, why would he leave the clothes there?”

When “Unsolved Mysteries” aired its segment on Father Rivera in 1988, the television program focused on the similarities between the Montana case and that of the Santa Fe priest. During the segment, detective sergeant Bruce Phillips of the Lake County Sheriff’s Office once again eliminated robbery as a motive. “The money was not hidden, so we don’t feel that robbery was a motive for this particular crime.”

A number of callers directed investigators’ attention to other killings of priests or ministers. But after publicity from the show subsided, the tips dried up.

The radio towers off of Skyline Drive in Polson as seen on Dec. 1, 2019. Father Kerrigan’s blood-stained Chevy Impala was found parked near the towers. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Living

More Dead Ends

In the summer of 1985, Lake County’s new sheriff, Joe Geldrich, reported progress in solving the Kerrigan case. He wouldn’t name the suspect, but did say the man was “not in Montana.” Geldrich said he was waiting “for the accumulation of additional evidence before taking action,” and noted that “the chances of solving the case look very good.” Yet, there was no follow-up report on that progress, and that was the last time such a rosy prognostication was made for finding Kerrigan’s killer.

While Kerrigan’s name surfaced occasionally as a footnote in the larger context of the Father Rivera slaying, no direct connection between Father Rivera’s murder in New Mexico and Father Kerrigan was ever established. Furthermore, there wasn’t enough evidence to link the four escapees (who were all apprehended within a week) to the priest’s disappearance, and while Nevins, who murdered a Polson woman in her home, had been in Ronan the night that Kerrigan vanished, there was no evidence of his involvement either.

Nor could police establish any criminal association between the disappearance of Reverend Anderson in Townsend two years earlier and Kerrigan’s case. Anderson was reported to have been suffering from mental health problems at the time and “may have been facing termination from his position in the church,” according to a 1988 Lee Newspapers story. In October 1992, 10 years after his disappearance, Anderson’s Volkswagen was found abandoned in the Big Belt Mountains, northeast of Townsend. His body has never been located.

One other case tantalized investigators for a while due to its proximity and timeframe: Two days after Kerrigan was last seen, a 31-year-old schoolteacher named Curtis Holmen went missing from Missoula. Holmen, a math teacher at Target Range Elementary School, was last seen in Missoula on July 22, 1984. Twelve days later, his Toyota pickup truck was found abandoned on a logging road around Placid Lake. Authorities suspected Holmen had taken his own life, and he was later declared dead. But Holmen’s brother fueled greater speculation when he told a reporter that the fate of his despondent sibling might have been linked to Father Kerrigan’s.

Sacred Heart Catholic Church on Round Butte Road in Ronan on Dec. 1, 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Living

Abuse Allegations

Conjecture over Kerrigan’s death reemerged in April 2015 when the Roman Catholic Diocese of Helena settled a large civil suit alleging that a number of priests had been sexual abusers. The lawsuit charged that church leaders reassigned those priests to new parishes, giving them no punishment but an admonition to quit molesting. Church hierarchy agreed to a financial settlement and disclosed the identities of 80 former employees, most of them priests and nuns, “who had allegedly sexually abused children in western Montana.” Kerrigan was among the alleged abusers, complicating the case of his disappearance, which officially remains active and open, although without any advocates, descendants or loved ones publicly demanding justice.

Geldrich, the former Lake County sheriff who started working the case in 1985, told the Missoulian shortly after the report was released in 2015 that “authorities were aware” even then of allegations of child sexual abuse involving Kerrigan. In that interview, Geldrich once again rejected robbery as the motivation, yet he also dismissed the theory that a victim of Kerrigan’s acted out of revenge. When contacted twice this year, Geldrich reiterated the same line of reasoning as he did in 2015, and emphasized that he didn’t want “to reveal anything that might hurt the boys’ chances of solving this thing.”

Brian D’Ambrosio lives in Helena, Montana. His most recent book, “Montana Entertainers: Famous and Almost Forgotten,” was released in July 2019.

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