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Jennie O'Connell is ready for the healing to begin

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River Falls, 54022
Hudson Star Observer
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River Falls Wisconsin 2815 Prairie Drive / P.O. Box 25 54022

To Jennie O'Connell, the heavy rain that fell Tuesday night and into Wednesday of last week was an act of God.

It followed Monday's decision by Judge Eric Lundell that a former Hudson priest probably murdered her husband, Dan, three and a half years ago.

"When it was pouring so hard, all I could think was that God was cleansing our area. He was washing away all the pain, all the sorrow, all the hurt," she said Friday. "I think that's why it rained so hard for so long - because we had so much to wash away."

The rain and Judge Lundell's ruling didn't wash away all of the heartache though.

Jennie agrees with Lundell's finding and is thankful that he came to the conclusion he did. It brings some satisfaction to know that her husband's killer has been found out. Now, maybe, the healing can begin. But don't define the ruling as closure.

"Closure would be if Dan came walking through my door now and said, 'Honey, I'm home.' I thought I would be really happy about all of this, but it doesn't change the fact that Dan isn't coming back," she said. "It's just the end of a chapter. Now we can move on to the next chapter of our lives."

Testimony that Dan O'Connell was planning to confront Father Ryan Erickson about rumors of the priest's inappropriate behavior with children rang true to Jennie.

"If anyone knew Dan, they knew he didn't gossip about people. He didn't start rumors or feed off rumors. He wanted to get to the source and find out the hard facts," she said. "It's just the type of man he was that he would do that. Especially when it was so sensitive and involving a child. ...He's a protector."

She said Dan hadn't shared his concerns about Father Erickson with her.

Told that leaders of a support group for people sexually abused by Catholic priests referred to Dan as a hero, Jennie replied, "I wouldn't expect anything less of Dan."

"I've always been proud to say that I'm his wife. I've never stopped being proud to say that I'm Jennie O'Connell, Dan O'Connell's wife. And I will be Dan O'Connell's wife 'til the day I die. He taught me an awful lot about life and people and how to treat people."

The lessons, she said, included treating even the people you might not care for with respect, and lending a helping hand to people in need. When a father didn't have a suit to wear to his daughter's funeral, Dan gave him his.

"He didn't have a mean bone in his body," Jennie said. "He was very kind, generous, loving, caring."

Jennie was a 19-year-old business office worker, and Dan a 21-year-old paramedic, when the two met at Lakeview Hospital in Stillwater, Minn. They married Oct. 22, 1988, at St. Michael's Catholic Church in Stillwater, moved to Hudson where Dan entered the funeral home business with his father, Thomas P. O'Connell, and had two children - Kyle and Kaitlyn.

Dan and intern James Ellison were working at the O'Connell Family Funeral Home in the early afternoon of Feb. 5, 2002, when someone entered the building and shot them to death with a 9mm handgun. It was the day before Kyle's 10th birthday.

Jennie said the children are doing remarkably well. She's appreciative of the community for allowing them privacy - not asking them stupid things - while at the same time being supportive.

"The schools, everyone, has been just great," she said.

Next year, Kyle will enter high school, where every day he'll walk past the picture of his father on the Wall of Fame honoring distinguished Hudson High alumni.

Jennie and the children also have gotten strength from their extended family - Dan's parents, Tom and Janet, his siblings, Mike, Kathi and Tom Jr., her own parents, Bill and Helen McKnight of Stillwater, and her sisters, Marilyn and Molly.

"We were always a strong family, but I think this whole thing really made us appreciate the gift of each other," she said. "We don't take anything for granted. We don't argue about anything. We all know life is too short."

Jennie has special admiration for Hudson police detectives Shawn Pettee and Jeff Knopps, who worked doggedly for more than two years to solve the case.

"They've just been wonderful people to be able to talk to - very caring and compassionate," Jennie said.

Finding Dan's killer was especially personal for Pettee. He had known Dan since boyhood. The two became acquainted during Pettee's visits to the Hudson ambulance garage with his father. Dan was an 18-year-old volunteer emergency medical technician.

Over the years, Dan, Jennie and their children and the Pettees and their kids would do things together as families.

Jennie remembers Pettee vowing to solve the case.

"He was very determined," she said. "He promised me, 'I will get to the bottom of this. I don't know when, but I promise you I will get to the bottom of this.' And he did."

Jennie said the O'Connell family, too, was convinced from the beginning that the truth would eventually be known.

"As we're finding out, the truth keeps coming out," she said, referring to new allegations of sexual abuse by Erickson that were brought to authorities last week.

Jennie acknowledged that her confidence in the Catholic Church has been shaken by the apparent murder of her husband by a child-abusing priest. The only member of the clergy to visit her in the past three and a half years, she said, was Erickson, who stopped by the house a few hours after the killing of Dan and James.

"The tentacles on this are just going to grow," she said, reporting that she learned in a seminar on sexual abuse that was part of her son's religion class that a typical abuser will victimize 10 to 15 people. Then the abused become the abusers, and each of them prey on another 10 to 15 people.

"It's just a huge web that keeps on getting bigger and bigger and bigger," she said. "A lot of times, people that are abused end up becoming abusers, too, because they haven't gotten the help. And it needs to stop. People need to be held accountable for their actions. It doesn't matter if they're Joe Blow off the street or a priest. It doesn't matter. You have to be held accountable for your actions. It has to stop. It just is not right."

Jennie said she remains a Christian and is raising her children Catholic like she promised Dan that she would do on their wedding day, but she no longer attends Mass at St. Patrick Church.

"Now is my time to try to heal spiritually," she said. "If I go back to St. Pat's, it will be my choice, and I'll be ready then. But right now, I'm still not ready. I will get there. I'm sure I will, because I do have a very strong faith. It's just that for three and a half years it's been tested. I need to find that crossroad that will take me back."

The love and support she's received from the community over the past three and a half years has been overwhelming, she said.

"I get cards and letters from people that haven't even met the O'Connell family. They're new to the community. They just want to lend their support and prayers, and let us know as a family that we are thought of...

"The outpouring has been just wonderful."

Randy Hanson can be reached at rhanson@rivertowns.net

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Randy Hanson
Randy Hanson has reported for the Star-Observer since 1997. He came to Hudson after 11 years with the Inter-County Leader at Frederic, and eight years of teaching social studies. He’s a graduate of UW-Eau Claire.
(715) 426-1066
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