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Media glare intense for decades-old Toledo murder case
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 area.

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 nor substantiated.

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 anyway."

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, Ohio.

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. Lucas' door.

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 again.

"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 mother.

"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
robinerb@theblade.com
or 419-724-6133.

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