Families ask for closed hearing on murder case
The public could know the findings of the O'Connell/Ellison murder investigation by early next month.
After meeting Monday with the families of murder victims Dan O'Connell and James Ellison, St. Croix County District Attorney Eric Johnson said a closed John Doe hearing has been scheduled for three days starting Oct. 4.
The chief suspect in the case is the late Fr. Ryan Erickson, who was a priest at St. Patrick's Catholic Church at the time of the murders in February 2002.
After the hearing, Judge Eric Lundell will make a finding as to whether there is probable cause to believe Erickson committed the murders. Johnson said the judge's finding along with transcripts of the testimony in the hearing will be made public.
Erickson was first questioned in the case last November and again in early December. The interviews were followed by a search of his residence and office at St. Mary's Church in Hurley, where he was assigned. Three days after the search, Erickson hanged himself at the church.
Although Erickson told investigators he did not commit the murders, he revealed details of the crime scene to them that had never been made public, police said. That, coupled with the fact that Erickson was not able to establish a consistent explanation of his whereabouts at the time of the crime, made him the prime suspect.
Following Erickson's suicide, police continued to get information in the case which they believe substantiates Erickson's involvement in the murders, providing him with both the motive and opportunity to commit the crimes.
Erickson first came to the attention of police after they received a report that the priest was involved in sexual misconduct and other crimes with minors.
Johnson said the O'Connell and Ellison families were offered the option of a public inquest with a jury or a closed hearing before Lundell, who has already heard testimony in the case in previous John Doe hearings. The families chose the closed hearing in hopes that witnesses would testify more truthfully and with more candor by not being exposed to a packed courtroom and television cameras. Johnson said the families wanted to avoid having the proceedings take on "a circus atmosphere."
If Judge Lundell rules that there is cause to believe Erickson committed the murders, the case would be effectively closed.
Johnson said the families made the right decision in his mind.
"I think the John Doe hearing is the best in this case. Having the case heard before a judge who is familiar with the legal standards that apply in the case and with the case itself (from previous hearings), rather than in front of a jury, is the best option. It eliminates concerns over possible jury bias or decisions being made not based on fact but on emotion."
Johnson said he expects to call around 15 witnesses to testify. All witnesses in a John Doe hearing are sworn to tell the truth and must testify if they are called. Johnson said there will be no testimony as to Erickson's character, good or bad.
"This hearing will focus on the facts, primarily in the murder case, but also into the police investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct by Father Erickson with minors."
Johnson will present the evidence in both cases and question the witnesses. Since the hearing is not adversarial, there will be no cross examination of the witnesses. Johnson said that along with the victims' families, Erickson's parents and their attorney will also be allowed at the hearing. If they have questions for any of the witnesses, they will be asked to submit them to Johnson, who will determine if they are appropriate to the case.
Johnson said this case is among the most difficult he has handled as district attorney. He complimented the Hudson Police Department on its investigation and said he is comfortable going into the hearing with the facts they have provided him.
"The goal has always been to get at the truth of what happened and to give the families and the community the answers they need. I think this process will accomplish that," he said.
Meg Heaton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org