Judge Eric Lundell ruled Monday there was probable cause that the late Ryan Erickson was responsible for the murders of Dan O'Connell and James Ellison in Hudson three and one-half years ago.

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At the conclusion of a one-day John Doe hearing in St. Croix County Court, Lundell said, "This is one of the strongest cases of circumstantial evidence I have ever seen."

The evidence not only established that Erickson had motive and opportunity in the Feb. 5, 2002, killings at the O'Connell Family Funeral Home, but also implicated the St. Patrick's parish priest in the sexual assault of at least one minor in Hudson.

"On a scale of 1 to 10, based on the strength of the evidence presented, I give it a 10," Lundell said.

Under ordinary circumstances, a probable-cause hearing is necessary to charge and try a suspect. But since Erickson committed suicide last December, there can be no trial, and Lundell's decision effectively closes the case.

Citing from almost all of the 17 witnesses who testified, Lundell said he had heard nothing that would exclude the late priest as the chief suspect in the case.

Damning testimony

Some of the most damning testimony came from Russell Lundgren, a deacon at St. Mary's in Hurley, Erickson's assignment at the time of his suicide. Lundgren testified that while he liked Erickson he believed him to be a "troubled soul" and a somewhat "unstable young man."

Lundgren said he had a conversation with the priest the day after Erickson was first interviewed by Hudson detectives. Erickson was upset by the interview and told Lundgren he was questioned about the murders. "The more he talked, the angrier he got ... and he said, 'I done it and I'm gonna get caught,'" said Lundgren. The deacon said Erickson was staring out the window throughout the whole conversation. Lundgren asked the priest what he was talking about. Erickson responded by saying, "Do you know what they do with young guys in prison, especially priests?"

Lundgren asked Erickson, "What are you saying?" but the priest changed the subject. Lundgren was sure Erickson was talking about the murders in their conversation. Erickson had not yet been questioned about the alleged sexual assault. Said Lundgren, "I was praying to God that this did not take place, but I believed he was talking about the murders and that's what I told the police."

Lundgren described Erickson as a disturbed person and cited a conversation he had with him about his dog as an example. When the dog chewed a television remote control, Erickson became very upset. Lundgren told the priest that the remote could be repaired for a few dollars and that he would reprogram it for Erickson. Erickson responded by saying, "I think I'll just invest 13 cents in a slug and put it between his eyes."

Motive

A motive for the murders came in testimony from Hudson school bus driver Mary Pagel, whose route included St. Patrick's School. She testified that she ran into Dan O'Connell at Wal-Mart around 9:30 the morning of the murders. After some small talk, O'Connell asked her if she ever saw Erickson touch a child inappropriately. She said she hadn't. He also asked her if she saw the priest mostly with girls or boys. She told him Erickson seemed to ignore the girls and preferred the boys. O'Connell went on to tell her that he had a meeting around noon that day to talk to Erickson. Pagel said she advised him not to talk to Erickson alone but to go to the police. O'Connell said he could take care of himself.

Pagel also testified that while she waited in her bus outside St. Patrick's School around 11:15 that same morning, she observed Erickson leaving the rectory "not dressed in priest clothes." The clothing drew her attention since Erickson rarely wore civilian attire. She also observed him driving away in a light-colored sedan, the car that police established he drove at the time and that resembled one seen at the funeral home the day of the murders.

Mike Swanby of Hudson said he knew Erickson from church and that Erickson came to his home several times a week around the time of the murders. He testified that in spring 2002 Erickson told him that he had argued with Dan O'Connell the night before the murders but didn't say what the argument was about. In another conversation, Swanby recalled that Erickson said, "The devil or the demon is gone." Swanby was certain that the priest was referring to Dan O'Connell in the remark. "It worried me when he blurted out these things in conversation. Why are we talking about this? But then the conversation would change," said Swanby.

Both Swanby and Pagel were administered polygraph tests and were deemed to be truthful in their statements.

