When Father Joseph F. Moreno Jr., was found shot to death in October 2012, Buffalo police and other authorities declared his death a suicide. Investigators, after an autopsy, said they believed the 54-year-old priest killed himself with a handgun that was found by his side in the rectory of St. Lawrence Church.
Members of the priest’s family never accepted that finding. They have insisted ever since that Moreno, a colorful and popular priest, was the victim of foul play.
The family spent tens of thousands of dollars to have his body exhumed and to hire a forensic pathologist to conduct a new autopsy. And now they want Buffalo police and the Erie County District Attorney’s Office to conduct a new investigation.
“After examining the evidence, I am not able to tell you definitively that this was a homicide, but I do believe serious questions have been raised,” Dr. Cyril H. Wecht, the Pittsburgh pathologist who conducted the new autopsy, told The Buffalo News.
Moreno had limited use of his left hand from an old injury, Wecht said, and it would have been extremely difficult – if not impossible – for the priest to use his right hand to fire the fatal shot, which entered his brain from behind his left ear.
“I’ve been a pathologist for 55 years … I can’t tell you I’ve ever seen a case where a right-handed person with a crippled left hand would be able shoot himself from that angle,” Wecht said.
Two attorneys – Paul J. Cambria and the Rev. Vincent E. Bertrand, a Catholic priest from Missouri – also want police to take another look at the death.
“I’m looking into this case and I’ve looked at Dr. Wecht’s report, and there are questions raised that ought to be looked at again,” Cambria said. “There are inconsistencies that need to be vetted. What downside could there be to taking another look?”
Officials with the Buffalo Police Department and the DA’s Office said the case already has been investigated several times, and they find no compelling reason to reopen it.
“It’s well-established that Father Joe was a friend to many people in this department, including myself. His death was a tragic situation that has been investigated thoroughly,” said Dennis J. Richards, chief of detectives with Buffalo Police. “It has been investigated and reviewed a number of times, including an investigation from Cold Case detectives and with input from other investigative agencies. We determined that Father Joe died of a single, self-inflicted gunshot wound. Absent some significant new evidence, that is our conclusion.”
Richards added that he and other police officials have met with the Moreno family more than once to explain their findings.
District Attorney John J. Flynn Jr. said he concurs with Richards. Although Flynn only recently took office, he said he has reviewed the case with members of his staff who have examined the case repeatedly.
“As far as I can see, this case has been turned upside-down and looked at in 100 different ways,” Flynn said. “I don’t see any indication of a cover-up or any reason why police or anyone else would try to cover anything up. Unless I see significant, credible new evidence, I will consider this a closed case.”
As for the question about Moreno’s use of his left hand, Richards said detectives talked to several people who were in Moreno’s presence on a regular basis and saw him using his left hand freely.
“witnesses told us he did have use of his left hand,” Richards said.
Susan Moreno and her father disagree with that finding, and they said they will not stop fighting to prove that Moreno’s death was a homicide.
“No one knew my brother better than I did, and I am absolutely certain he would never have taken his own life,” she said.
Priest of the poor
Moreno was well-known to police, fellow priests and reporters long before he died.
He was a generous man who helped dozens of local charities raise money. He ran food pantries and clinics for the poor. He befriended many police officers, firefighters and other first responders, showing up to crime scenes and fires to offer coffee and words of support.
He contacted celebrities like comedian Jay Leno and New York Yankees star Derek Jeter, and persuaded Jeter to donate autographed jerseys and Leno to donate flat-screen television sets for charity fundraising events.
After the terrorist attacks of September 2001, Moreno headed to New York City where he spent time helping and counseling first responders there.
“I use my position as a priest to help people,” Moreno told one reporter. “That’s what I love to do.”
But those who knew him well also knew that Moreno had some problems. In 1989, three years after he became a priest, he was accused of arson in connection with a fire at St. Aloysius Church in Springville, where he served as associate pastor. He pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges in state court and served no prison time. Officials of the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo transferred him to a church in Olean.
At times, Moreno had serious money problems. In 2005, his Town of Tonawanda home was foreclosed upon, and he filed a personal bankruptcy, listing assets of $145,610 and debts and liabilities of $477,086, mostly credit card expenditures.
Several individuals who knew him well – including family members – said that Moreno’s financial problems often stemmed from an inability to curb his spending, especially when giving money to others in need.
“Joe would give money and things like computers away that he couldn’t afford to give,” said one priest who knew and liked Moreno.
“If Joey had four dollars in his wallet, and you needed help, he’d find a way to give you five dollars,” Susan Moreno sister said. Sometimes, he “over-extended himself,” she added.
No suicide note
Moreno served at several parishes before being assigned in 2005 to St. Lawrence, a small church on East Delavan Avenue. That is where his body was found Oct. 13, 2012, in his private office at the rectory, shortly before he was to celebrate a Saturday afternoon Mass.
Moreno left no suicide note and did not tell anyone he was contemplating suicide, Susan Moreno said.
He was busy preparing for a move from St. Lawrence, on Buffalo’s East Side, to a parish in Orchard Park and had rented a “storage pod” to move his belongings. The pod was parked outside the St. Lawrence rectory on the day he died.
