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Cold Case: Whispers of cover-up remain decades after priest's murder

Monsignor Francis O'Connor

They made their chilling discovery 52 years ago, but Matthew Nasca and Patrick Borrusso remember it like it was yesterday.

Finding the body of a murdered priest is not the kind of incident that anyone forgets.

On March 13, 1966, Nasca, Borrusso and their buddy, James Brady, were all 12 years old, altar boys from a West Side church. They were out for a carefree Sunday afternoon hike along Scajaquada Creek.

As they walked along the creek behind Assumption Church on Amherst Street, the boys stopped to investigate what appeared to be a dummy, lying face-down in shallow water near the creek bank.

They pulled one of the hands up out of the water and spotted a gold watch on the wrist.

“I told my friends, ‘Nobody puts a gold watch on a dummy,’ recalled Nasca, now 65. “We turned the body over, and you could see it was a man who looked like he was brutally beaten around his face.”

The boys did not know the dead man. They ran to the nearby Polish Cadets Hall, where someone called Buffalo Police.

A day later, they learned the victim's identity: Monsignor Francis J.V. O’Connor, 44. He was the editor of what was then called the Magnificat, the Buffalo Catholic Diocese’s weekly newspaper.

No arrest was ever made. If police ever determined a motive, they never revealed it.

“He was a gifted, talented priest,” said Monsignor James Connelly, 97, one of the few surviving Buffalo priests who knew O’Connor. “I was not close to him, or his circle of friends, but I did know him and he was always kind to me. He was well thought of in the diocese.”

“I’ve had strange feelings about this from the day he died until today,” Connelly said. “Who killed this man? Why did they kill him? It’s a mystery.”

Matthew Nasca, 65, stands by Scajaquada Creek near the spot where 52 years ago he and two other 12-year-old boys discovered the body of a murdered priest, Rev. Francis O'Connor, in the water on March 13, 1966. O'Connor drowned after a beating. The priest's glasses were found on the guide rail, like the glasses in this photo. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

A cover-up? 

Three people – a retired State Supreme Court judge, a retired Buffalo Police officer and a Buffalo attorney who was a close friend of one of the police investigators on the case – said they believe there was a cover-up. They allege the investigation was shut down when another priest emerged as a potential suspect.

“From everything I know of this case, I believe there was a cover-up, and I think it’s terrible,” said the retired judge, Timothy J. Drury.

For at least a couple of weeks after the murder, Buffalo Police homicide detectives conducted an intense investigation that was reported on by the media, according to newspaper accounts and police reports.

Six days after the murder, then-Chief of Detectives Ralph V. Degenhart briefed reporters:

  • O’Connor was believed to have been killed between 4 and 6 a.m., eight to 10 hours before the boys found his body. He had last been seen alive around 9:30 p.m. the previous night, when he spoke briefly with a nun at the Sisters of St. Joseph Motherhouse on Main Street, where O’Connor lived. Police believed O’Connor went out sometime after that.
  • The clergyman’s new car was found on Lincoln Parkway, about a mile from his body. Some drops of blood – O-positive, O’Connor’s blood type – were found on the front upholstery.
  • Degenhart theorized that two men who may have known the priest attacked O’Connor in his car at an unknown location, then took him to the creek and dumped his body. Then the killers drove the car to Lincoln Parkway and abandoned it. The priest’s wallet was missing, but the killers did not take his watch.
  • The immediate cause of death was drowning, but there were signs that O’Connor had been beaten. He had cuts on his head and chin, and his larynx – also known as the voice box – was fractured by blows to the neck.
  • O'Connor's wire-rim glasses were found neatly folded up, on a Scajaquada Expressway guide rail not far from his body.

Detectives for two hours interviewed a “youthful business acquaintance” of the slain priest, but Degenhart said police were “thoroughly convinced” the young man had nothing to do with the murder.

O’Connor’s death was lamented by then-Bishop James A. McNulty, who called the murder “a shock…a staggering blow.”

The Magnificat ran photographs of O’Connor with various dignitaries, including former President Harry S. Truman.

“He was a great man, a dedicated priest, a hard-working newspaper man, a wonderful human being,” said the Magnificat in an editorial. They called the Buffalo-born clergyman a scholar who was proficient at sign language and lip-reading, skills he used to teach religion to youngsters at St. Mary’s School for the Deaf.

For weeks, the murder was a top story for the two daily newspapers, the old Buffalo Courier-Express and what was then called The Buffalo Evening News.

But then – very abruptly, according to Connelly and another elderly Buffalo priest – the investigation, and all news reports about it, seemed to come to a halt.