Molestation

A former Somerset man was visibly distressed when he testified to being molested by Erickson numerous times between 2000-2001 when he was 16-17 years old. The man first went to North Dakota police in spring 2003 to report that Erickson had provided him with alcohol as a minor during regular weekends he spent with the priest at the St. Patrick's rectory.

In subsequent interviews with Hudson detectives, the man described being highly intoxicated and being touched sexually by Erickson while lying together in the priest's bed. The man said he went to the police after he heard the phrase sexual grooming in a college psychology course. He told the court he believed that is what Erickson was doing to him. The man said Erickson took advantage of his position as a priest and as his confessor at the time. He said he came forward to police in 2003 because he worried "what happened to him might be happening to someone else." He worried about some boys in a Hudson family with whom Erickson spent a great deal of time. He said he did not know if Dan O'Connell knew he had been molested by Erickson.

Another man testified that he had spent time at the rectory with the witness and Erickson. He said while Erickson had never touched him sexually, he did provide the 15-16-year-old with lots of alcohol and the youth felt he, too, was being groomed sexually by the priest. He said his friend's behavior changed over the period of time they spent with Erickson, adding that he noticed increased alcohol abuse by his friend. He believed something sexual was going on with his friend and Erickson, "but I didn't even want to think about it." He also testified that he had seen Erickson's gun collection, which included at least two handguns.

Murder scene

Hudson Police Lt. Paul Larson provided a description of the funeral home office where the murders occurred. (See separate story.)

Larson said that Erickson's comments about where O'Connell's body was found, and how Ellison entered the room, explained the position of a shell casing found under Ellison's body and the scenario for how the crime occurred.

Larson also testified that the murderer had to be an excellent shot and very familiar with the use of a semi-automatic handgun. Larson said Erickson fit that description based on information the investigation uncovered in his background. He said that Ramsey County Medical Examiner and forensic pathologist Dr. Michael McGee, who conducted the autopsies on both of the victims, described the shootings as "up close and personal." Almost from the beginning of the investigation, Larson said the placement of the bodies and lack of any signs of struggle or theft at the scene led authorities to believe that the killer knew the victims.

Larson, a 32-year member of the Hudson Police Department, said he believed Erickson was the perpetrator based on evidence found at the crime scene, the interviews and information gathered in the investigation and the testimony of witnesses at the hearing.

There was also testimony from John Fassbinder, a contractor who stated that he was driving by O'Connell's funeral home around 1:15 p.m. the day of the murders and saw a man who he believed resembled Ryan Erickson getting into or out of a car at the front door of the funeral home.

Tom Evenson of Hudson testified that he also saw a light-colored car under the portico at the front of the funeral home around the same time as Fassbinder. He saw a man come out of the front door and get into the car, but he couldn't identity the driver as Erickson.

Priest's friends

Two friends of Erickson also testified, Patricia German and Betty Caruso. German said it was Erickson who told her around 3:30 p.m. the day of the murders that "something terrible had happened" and that Dan O'Connell was involved. He also told her both men were shot in the back of the head. While talking with German he received a phone call and told her he had been asked to "come to the morgue" to identify the bodies.

German said she next spoke with Erickson that same day following evening Mass at St. Patrick's. She recalled that the priest cried almost all the way through the service, and she believed it was because of the murders. However, when she sought to comfort him, he said, "That wasn't it."

At the conclusion of her testimony, German added that one of her sons, who attended St. Patrick's School, recalls seeing Erickson around the school or the rectory around 12:30 the day of the murders.

Caruso said that she spoke with Erickson around 11:15 that morning. He asked if he could take a nap at her home, something she said he frequently did despite the fact that the rectory was just across the street. Caruso said Erickson frequently took naps at their home to relax and escape from phone calls and often spent several nights a week sleeping there.

Caruso said she came home after a haircut sometime between 1:30-1:45 p.m. and saw Erickson sleeping on her couch that Tuesday. She said she received a call at her office in City Hall from her husband sometime around 2:10 p.m., and he said he had seen Father sleeping on the couch as well.

