Two Catholics priests are connected by a violent and unexpected fate.
Fr. Reynaldo Rivera
His body was found in the desert
The caller asked for a priest to say last rites
On the evening of August 7, 1982, a call was placed to the rectory of the St. Francis Cathedral in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The caller needed someone to administer last rites. Father Patrick Gerard was unable to leave the rectory and asked the caller to telephone again in fifteen minutes. Exactly fifteen minutes later, the telephone rang again. This time, Father Renaldo Rivera took the call. The caller was insistent—he wanted a priest to come immediately to administer the last rites. The man said his name was Michael Carmello. According to Lieutenant Gilbert Ulibarri of the Santa Fe Police Department, Carmello was calling from a rest stop near Waldo, New Mexico:
“Father Rivera left that evening to meet someone at the rest stop in Santa Fe. This was on a Thursday evening. He was reported missing Thursday night. Didn’t show up Friday. There was a broadcast made that Father Rivera was missing. Obviously, we had a location. At least we knew it was Waldo, somewhere in that area, because the priest remembered Waldo, New Mexico.”
Rivera met the caller at a remote rest area
Three days after he vanished, Father Rivera’s body was found on a deserted road three miles from the rest stop. At Father Rivera’s funeral, the entire city mourned. Ordained Catholic priests vow to become servants of God and servants of their community. Their door is always open. But, as was the case in New Mexico, that very openness can also be exploited—especially by someone with diabolical intentions.
The night of the murder, the man calling himself Carmello was waiting for Father Rivera at the rest stop in a blue pick up truck. Lieutenant Ulibarri has developed a theory of what happened next:
“The killers were probably waiting there for him. When he arrived at the rest area, they singled him out. There’s no way one individual could handle Fr. Rivera or he would’ve give them a hard time. So there had to be at least two people involved. And we know they had guns, obviously because he was shot, so I’m sure they controlled him with that weapon. But there had to be two people involved to subdue him because he was a very strong individual.”
Police believe Rivera was taken at gun point
Lieutenant Ulibarri believed the killers took Father Rivera to a remote desert area:
“He was not killed where he was found. They drove to a location, threw him on the ground and left. They could’ve hid him anywhere in that Waldo area and there are several places in Waldo where you can kind of hide a body and you’d never find it. So obviously, they wanted him to be found.”
According to Lieutenant Ulibarri, the killers returned to the rest stop after the crime to remove Father Rivera’s car:
“His vehicle was found at a rest area just east of Grants, New Mexico, which is about two hours from Santa Fe. There was no physical evidence found in the vehicle. We didn’t find any fingerprints. There were no bloodstains, nothing to indicate that someone had even driven the car. It had been wiped clean.”
Lieutenant Ulibarri had few clues and after a nationwide check, he found no suspects named Michael Carmello:
“As far as motive, Father Rivera was not the target. A Catholic priest was a target, for whatever reason. Robbery was not a motive because there was nothing taken from the priest, other than his last rites kit. And that’s a possibility for a souvenir. Apparently the killer would like to relive the experience, every time he looks at it, he remembers killing a priest.”
Two years later, on August 8, 1984, in Ronan, Montana, another priest mysteriously disappeared. Father John Kerrigan was new to the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Ronan. He had only been there four days before he too vanished. At 11 PM on the night he disappeared, Father John Kerrigan went to a bakery across the street from the church to chat with his parishioners. After a few minutes, he was returning home to go to bed. But he was never seen again. According to Detective Sergeant Bruce Phillips of the Lake County Sheriff’s Office, the next day a passerby discovered a pile of bloody clothes at a turnout along the highway that circles nearby Flathead Lake:
“After we realized that they were Father Kerrigan’s, we did a search of that area. A bloody coat hanger was found close to the clothing. We concluded that the coat hanger was used to tie someone up, could have been used to strangle someone, but it definitely is connected to the clothing. And it wasn’t just a hanger laying there. It had been deformed and definitely used for some purpose.”
A week later, Detective Sergeant Phillips found Father Kerrigan’s car five miles from the area where his clothes had been discovered:
“We know that car sat there for approximately a week before it came to our attention. We did a thorough search of that area and we found the keys lying in tall grass. There was blood on the front seat, in the right door, and on the right floor board. We found a shovel in the trunk with blood on it. We found a pillow in the trunk with blood on it. There was also blood splattered inside the trunk.”
Detective Sergeant Phillips also found Kerrigan’s wallet, which contained more than a thousand dollars in cash:
“The money was not hidden, so we don’t feel that robbery was a motive for this particular crime.”
When Lieutenant Ulibarri learned of Father Kerrigan’s disappearance, he flew to Ronan to investigate the similarities between the two cases:
“In both cases the killer wanted people to know I killed a priest, and here’s the evidence to show I killed him. I still strongly believe that whoever killed Father Rivera was involved with Father Kerrigan.”
There are other similarities also. Both victims’ cars were driven away from the crime scene and both were wiped clean of all fingerprints and evidence. A metal coat hanger was found near Father Kerrigan’s clothes, and there was evidence a coat hanger was used in Father Rivera’s murder. In both cases, robbery was not a motive, and perhaps most significantly, both priests belonged to the select Order of Franciscans.
Watch this case now on Amazon Prime in season one with Robert Stack and season eight with Dennis Farina. Also available on YouTube with Dennis Farina. Various seasons available now on Hulu.
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