Media glare intense for decades-old Toledo
By ROBIN ERB - Toledo Blade staff writer
May 9, 2004
The television crews have broken camp and the siege of phone
calls to Lucas County and Toledo investigators has subsided.
But it's clear that the national spotlight - focused here
after April 23 when a local priest was arrested for the 24-year-old
murder of a nun - has shifted only temporarily. Toledo-area
residents linked to the case say they continue to field calls
from representatives of national media outlets, ranging from
prime-time news shows such as Dateline and 48 Hours to People
and even Playboy magazines.
There has been talk of movie and book deals.
"Speaking in terms of the nonfiction genre they called
true crime, [the case] involves the church, there's a murder,
and there's this intimation of satanic worship," said
Barret Neville, a New York-based author and publisher who
is interested in publishing a book on the case.
"It's consistent of what you hear about in these movies
of the week," Mr. Neville said.
Sister Margaret Ann Pahl was found dead April 5, 1980, the
day before Easter and her 72nd birthday, in the sacristy of
a chapel at the former Mercy Hospital. She had been strangled,
her body covered with a cloth, and then stabbed repeatedly.
Investigators said Father Gerald Robinson, a hospital chaplain,
emerged as a suspect early on. They seized a letter opener
from his quarters that the Lucas County coroner's office determined
at the time could have been used in the attack. Still, tests
at the time were inconclusive, and detectives said they were
stymied by a lack of evidence.
News of Father Robinson's arrest for the murder case was
amplified when it was revealed that the case was reopened
last year after a woman's bizarre, unrelated allegations involving
Satanic worship and sexual abuse against other men in the
The woman did not link Father Robinson to the claims of the
Satanic worship, but she did accuse him of participating in
a sadomasochistic sexual assault on her when she was a teenager.
Investigators say the woman's claims have been neither dismissed
But the allegations were enough that the Lucas County cold
case squad dusted off the old murder file, used some blood
spatter analysis not available at the time of the killing,
and arrested the priest.
Father Robinson, described by shocked supporters as a kind
and shy man who couldn't possibly have been involved in such
heinous acts, entered a plea of not guilty at his arraignment
Friday and remains free on a property bond that family and
friends helped post.
That's when reporters and producers from the New York Times,
the Today Show, and many other national media came to Toledo.
Among the first they were interested in talking with was former
Toledo police Officer Dave Davison, who first told The Blade
in an April 26 story that he believed the Toledo police department
had not aggressively pursued Father Robinson as a suspect
at the time because many of those investigating or overseeing
the case for the department were Catholics. In a city with
a decidedly majority Catholic religious bent, such allegations
might be devastating to the church.
In interviews with The Blade, the investigators have flatly
denied any claims of a cover-up, noting that as Catholics
and police officers they would never turn their eyes from
the murder of a nun.
Nevertheless, Mr. Davison's phone began ringing early April
26: "Sixty-six calls the first day," he said.
Within days, he said, a California producer had offered him
$100,000 for movie rights.
"I tell them 'This is blood money,'?" he said.
"If I want that kind of money, I'll go to the blood bank,
[and] get 25 bucks."
He isn't the only one in the spotlight.
Television crews began calling or appearing at the homes
and offices of others close to the case. In a tiny corner
of rural Williams County, the home to Sister Margaret Ann's
two surviving blood sisters, suddenly became the destination
for reporters from places like New York and Chicago.
Art Marx's phone began ringing too. One of the lead investigators
on the case in 1980, he said many reporters offered "exclusives."
He laughed: "I said, it doesn't matter. I'm not interested
In response to the media blitz and concerns about Father
Robinson's right to a fair trial, the Toledo Catholic Diocese,
Toledo police, and the Lucas County Prosecutor's office issued
statements that they would no longer comment on the case.
Defense attorneys have done likewise.
"It's important for counsel not to make any personal
statements about Father Robinson or the facts of the case,
and that's in order to ensure a fair trial," said Alan
Konop, one of Father Robinson's defense attorneys. He said
he and John Thebes, the first defense attorney named in the
case, have fielded a "floodgate of calls."
"Much of whether there can be a fair trail," he
continued, "is how the media behaves itself."
Mr. Konop, who originally commented on the case as a legal
analyst for Channel 13 before becoming a member of the defense
team, referred to a 2002 case he handled from Wapakoneta,
A woman there had confessed to the shooting death of her
husband, a Wapakoneta attorney, but said she did it in self-defense.
Because of local media attention over the case, the trial
was moved to Wood County.
She eventually was acquitted of the charges.
For two weeks now, Mercy Health Partners spokesman Sarah
Bednarski has been fielding media and other inquiries to the
Sisters of Mercy - to which Sister Margaret Ann belonged -
seeking information about the slain nun from those who knew
her. Ms. Bednarski was charged with putting together details
about Sister Margaret Ann's life serving God and shielding
Sister Margaret Ann's colleagues, many of whom are elderly.
She said her "strangest" call was from a newspaper
overseas. She was stunned.
"I said, 'Dublin? As in Ireland? As in Ireland, the
country?'?" she asked.
Even those involved only on the periphery of the case have
been surprised to find reporters at their front door.
Shirley Lucas was a housekeeper at the time of Sister Margaret
Ann's murder. She remembered Sister Margaret Ann as quiet
but intently committed to God and to the details of the chapel,
the maintenance of which was Sister Margaret Ann's.
Though she lit a candle at St. Adalbert's church each Easter
for the slain Sister, Ms. Lucas said she had assumed the case
would never be solved. "It kept on and on and there's
nothing and nothing and nothing, and you kind of gave up on
it," she said.
Then, detectives came knocking on her door for information.
Soon after the priest's arrests, reporters appeared at Ms.
She laughs when she remembers one of her first meetings with
Sister Margaret Ann. Ms. Lucas, then a new employee, was cleaning
the convent when the nun approached her and asked her to return
to the restroom Ms. Lucas had just cleaned.
The nuns, especially Sister Margaret Ann, were adamant that
nothing be wasted, Ms. Lucas said. That included the slivers
of soap that are left when a bar of soap is nearly used up.
"She said I shouldn't be wasting the soap. She went
over to the sink and showed me how to wet it and stick it
together" with a new bar of soap, Ms. Lucas said. "I
felt like a little kid in kindergarten."
Nevertheless, the two were on friendly terms after that,
Ms. Lucas said.
After a pretrial hearing later this month, it will probably
be many months before the murder case is ready for trial,
at which time the case will likely draw national interest
"I can see how it could go to your head if you were
young," Lucas County prosecutor Julia Bates said of the
countless calls her office has taken about the murder case.
Mrs. Bates recalls other tragedies in the Toledo area which
have attracted national media. Among them: two brothers who
were serial killers and a teenager who murdered his foster
"You could get seduced by it," she said of the
attention. "And if you had aspirations for higher office,
this would throw you into the spotlight and your name could
be a household word."
Mrs. Bates made it clear that she's not interested. "I
don't care if I'm a household word."
Contact Robin Erb at