The Suicide of Wm. L. Toomey and the Murders of Fr. Ryan and Fr. Ben

Posted by Censor Librorum on May 19, 2019 | Categories: Accountability, History, Lesbians & Gays, Scandals, Sex

Wm. L. Toomey’s Suicide

On Saturday evening, December 4, 1982, a man walked into Sacred Heart Church in Boise, Idaho.  It was wet and chilly. The stranger was blond, tan and stocky. He appeared to be in his late 30s or early 40s. He wore a brown leather belt with a large buckle displaying a Mexican 100-peso coin, and a silver and turquoise bolo tie.  From the tan and the clothing, he appeared to be from the Southwest.

The stranger wanted to go to confession, but it was occupied at the time. As parishioners entered for the 6 PM Mass, one of them, a 91-year old woman named Grace Leeburn, found the man on his back, dead. Blood and drool formed a thin stream by his head.  He had swallowed cyanide tablets. In his pockets he had a wallet with all ID removed but containing $1,900.  There was also a typewritten note: “In the event of my death, the enclosed currency should give more than adequate compensation for my funeral or disposal of my remains (prefer to be cremated) expenditures. What is left over, please take this as a contribution to this church.  God will see to your honesty in this.” Signed – Wm. L. Toomey 

The dead man was never identified.  No fingerprints turned up from law enforcement databases.  “Wm. L. Toomey” is similar to “R. J. Toomey,” an apparel manufacturer for priests.  A clue?

There were several theories about who he was and why he committed suicide in a Catholic church. He may have intended to die shortly after confession, but miscalculated how long it would take for the cyanide to kill him. He may have decided to end his life in church so he could make peace with God, and have his body taken care of respectfully. Or, out of anger, despair or some other emotion, he decided to commit a grave sin in a sacred place.  Investigators believed he had a strong connection to Catholicism. A few speculated he could be a priest or former priest. To this day, no one has been able to identify the man, or why he had come to the church to absolve himself of his sins.

The pastor of the church, the Rev. W. Thomas Faucher, said the funeral Mass for Wm. L. Toomey, and said the Mass was for all those who have died in despair during the holidays.  The stark grey coffin was adorned with fresh flowers. “He came to us to die,” Faucher said. “We don’t know who he is, but we come here in faith to pray for him, whoever he may be, and to pray for ourselves.”

Later on, investigators started looking into the possibility that Wm. L. Toomey’s suicide might be connected to the murders of two or more Catholic priests.  There were a string of murders of priests from Texas, New Mexico and up through Arizona to the Pacific Northwest in the years before Toomey’s death. Some cases produced viable suspects, but many others did not.

The Murder of Fr. Ryan

On December 22, 1981, the nude body of 49-year-old Fr. Patrick Ryan was found inside Room 126 at the Sand and Sage Motel in Odessa, Texas.  Fr. Ryan was the pastor at St. William’s Church in Denver City, located over 90 miles away.  He had checked into the motel the previous night under a false name. 

When a cleaning woman opened the door to Room 126 the next afternoon the place was in shambles.  There was dried blood everywhere, some of it in and around the gaping holes that had been punched through the walls.  The air conditioner was broken and dangling from the wall.  There were clothes strewn around the room, along with several beer cans and cigarette butts. The phone had been ripped from the wall, and the television smashed. The bed was overturned, and the frame broken. A naked, bloody man lay face down, his hands tied behind his back with a sock, his body covered in abrasions, across his buttocks was a long, superficial wound.

By way of background, Fr. Ryan was an Irish-born priest who reportedly spent a decade in Africa as a missionary before being assigned in 1979 to St. William’s Church in Denver City, Texas.  How he got from Africa to a tiny panhandle town in Texas near the New Mexico border is anyone’s guess.

Fr. Ryan often picked up hitchhikers on the 40 mile stretch of road connecting Denver City to Hobbs, New Mexico. On December 8, 1981, Ryan picked up James Harry Reyos,  who was on his way to Hobbs to look for work. The two men drove into town and spent the evening at a bar drinking beer and vodka, before Ryan drove them both back to Denver City. Ryan introduced himself only as “John.”

James Harry Reyos was a 25-year-old Jicarilla Apache, lonely and out of work. He was uncomfortable and ashamed of being gay. He turned to alcohol to cope.  By the time Ryan picked him up Reyos had been arrested 30 times on alcohol related charges. 

On December 20, 1981, the day before the priest was murdered, Reyos accepted an invitation to visit Ryan at the rectory at St. William’s Church. They began drinking, flipping through a photo album of Reyos’ childhood on the reservation.  Suddenly, Reyos said, the priest grabbed him by his shirt collar and push him down to perform oral sex.  After that Reyos fled into the night.  “I didn’t even grab my stuff,” before hurrying out of the rectory.  I was walking down the street thinking, “That didn’t happen, that couldn’t happen with Father (Ryan).”

Several months later, flooded with alcohol, confusion and feelings of guilt, Reyos called police and confessed to the murder. Even though he recanted when he sobered up and had receipts and a speeding ticket to prove he was near Roswell, New Mexico when the murder occurred, he was convicted and sentenced to 38 years in prison.  He served 20. Reyos is working to clear his name and is being helped by public prosecutors and a state representative who believe him and are sympathetic to his cause.

