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Dan O'Connell, left, and James Ellison.

Double murder is now 10 years old

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Double murder is now 10 years old
River Falls Wisconsin 2815 Prairie Drive / P.O. Box 25 54022

Feb. 5, 2012 marks the 10-year anniversary of Hudson's most infamous crime -- the double murder of funeral home director Dan O'Connell and his student intern, James Ellison.

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Making the case even more bizarre was that the murders were committed by a Catholic priest, Ryan Erickson. It took nearly three years to finally put together the necessary evidence and solve the case. Erickson died of suicide as the police dragnet closed around him.

It was a cold Tuesday afternoon on Feb. 5, 2002, when police received a call at about 1:40 p.m. from Marty Shanklin, the St. Croix County medical examiner. He had stopped at the O'Connell Funeral home at 520 11th St. to collect routine signatures on a death certificate.

What Shanklin found shocked the community to its core and still has a huge impact today -- 10 years later. Dan O'Connell and intern James Ellison were dead in the businesses office -- shot to death. Shanklin immediately left the scene, not knowing if the perpetrator was still there.

The police response was huge, but it was well over 30 minutes before members of the county's emergency response unit began searching the building and deeming it secure. Later that afternoon, Hudson Police Officer Bob Oehmke confirmed that two people were found dead of gunshot wounds. Identities were not released until later, but speculation spread quickly that Dan O'Connell may have been one of the victims.

Dan's brother Mike came to the scene when he heard of the commotion. Dan's parents, Tom and Janet O'Connell, were vacationing in Florida with cousin Marty O'Connell. Marty drew the unpleasant task of informing Janet and Tom of the deaths.

Helicopters and ambulances were dispatched to the scene, but the victims were dead when authorities reached them. The streets around the funeral remained closed well into the evening and law enforcement officers were seen going door-to-door, presumably interviewing anyone who might have seen something suspicious.

There were rumors of a neighbor hearing gunshots, talk of a car in the parking lot at the time of the murders and other bits of information. State crime lab officials descended on the scene early that evening, looking for any forensic evidence that might lead authorities to a suspect. But when the dust settled, police had few leads and no quick and easy solution to the killer's identity.

Funeral

The funeral, considered the largest in Hudson history, was held Saturday, Feb. 9, at St. Patrick Church. The man who committed the murders, Father Ryan Erickson, was sitting with other clergy members on the church's altar. Erickson delivered one of the scripture readings. More than 1,300 people crowded into the church. The service lasted for more than two hours, with several local speakers. Father Peter Szleszinski delivered the homily.

Dan O'Connell had been a longtime EMT and the procession to the St. Patrick Cemetery on O'Keefe Road was led by 64 ambulance, fire and police vehicles.

O'Connell was 39 years old when he died; he was a 1981 graduate of Hudson High School. He was active in numerous community organizations led many efforts to help others. Intern James Ellison was 22 years old and was pursuing a degree in mortuary science at the University of Minnesota. He had also attended UW-River Falls for two years. He was a native of Barron.

As the details unfolded in later years, it was suspected that Ellison was at the wrong place at the wrong time. O'Connell apparently had arranged to meet with Father Erickson at the funeral home to discuss his (Erickson's) abusive behavior with some of the teenagers at the church. It was later discovered that he had sexually assaulted at least one male juvenile and had supplied alcohol to teens on overnight visits to the church rectory. Erickson, a gun collector, came to the O'Connell meeting on Feb. 5, 2002, with a 9 mm handgun.

Solving

The family and citizens of Hudson were looking for answers. O'Connell was a well-respected businessman with no apparent enemies; Ellison was a student with no enemies.

Just days after the murders, the Hudson Police Department announced that they had suspects and were working to narrow the list. One of the early theories was that a religious organization opposed to embalming practices may have been involved. The organization, based in Augusta, Wis., had sent threatening letters to more than 400 funeral homes, including O'Connell's. The group and its members were quickly dismissed as murder suspects.

As police narrowed the list, however, the days turned into weeks, weeks into months and months into years. It soon became apparent that most of the suspects were cleared and some people questioned whether the case would ever be solved.

