Franciscan brother pleads guilty to shooting priest, setting fire


By KRISTEN GELINEAU, Associated Press Writer
CLEVELAND (AP) - Tears streaming down their faces, friends and family members of a slain Roman Catholic priest wept as the Franciscan brother who admitted to the shocking killing was sentenced to 24 years to life in prison.
Daniel Montgomery pleaded guilty Thursday to a charge of murder and a charge of aggravated arson in the December death of the Rev. William Gulas, pastor of St. Stanislaus Church. Montgomery had previously pleaded innocent to two counts of aggravated murder and two counts of aggravated arson.
Montgomery, who admitted shooting Gulas to death in his office and then setting fire to the church rectory with the body inside, quietly entered his plea and apologized to Gulas' family before Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Ann Mannen sentenced him.
"I want to say how truly sorry I am that this happened," Montgomery said, wearing an orange jumpsuit and handcuffs. "I sincerely hope and pray that I may be rehabilitated and honor Father William's memory in that way."
Prosecutors originally had sought the death penalty in the case that shook the parish in east Cleveland's Slavic Village, a working-class community where Masses are celebrated in Polish and English.
But after reviewing the evidence and speaking with Gulas' family and parishioners -- who were against the death penalty -- the prosecution accepted the plea agreement, said Cuyahoga County Prosecutor William Mason.
More than a dozen family members and friends of Gulas' gathered at the courthouse.
"He was just a wonderful man. There's no other words to describe him -- just wonderful," said Debbie Heyink, 50, blinking back tears.
Heyink, who works at the parish's school, was one of several supporters wearing a pin with Gulas' photo that said, "Father William forever in our hearts."
Gulas' second cousin, Richard Bedoya, tearfully confronted Montgomery during the hearing.
"I will never shed a tear thinking of what you will suffer, but I will always shed a tear for Father Willie," Bedoya sobbed, as Montgomery stared straight ahead, his expression blank. "He wants me to forgive you -- I will never do that."
Prosecutors said Montgomery confessed to killing Gulas. He has been in Cuyahoga County jail without bond since his arrest Dec. 8, a day after Gulas' death.
Franciscan officials had told Montgomery just before last Thanksgiving that he was being fired. Prosecutors said Montgomery was upset about the firing and may have shot the priest because of that.
The morning of the murder, Montgomery and Gulas had breakfast and attended mass together, and Montgomery returned to the priest's office with a handgun between 11:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m., Mason said.
Mason said after the hearing that he believes Montgomery was more angry with someone else.
"There was another Father within the parish that he had more rage towards -- maybe it was displaced rage that ended up killing Father Gulas," Mason said.
The other clergyman, Father Michael Surufka, declined to comment in a telephone interview after the hearing.
Montgomery, known as Brother Dan, called 911 to report the fire, police said. Montgomery comforted parishioners who had arrived for that evening's Mass and afterward attended a Christmas party turned impromptu memorial for the beloved pastor.
A January indictment charged that Montgomery acted "purposefully and with prior calculation and design."
Montgomery's mother, Janice Montgomery, suggested in earlier interviews that Montgomery may be suffering a split personality disorder.
"Everybody that has ever known him has seemed to stop and say, what happened? This could not be," Janice Montgomery, of King of Prussia, Pa., told The Associated Press in July.
Both she and her husband showed little emotion as their son was sentenced. They exited the courtroom without commenting after the hearing.
In a profanity-laced journal entry prosecutors say Montgomery wrote three days before the murder, Montgomery expressed his frustration with the church's criticisms of him.
"Also they say I make people uncomfortable 1 on 1 and in group situations (how the (expletive) am I supposed to change other people?)" he wrote on Dec. 4.
During his nine years at St. Stanislaus, Gulas led the restoration of the church's interior, raising $1.4 million to peel away years of soot and tarnish that hid the gold leaf of the vaulted ceiling and stained the robes of the statues that stand on every column and doorway.
For several days after his death, thousands of people poured into St. Stanislaus for prayer services and memorials in his honor.
Gulas was buried at a Franciscan cemetery in Pulaski, Wis., beside the friary where both he and Montgomery began their training.
"I think the best that can be said is it was really a tragic isolated incident in what was otherwise a perfectly exemplary life," said Henry Hilow, Montgomery's attorney. "It just culminated with a horrible act."
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)