A Killer Priest?

updated 05/15/2006 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/15/2006 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Police officer Dave Davison had just settled down for breakfast at the Mercy Hospital cafeteria in Toledo, Ohio, when a nurse burst in. "You better get to the chapel!" she shouted. "There's a dead nun up there!" Davison and his partner Dan Deeter raced down the hall to the hospital chapel. There they found Sister Margaret Ann Pahl, 71. The nun had been strangled, stabbed nine times in the chest in the pattern of an inverted cross—a symbol often used in Satanic rituals—then partly covered in an altar cloth and stabbed another 22 times. Within moments the two Catholic chaplains at the hospital, Rev. Jerome Swiatecki and Father Gerald Robinson, were in the room. Suddenly, Swiatecki turned to his colleague and blurted out, "Why did you do this?"

Father Swiatecki, who died in 1996, never publicly explained exactly why he jumped to that startling conclusion. But now, 26 years after the killing of Sister Margaret Ann—which occurred on April 5, 1980, the day before Easter—Father Robinson, 68, is on trial for the crime. From early on in the investigation, Robinson—who was considered cold and aloof—emerged as a prime suspect. The problem was there were no witnesses and no hard evidence to implicate the priest, who presided at Sister Margaret Ann's funeral Mass. Judging from the first week of testimony in the Toledo courtroom, the prosecution may still be fighting an uphill battle: The state has offered no motive, and there is no DNA evidence linking Robinson to the crime scene. The prosecution seems to be placing most of its hopes on a dagger-like letter opener that was found in Robinson's room after the killing, which experts say could be the murder weapon. "If you make the arrest, you better be pretty darn sure you can get a conviction," says retired deputy police chief Ray Vetter, 82, who headed the original investigation. "I wasn't pretty darn sure."

The case would have most likely remained stone cold except for a strange turn of events in 2003. An unnamed woman came forward to tell the Toledo diocese that when she was a young girl, several priests had sexually molested her and forced her to take part in bizarre rituals and orgies. One of the priests she named was Father Robinson. The allegations were never substantiated, and no charges were ever filed. But they prompted detectives to take another look at the murder of Sister Margaret Ann. The item they focused on was the letter opener, which under new testing seemed to show a pattern of blood similar to the stains found on the altar cloth. "We didn't have the technology to pick up a lot of what was picked up recently," Det. Steve Forrester said two years ago, adding that "this murder was part of some type of ceremony" but declining to elaborate. Armed with the new information, police arrested Robinson and charged him in the killing.

But the court testimony has highlighted the limitations of blood-transfer analysis. The prosecution introduced two expert witnesses, Dr. Paulette Sutton of the University of Tennessee and the renowned Dr. Henry Lee, both of whom testified that Robinson's letter opener, which was found clean of any fingerprints or even dust, left stains that were consistent with the pattern of bloody wipings found on the the altar cloth. But both stopped short of saying definitively that it was the murder weapon. Indeed, under cross examination Sutton acknowledged that the wipings could have been made by a scissor blade. Meanwhile a third expert, forensic anthropologist Julie Saul, testified that when she tested the tip of Robinson's letter opener in a small gouge left in Sister Margaret Ann's jawbone, "the fit was so snug. It just seemed to lock in place." But Saul also could not say for certain that the opener was used in the killing. As Robinson's lawyer John Thebes told reporters in 2004, "There's a reason these cases are cold: because the evidence is not good to begin with."

The prosecution has suggested that the murder was part of a satanic ritual. Det. Terry Cousino, using a mannequin, demonstrated for the jury how the first nine stab wounds formed such a precise inverted cross that a "template" must have been used. In later testimony, Rev. Jeffrey Grob, a church expert on such rituals, said that only someone like a priest or nun would have grasped the significance of some of the crime scene details, including the inverted cross, which has long been used by followers of the occult to mock Catholicism.

The Toledo diocese, which banned Father Robinson from performing any priestly duties at the time of his arrest, has turned its back on him, refusing to pay any of his legal expenses. But many of his former parishioners banded together to raise the $200,000 he needed to make bail—and have continued to support him. At this late date ex-deputy chief Vetter still isn't sure what happened—only that he wants to see justice done. "If he did it, I hope to hell they throw the book at him," says Vetter. "And if he didn't, I hope he walks free."

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