In late April of 2002 a $100,000 reward was offered for information in an attempt to solve the murders. Police Chief Dick Trende also announced at that time that police were looking for white male with a medium build wearing white T-shirt and baseball cap. Such a person was seen between 1 and 1:30 p.m. in the O'Connell Funeral Home parking lot on the day of the murders.

In late May, Trende made a plea to the public for help: "We need the public's help. This is a heinous crime, as serious as it gets. We're not going to quit until we find who did it, but we're not magicians. Anyone with information has a moral responsibility to come forward and not wait until we contact them. It doesn't work that way."

First break

The first real break in the case came two years later in April 2004 when police investigated a report that Father Ryan Erickson sexually assaulted a juvenile boy while a priest in Hudson and that he provided the boy and his friends with alcohol when they came to the rectory. Police also learned that Erickson owned several weapons including 9 mm handguns.

On Nov. 11, 2004, Hudson Police detectives Jeff Knopps and Shawn Pettee interviewed Erickson at the rectory in Hurley, his church assignment at the time. Erickson revealed several details of the crime scene that had never been released by police. When asked how he knew the details, he said he heard them from Fr. James Dabruzzi who was outside the funeral home on the day of the murder, or from siblings Mike and Kathi O'Connell. Dabruzzi and the O'Connells deny telling Erickson anything. Erickson turned over several weapons to police, although none could be linked to the murders. Erickson, however, can't account for his whereabouts between 12:30-2:30 p.m. on the day of the murders.

Sometime between Nov. 11 and Nov. 24, 2004, Erickson told a St. Mary's church deacon, "I done it and they're gonna catch me." The deacon repeats the conversation to his wife and a church secretary.

On Dec. 13, 2004, a state public defender contacted police and said his office was representing Erickson. The public defender told police that Erickson would not take a polygraph scheduled for the next day.

On Dec. 16, 2004, the Hudson Police Department executed a search warrant of St. Mary's rectory and office and confiscated computers, clothing, personal items and papers. Papers included a last will and testament and an accompanying letter. In the letter, Erickson denies the murders and said police will find no DNA. He admits to being plagued since youth, giving in to lust and passion. Erickson tells a St. Mary's youth minister that police may arrest him for the murders.

On Dec. 17, 2004, Hudson friends Rick Reams and Tom Burns drove to Hurley to spend the weekend with Erickson because they were concerned about the impact of the investigation on him. They described him as depressed at first but in better humor by Saturday night.

On Dec. 19, 2004, Erickson commits suicide. Rick Reams is among the first to find Erickson hanging in the hallway between the church and rectory just before the 8 a.m. mass.

Other bits of information that incriminated Erickson:

  • At least two witnesses saw a man and/or a vehicle that resembled Erickson and his vehicle at the funeral home at the time of the murders.
  • Nuns at the Carmelite Monastery told police Erickson came to the location between 2:30 and 2:45 p.m. on Feb. 5, 2002, and told them about the "terrible tragedy" at the funeral home. He told them that O'Connell and an assistant had been shot. At the time police were still securing the building and Erickson would not have known for sure O'Connell was shot unless he had been at the scene, and surely would not know an assistant had been shot. The sweep was completed at 2:42 p.m. When Erickson returned to the church at 3 p.m., he claimed no knowledge of the shootings when the information was being discussed by staff members.
  • Erickson told a parishioner that he had an argument with Dan O'Connell the night before the shootings. That information was verified in a polygraph test.
  • In March 2005, a Safeway bus driver who services St. Patrick School said she ran into Dan O'Connell at Walmart on the morning of the murders. She said O'Connell asked her about Erickson and asked if she had ever seen Father Erickson touch a child inappropriately. She responded "no." O'Connell told her he had a meeting with Erickson that afternoon. She didn't think the information was important at first, never suspecting a priest could be the murderer. That information was verified in a polygraph test.

    Final chapter

    Because Erickson was dead, he could not be tried in a court of law. But in a one-day John Doe hearing in St. Croix County, Judge Eric Lundell ruled 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 earlier.

    "This is one of the strongest cases of circumstantial evidence I have ever seen," Lundell said.

    The evidence not only established that Erickson had motive and opportunity in the Feb. 5, 2002, killings, 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.

    Some of the most damning testimony at the hearing came from Russell Lundgren, a deacon at St. Mary's in Hurley. 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.

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