“It seemed like the investigation just stopped, all of a sudden, and it went no further,” recalled Connelly. “To me, it seems like everything was just hushed up because they had come to a certain point, and they didn’t want to take it any further. Believe you me, there were people in our diocese who had the power to make that happen.”

'The case was shut down'

A Buffalo attorney, Richard J. Kubiniec, 84, told The News that a retired Homicide Squad detective, Edwin A. Gorski, once told him that there was a cover-up in the O’Connor case.

Homicide Squad detective Edwin A. Gorski in 1989. (Buffalo News file photo)

“I knew Eddie well … About three years after he retired, he told me that he had been ordered to close the books on the O’Connor murder investigation, at some point after the murder,” Kubiniec said. “Eddie told me the investigation was zeroing in on another priest, who was about to be questioned as a person of interest, when the Homicide Squad was ordered to close it down.”

Gorski, a highly decorated homicide investigator, retired from the Buffalo Police in 1989 and died in 1997.

A retired police officer who insisted on anonymity said Gorski once told him that “the case was shut down” prematurely by his superiors when he began to investigate another priest as a possible suspect.

Drury said believes there was a cover-up based on conversations he had with a former homicide detective who worked closely with Gorski.

“A friend of mine who worked in homicide said Ed Gorski told him that he was ordered to shut down the investigation when they started looking at a priest as a suspect. Gorski told my friend that he had the goods on this other priest,” said Drury, 77, who also is a former homicide prosecutor with the Erie County District Attorney’s Office. “I worked with Ed Gorski on many homicide cases. He was one of the most credible investigators I ever met. If he told that to people, I would believe him.”

Drury declined to name the retired investigator who spoke to him.

Sister Regina Murphy, chancellor of the Buffalo Diocese, said O’Connor’s file in the diocesan archives contained “nothing that would give any insight into his murder.”

“Unfortunately, the crime became a cold case,” she said.

Bishop says he's not aware of cover-up in 1966 murder of Buffalo priest

Buffalo Police in a rowboat search for evidence in Scajaquada Creek on March 16, 1966, three days after the body of Monsignor Francis O'Connor was found in the water. No arrest has been made in the slaying of O'Connor. (Buffalo News file photo)

The News could not independently verify the cover-up allegations. No detectives involved in the 1966 probe are alive. Current Buffalo Police officials said they cannot determine what happened in an investigation more than a half century ago.

In response to a Freedom of Information request from The News, Buffalo Police provided a redacted file on the O’Connor investigation, but large portions of it are missing. There are no reports written about the monsignor's body being found or any reports on interviews conducted in the first two weeks after the body was found. The file contains 30 reports on interviews conducted by detectives between March 28 and May 3, 1966. There were no reports after that.

The reports show that police did interview many people – including patrons and bartenders at several taverns, two mental patients, associates of a biker gang and a young man who had worked for O’Connor at the diocese newspaper. But the reports indicate that everyone questioned – including two men who took lie detector tests – was cleared.

Reports show that detectives were looking into the priest’s friendships and associations, trying to find out where he was going when he left his residence in nonclerical clothing the night he was killed. The file also showed that police were trying to get a match for several fingerprints found on the victim’s car.

Connelly, the 97-year-old priest, recalled that two Buffalo homicide detectives came to his rectory to talk with him about two weeks after the murder.

“They asked me about a young man who had worked with Monsignor O’Connor,” Connelly recalled. “I was serving at a parish in Arcade, and this young man had come to see me after the murder. He was extremely nervous and kept going to the bathroom, five or six times, but he never explained why he came. The detectives asked me a lot of questions about him, but he was never charged with anything.”

There was another disturbing angle to the O’Connor murder. One of his best friends – a fellow priest – was also murdered, six years earlier.

Father Vincent L. Belle, 37, was shot to death on New Year’s Day 1960 as he prepared to leave Holy Cross Church to visit and administer Holy Communion to people who were sick and unable to attend church. An elderly Buffalo man was charged with the murder, and later acquitted at trial.

According to Connelly and other priests, Belle and O’Connor were the best of friends. Newspaper reports say O’Connor was the executor of Belle’s will.

“Two close friends murdered … so tragic,” Connelly said.

There has never been any suggestion by police that the two cases were connected.

Although O’Connor was slain more than 52 years ago, Buffalo Police say the investigation remains open. If they were 25 at the time of the crime, the killer or killers would now be around 77 years old.

“Who would murder a priest? That really bothered me,” said Borrusso, one of the boys who found the monsignor's body. “Every time I think about it, I say a prayer for that priest.”

Anyone with information about the case may call the Buffalo Police confidential tip line at 847-2255.

News reporter Maki Becker contributed to this story.

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