“On the day before he died, Joey paid his Verizon bill, called a doctor to schedule a colonoscopy and arranged to do some Masses at another church,” Susan Moreno said. “He also had agreed to do a baptism for a family he knew the following day. Why would you do any of those things if you were planning to kill yourself? Anyone who knew Joey knows he would never make commitments for a Mass or anything else that he didn’t plan to keep.”
Her father, Joseph Moreno Sr., a Marine Corps veteran and retired bus driver, insisted that Buffalo police “jumped to a conclusion” that the death was a suicide. Detectives never gave serious consideration to the possibility of murder, he said.
Carol Kaufman, 76, a former St. Lawrence parishioner and family friend, said she spoke to Moreno on the phone just two hours before he died.
“He sounded completely normal and cheerful to me,” she said. “I know what kind of person he was, a positive person. I know he wouldn’t have committed suicide, right to the bottom of my toes.”
Finding his body
Paul Weisenburger, the church deacon and pastoral administrator, found Moreno’s body that Saturday afternoon.
“I thought he was asleep,” Weisenburger told a News reporter on Sept. 14, 2012, as he recounted the discovery. “I pushed the door open and saw him sitting in the chair. I didn’t realize it at first, and then I took his pulse ... ”
Weisenburger also told reporters that Moreno was troubled, upset and had committed suicide.
“He took his own life,” Weisenburger said at the time. “The investigation is still going on. But from what I know, it’s quite clear.”
Susan Moreno and her father said they are still upset over those statements, and Bertrand – the Catholic priest and attorney from Missouri – agreed.
Weisenburger “never should have made any public comments about the death of Father Joe until the investigation was completed,” he said. “The deacon seemed to presume from the beginning that this was a suicide.”
In the weeks following Moreno’s death, the deacon and some priests made comments about Moreno that tarnished his reputation and hurt his family, Bertrand said.
“What I’m trying to help the family to do now is to restore Father Joe’s reputation and good name,” Bertrand said.
Now 80 years old and still serving as a deacon at St. Lawrence, Weisenburger spoke to The News again earlier this month. He said he was still dealing with the shock of Moreno’s death and only giving honest answers to reporters’ questions when he spoke to them in October 2012. He said he was not trying to harm Moreno’s reputation or his family.
Weisenburger said he spent months in therapy after finding Moreno’s body and still has nightmares about that day.
“I loved Father Joe … I feel badly for his family. I pray for them every day,” Weisenburger said. “Father Joe was a man who gave every penny he had to people who were poor and people who needed help. He did a lot for me and my own family.”
Earlier that year, Weisenburger’s son, Peter, died of brain cancer at age 40. “Father Joe” was the first to help him, his wife Mary and other family members.
“Father Joe ran a fundraiser to help our family,” he said. “He couldn’t have been kinder to us.”
But Weisenburger said he has never doubted the conclusion of suicide that police reached. He said he found the handgun that killed Moreno wedged between the priest’s body and his chair. And only he and Moreno were in the rectory at the time of the priest’s death.
For about a week before Moreno died, the priest had been telling him that he was extremely nervous and upset because superiors in the diocese had ordered him to move out of St. Lawrence, Weisenburger said.
“Father Joe was under terrible pressure that last week. He didn’t know if he was going to have a job in the future,” Weisenburger said. “He had all kinds of debts … In my mind, there is no doubt” that he committed suicide.
Susan Moreno and her father disagree with Weisenburger about Moreno’s state of mind in that last week.
“I knew my brother and he wasn’t depressed, he wasn’t suicidal,” Susan Moreno said. “What he did tell me two days before he died was that there was an audit done at St. Lawrence and $500,000 was missing. He was upset about that, and he told me he was not going to take the blame for any missing money.”
There was an audit of St. Lawrence finance, but it showed no financial irregularities, according to Weisenburger and another source in the diocese.
“There was no problem audit,” Weisenburger said. “St. Lawrence is such a poor church, we’d never have access to $500,000.”
Diocese won’t comment
The diocese will not comment about the questions the Moreno family raised about the audit, said diocese spokesman George Richert. Nor would he discuss Moreno’s removal from St. Lawrence or the family’s call for a new investigation.
“The Diocese is grateful for the good works of Father Joe Moreno and saddened by his loss,” Richert said in an emailed statement.“The investigation of the circumstances and cause of his death has been left to the authorities because they are the experts in this field.”
Terrence M. Connors, attorney for the diocese, declined to comment on any aspect of the case.
Richards and Flynn said they have no doubt about the sincerity of Moreno’s family members in their doubts about suicide or their quest for a new investigation. But both law enforcement officials contend that it is not unusual for family members to refuse to accept a ruling of suicide.
“Suicide leaves behind grieving people and a lot of unanswered questions,” Richards said. “Quite often, the loved ones are in denial. It’s human nature. You never want to believe that someone you love would do something like that.”
Joseph Moreno Sr., whose wife, Constance, died in 1997, said learning of his son’s death was one of the darkest moments of his life.
“Every day, I think about my son,” the 84-year-old father said. “It keeps me awake nights. I twist and turn, trying to get to sleep. When I finally fall asleep, I wake up thinking of him.”
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