The hearse arrived at St. Michael’s Catholic Church in downtown Buffalo Wednesday morning, and the casket taken inside where five priests presided over a Mass of Christian Burial and comforted the man’s grieving family.
But when the Mass concluded and as the priests and family headed outside for the last ride to the cemetery, their grief turned to shock.
The hearse was gone. Stolen.
“For those of us in law enforcement a long time, we are obviously used to hearing bizarre stories but this is right up there as one of the most bizarre,” Central District Chief Brian Patterson said. “It is one of those things that you can’t account for because it was spontaneous and goes to show how unpredictable human behavior is. What makes someone do something like this?”
The thief apparently spotted the keys inside the vehicle and decided to steal it.
The hearse was found Wednesday afternoon, abandoned miles away on the 300 block of Fredericka Street in North Tonawanda. Police had a suspect in custody.
Later Wednesday night, he was identified as Michael Healing, 28, of Niagara Falls, who was charged with criminal possession of stolen property and unauthorized use of a motor vehicle.
The funeral Mass was offered for an older son of a devoted parishioner at the church on the 600 block of Washington Street, according to the Rev. Ronald Sams, pastor emeritus. As a tribute to the parishioner, Sams said, five priests, including himself, had concelebrated the Mass.
“It is a shock and it takes away from the dignity of the occasion and burial of this good man,” Sams said.
Arrangements were quickly made for a replacement hearse, which arrived at the church and transported the body to the cemetery, parish officials said.
Like the police, Sams found it hard to fathom someone stealing a hearse.
“The thief either had to be out of his mind or desperate. I don’t know what you would do with a stolen hearse. I would think it wouldn’t be hard to find. I thought it might be some young kids going for a joy ride, but we don’t have that many young kids around here,” Sams said of the downtown neighborhood.
The funeral director declined to comment, except to say that he had rented the hearse from an area company and that it was his belief the vehicle was in the process of being returned.
The Rev. Benjamin Fiore, who also serves at St. Michael’s, offered some spiritual guidance to the hearse thief.
“Instead of stealing the hearse, he should have gone to church.”