The Murder of Father Ben

In the middle of the afternoon on November 10, 1982–three weeks before the suicide of Wm. L. Toomey–a 54-year-old man was found dead at the El Rancho Motel in Yuma, Arizona. When the police arrived they found the man face down on the bed.  He was naked. His hands were bound behind his back with black electrical tape. The victim was identified as Father Benjamin J. Carrier from Our Lady of Light Church in San Diego, California.  He priest had been strangled. 

References to “Father Ben” as he was called, can be found in California newspapers from 1967 through the early 70s. He had a reputation for trying to help the homeless and the down and out. 

It appears the priest was killed by two hitchhikers he had picked up. One witness said she saw Father Ben with two young men at the motel pool the day before he was killed. The motel manager said a young man with light facial hair was in Carrier’s truck when he arrived at the motel. Carrier paid for two people to stay the night. The priest’s truck was found abandoned in Las Vegas a few weeks later.

A week after the murder, The Southern Cross, the newspaper of the San Diego Archdiocese, published an article about Fr. Ben. Maudlin and dramatic, the article was ironic in a way it wasn’t meant to be: “..Father Ben was not a cautious man,” the writer said. “He took the scriptures very seriously, and so he lived dangerously, risking himself not wisely, not sensible, but in the only way he could. And in his imprudence, his foolishness, he shamed us in our comfortable self-protection…It is a heavy burden, and few of us could heft it with the same dogged self-immolation that he did. But we can all give a little more of ourselves, drop a few more defenses, mortgage a little more comfort and safety, to carry Christ’s mission into danger zones of unbelief.”

Murder Theories

One of the investigators in Wm. L. Toomey’s suicide felt there was a connection between the unknown man and the unsolved killings of several priests, including Fr. Ryan and Fr. Ben.  He thought Toomey was a priest or a former priest, and probably a victim of sexual abuse himself.

I think whoever killed Fr. Ryan and Fr. Ben was a victim of sexual abuse.  The savagery and violence in the murders point to a very deep anger and rage. But whether the murder was the same person isn’t clear. Was each killing random, or was it a serial killer? Were the killings personal revenge for sexual abuse, or an opportunistic killing during a sexual encounter? 

What is clear to me is that church officials and local police never tried very hard to catch the killer. There is no mention of accumulated evidence–motel records, phone calls, witness statements, fingerprints, sketches, blood and semen analysis, sexual activity or assault. The police, parishioners, friends and others found it hard to believe–didn’t want to believe–a Catholic priest was killed after bringing another man to a motel for sex.

Wm. L. Toomey was buried in Dry Creek Cemetery in Boise, Idaho.  Fr. Ben was brought back to San Diego to be buried. Fr. Patrick “Paddy” Ryan’s body was flown back to Ireland, and interred in St. Fintan’s Cemetery in Doon, Co. Limerick.  Bishop Leroy Matthiesen of Amarillo and Bishop Joseph Fiorenza of San Angelo presided at Ryan’s funeral on December 29th, a week after his murder.  Bishop Matthiesen called Fr. Ryan “yet another martyr.”

That was a curious choice of words.  I wonder why kind of martyrdom he had in mind.

 

 

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5 Responses to “The Suicide of Wm. L. Toomey and the Murders of Fr. Ryan and Fr. Ben”

  1. Póló Says:

    Thank you for that fascinating story & speculation. Let’s hope we are living in a more enlightened era, though the church has a lot of catching up to do. I hope it finds the courage to do so.

  2. James Harry Reyos Says:

    After 38 years — weird that that’s how many years I was sentenced to — I still strong profess my complete and ACTUAL innocence in the murder of Father Patrick Ryan. I know in my heart — and the evidence presented at trial PROVES — I did not kill Father Patrick Ryan.

  3. Karen Says:

    Mr. Reyos, I believe you.

  4. James Harry Reyos Says:

    On Monday June 10th, 2019 will make to the day — 38 years ago! — that I was wrongfully convicted of a brutal crime I NEVER committed: the murder of Father Patrick Ryan, a Catholic priest, from Denver City, TX. He was found murdered in a “seedy motel room” in Odessa, TX. To this day, I STILL profess my ACTUAL innocence in his murder. I hope that people, who believe in fair justice will advocate justice for me, plus advocate justice for Father Ryan (and his family) that the REAL KILLER is still free, has not been brought to justice. This murder case is STILL open, since I am NOT the killer. Martin Luther King Jr. sais it best: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. As long as I remain convicted of this crime, INJUSTICE will always exist. A book has been written about my case, entitled “The Case of James Harry Reyos: A Wrongful Conviction Revealed” by Scott Lomax, a British true-crime writer. Again, I strongly profess: I DID NOT KILL FATHER PATRICK RYAN!!! –James Harry Reyos (Friday, June 7, 2019).

  5. Karen Says:

    Mr. Reyos, Many people, including me, believe you are not the killer. Unfortunately, the killer may never been found. He still may be alive and in his 60s, 70s, or 80s, or dead and his secret buried with him. I am sorry you have to carry this burden. I do have one question if you decide to post again: why compelled you to confess to the murder, even though you knew it wasn’t true?

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