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Sunday, July 17, 2022

The Franciscan Friar Daniel Montgomery Murder Case

     Daniel Montgomery grew up in King of Prussia Pennsylvania, a town outside of Philadelphia. After graduating from Catholic high school he studied religion in the midwest and became a peace activist. In 1994 the 28-year-old joined the Franciscans, a Catholic religious order. An odd, socially awkward man with a volatile temper and a foul mouth, Friar Montgomery didn't get along with his church colleagues and superiors.

     In July 2002, after being bounced from one church to another, the misfit friar ended up in Cleveland at St. Stanislaus, a church located in the city's Slavic Village neighborhood. He didn't fit in well at St. Stanislaus either. The friar offended church employees, parishioners and 68-year-old Pastor William Gulas, affectionately known as "Father Willie." After three students at the church school accused Daniel Montgomery of touching them inappropriately, Father Gulas, in late November 2002, informed the troubled friar that he was being transferred to Our Lady of Lourdes Friary in Cedar Lake, Indiana.

    At nine in the morning of December 2, 2002, when extinguishing a fire in Father Gulas' rectory office, firefighters stumbled upon his corpse. When questioned that morning by the police, Daniel Montgomery said that when the fire broke out he had been asleep in his second-floor bedroom. A ringing telephone awoke him at which time he smelled smoke, then called 911. After trying to put out the fire he fled the church without realizing that Father Gulas was in the burning first-floor office.

     On the day after the St. Stanislaus fire the Cuyahoga County Coroner announced that the blaze had not killed Pastor Gulas. Someone had shot the priest in the chest then torched his office.

     On December 8, 2002, detectives brought Friar Montgomery in for further questioning. Following what evolved into a seven-hour interrogation he confessed to murdering the St. Stanislaus pastor. The friar had been angry about being transferred to the church in Indiana. He had gone into the pastor's office that morning to ask Father Gulas to vacate the order. According to Montgomery, upon entering the pastor's office, he had said, "I can't [expletive] take it anymore." The angry friar then shot Father Gulas in the chest with a .38-caliber revolver he had purchased the day before from an employee of a neighborhood convenience store. 

     After killing the pastor, Daniel Montgomery dropped the revolver (which was never found) and walked down the hall where he acquired the red butane lighter he used to ignite papers on Father Gulas' desk. After setting the fire he returned to his room and fell asleep. A call from a parishioner woke him up.

     A Cuyahoga County grand jury, in January 2003, indicted Daniel Montgomery on the charge of aggravated murder. Nine months later the defendant pleaded guilty to a lesser homicide charge in order to avoid the death penalty. The judge sentenced him to 24 years to life. He began serving his time at the state prison in Marion Ohio.

     In the spring of 2011, a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter named John P. Martin decided to look into Montgomery's case. (Montgomery was now maintaining his innocence.) The journalist's investigation led to a four-part Inquirer series published in July 2011. Pursuant to his claims of innocence, Daniel Montgomery, through his new attorney, Barry Wilford, had filed a motion to withdraw his guilty plea in order that the case could go to trial. Attorney Wilford based his argument for reopening the murder case on three principal points: The prosecution had withheld exculpatory evidence; interrogators ignored signs that Montgomery was confessing falsely; and his defense attorney, Henry Hilow, did not provide him with the best defense.

     Problems in the prosecution's case against Montgomery included the fact the police never recovered the murder weapon. On the charred floor of Pastor Gulas' office fire investigators found an open toolbox that once contained $1,600 in bingo proceeds. Father Gulas kept the padlocked box in his office safe. On the morning of the murder, a parishioner who supposedly had financial problems was seen coming out of the pastor's office. Assuming this was true, could this man have committed the murder? Another mystery in the case involved the fact that Pastor Gulas' cellphone ended up in the hands of a convicted drug dealer.

     On the issue pertaining to the adequacy of Montgomery's trial defense, attorney Wilford argued that his client had not wanted to plead guilty. To back up this claim Mr. Wilford cited parts of two letters Montgomery had sent to attorney Hilow months before his guilty plea. In a letter dated February 23, 2003 in which Montgomery asked to meet again with the psychiatrist who had examined him shortly after the murder, he wrote: "I was in a state of schizophrenia that produced severe delusions in my thinking, causing me to make false statements on December 8, 2002 at the police interrogation. At that time I was suffering from delusions of grandeur that perhaps if I was no longer to be a Franciscan, then I was to be a martyr for a sinner, the killer and arsonist who committed the crime." On July 7, 2003 Daniel Montgomery had written: "I am firmly convinced that I must plead my innocence and follow God's law, which is above human law." 

     At the July 2011 hearing to determine if the Gulas murder case should be reopened and a trial convened, Cuyahoga County Assistant Prosecutor Salem Awadallah argued that there was nothing in Montgomery's motion to justify setting aside his guilty plea and going to trial. She pointed out that Montgomery had failed a polygraph test that had been arranged by attorney Wilford. The prosecutor noted that while the Cleveland police interrogation lasted seven hours, no evidence has been presented showing that Montgomery's confession had been coerced. (I presume he was given his Miranda rights. In 2002, detectives in Cleveland did not routinely record their interrogation sessions.)

     Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Joan Synenberg, on December 31, 2012, denied Daniel Montgomery's motion for a murder trial. She did not accompany her ruling with a written decision. Whenever an educated adult defendant confesses and pleads guilty, without strong evidence of a false confession or equally powerful evidence that someone else had committed the crime, the conviction will usually stand. In this case Daniel Montgomery had failed to overcome the presumption of his guilt.

     In April 2013 the judge sentenced Daniel Montgomery to 24 years to life in prison.

3 comments:

  1. I knew Daniel in high School, he did not seem to be the violent type. I have a hard time believing he committed murder.

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  2. I grew up in King of Prussia...went to grade school and high school with Dan. He was definitely weird and didn't fit it anywhere. But, I was shocked to hear he murdered somembody! I honestly couldn't imagine him hurting anybody in any way.

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  3. I knew Dan throughout college. He was a committed pacifist and idealist. And yet there is no "violent type" of person. People from any walk of life can commit a violent crime when they feel relentlessly wronged or cornered (whether that feeling is legitimate or not).

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