Caruso went on to testify that she was told crime scene details from Hudson Police Sgt. Marty Jensen sometime in the days following the murders that included how many shots were fired and that the murderer was a good shot. Jensen testified he did not recall talking with Caruso and said he told no one about how many shots were fired. He said he might have made reference to the killer being a good shot.

Caruso said she next talked with Erickson on the Thursday after the murders and told Erickson, "Dan is the kind of guy who goes straight to heaven." She recalled that Erickson didn't seem convinced and told her that O'Connell had not been to confession in a long time, that he had asked Erickson to bless his home and that everyone needed to pray for Dan's soul.

Detectives

Testimony concluded with the two men who probably know the case against Erickson the best, HPD detectives Jeff Knopps and Shawn Pettee. Pettee testified that while they believed Erickson had sexually assaulted a minor in Hudson, they did not know if he could be considered a suspect in the murder investigation. But from the start, anyone who knew O'Connell or Ellison was a possibility and so they decided to begin their questioning of the priest on Nov. 11, 2004, with what he recalled about the day of the murders.

Pettee said there were several red flags in Erickson's responses to questions, but the most damning was what he knew about the crime scene

how and where the men were shot and his description of how Ellison came into the office where the men were shot. Pettee confirmed that Erickson knew details that had never been released to the public. Erickson's explanation of how he knew the information could not be confirmed. Pettee also said Erickson denied he committed the crimes. (See separate story for details of police interviews with Erickson.)

Pettee told the court that three separate, independent agencies had examined the four computers police had confiscated from Erickson. They found several files including one labeled "Holy Mass Prayers" that contained more than 40 images of gay and prepubescent male pornography in a variety of sex acts and sexual poses.

Pettee also testified that one of the nuns from the Carmelite Monastery several blocks from the funeral home reported to police that Erickson came to the monastery around 2:30 the afternoon of the murders. He told the sisters that a "terrible tragedy had happened at O'Connell's and that Dan and his assistant had been murdered." Pettee testified that information about who had been shot was not released until much later in the day and that St. Croix County's Emergency Response Unit did not even complete their initial search of the funeral home until 2:42 p.m.

Pettee also noted that this was before the priest had shown up at St. Patrick's Church around 3 p.m., where the secretary testified that Erickson acted like he knew nothing about the murders.

Pettee testified that Erickson had voluntarily turned over 16 guns he owned including six handguns, two that were 9mm. None of the weapons matched the slugs found at the crime scene. Erickson admitted to the detectives that he carried loaded weapons in his car and allegedly in a holster he wore under his cassock. His Hudson housekeeper told police that she saw a loaded handgun in the trunk of his car when he was leaving for a meeting with Bishop Raphael Fliss in Superior. He told her he needed it for protection.

When questioned about the sexual assault allegations, Pettee said Erickson admitted to providing the minors and several other boys with alcohol but denied any sexual assault.

Knopps testified that while Erickson denied he committed the murders in a letter confiscated in the Dec. 16, 2004, search of the priest's home and office, the facts of the case painted a different picture. "From the beginning we went where the facts led us regardless of who was involved."

Knopps confirmed along with the other officers who testified that a complete and thorough background check had been made of both O'Connell and Ellison, and nothing was found in either case that would explain what happened.

Both Knopps and Pettee concluded their testimony by saying that based on interviews with Erickson and others who knew and worked with him that he was responsible for both the murders and the sexual assault.

Judge rules

After a summary and closing statement by District Attorney Eric Johnson, Lundell took only about 20 minutes to make his finding. Speaking to a now-open courtroom filled with the victims' families, friends and reporters and television cameras, Lundell said that while there was no direct evidence like a witness to the murders or the murder weapon, his decision had to be based on circumstantial evidence he called "admissions by conduct" and whatever else might be relative to Erickson's motive and opportunity to commit the crimes.

Following the decision, those in the courtroom hugged one another and smiled through tears believing that the long three-and-a-half-year ordeal of who killed Dan O'Connell and James Ellison was at an end.