Two Catholics priests are connected by a violent and unexpected fate.

Fr. Reynaldo Rivera

His body was found in the desert

CASE DETAILS

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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9 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Bill Blaski

    I believe that this case and John Kerrigan are related. Kerrigan spent time in New Mexico to get cured from depression, sex addiction, or another mental anguish. I can’t help but think the same killer tracked down these 2 priest. A lot of similar evidence in both cases. Kerrigan car has blood splatter all over. I believe Reynaldo car was wiped down. I wonder if police have DNA from these killers? I can’t help but think the new familial DNA sites hold the clue in solving these old cases.

    Reply

  2. Avatar

    Bilpro6

    To make a long and over 30 year old story short I can almost summarize the murder in Montana had a local perpetrator.
    I met someone in 1980’s when we was both weightlifters. After some acquaintance he learned I was catholic and at one time he was excitedly telling me about Kernighan like he knew all about it until some loud dude broke into our conversation. I doubt he had direct knowledge about the murder however I strongly suspect he had criminal dealings with someone who did. It seems he looked up at criminal things and was influenced by personal acquaintances. He bragged up things like that. He often times mentioned someone who was big in local crime referring to him either by nickname or last name. He was sent to prison during that time period and was later killed in a prison riot back in 1991.

    Reply

  3. Avatar

    RF

    It is my opinion that the perpetrator of these crimes is Curtis Holmen. I base this on the following. Curtis Holmen disappeared just a couple of days after Father Kerrigan in the same mountain range just south east of Flathead lake MT.. Holmen was known to drive a mid 70’s blue Toyota Pickup truck which is a suspect vehicle in the murder of Father Rivera. Holmen was at the very least a closeted bi-sexual, and Holmen was known to have been an alter-boy in the Catholic Church and evidence appears to point to the fact that both Holmen and Father Kerrigan may have been at the same church during the years when Holmen could have been abused by Kerrigan. It should also be noted that Father Kerrigan was assigned to a retreat in New Mexico and just an 1 1/2 drive from the cathedral where father Rivera was assigned and both priests came from the order of Franciscans. It seems highly unlikely that these two priests wouldn’t have been at the least acquaintances considering the unique nature of the Catholic Church and it’s priests and leaders..

    Reply

  4. Avatar

    Anona Mouse

    It does seem pretty obvious to me. I would find the link between the priests. They always say that the first one or two is usually ‘close to home’. Dig as far as you can into these murders and then find the link. Since this episode was played, we all now know the horrible secrets the church hid. Considering the killer(s) didn’t take the money, it was definitely personal. Bet if you dug into the priests past, you will find some skeletons in their closet. Also, isn’t one of the typical hook ups rest stops? I don’t know if that is hearsay, just saying. I find it odd that they can’t find this guy(s). Surely it wouldn’t take too much research and detective work. Also, can’t they do DNA testing on the bloody clothes and bloody hangar? Anyway, just my thoughts.

    Reply

  5. Avatar

    Anonymous

    Just a theory, but maybe they should look for a disgruntled alter boy… did the priests at one time serve at the same church? If so where there any alter boys there at the same time? Maybe they were molested…just my opinion

    Reply

  6. Avatar

    Anonymous

    Your killers motive may be, he was molested as a kid by priests. Just a thought.

    Reply

  7. Avatar

    Anonymous

    I do genealogy, found a Michael Carmello in Ajo Arizona possibly on and Indian Reservation,, also in Phoenix

    Reply

  8. Avatar

    kitty

    Perhaps crimes were confessed to the priests in a weak moment. Sins that might be exposed were maybe silenced.

    Reply

  9. Avatar

    James Harry Reyos

    Other strange and unsolved priest murders occurred in the early 1980s. Google “Father Patrick Ryan, Odessa, TX”; ” Father Benjamin Carrier, Yuma, AZ”. The Boise John Doe, who committed suicide by swallowing a cyanide capsule, is strongly suspected of being linked to these murders (including Father Reynaldo Rivera). Also, Google “Did the Cyanide Stranger Murder Father Ryan?” and “Father Benjamin J. Carrier’s murder remains unsolved” . I was wrongfully convicted of Father Patrick Ryan’s murder. Today I still profess my complete and ACTUAL innocence. I know in my heart — I DID NOT kill Father Patrick Ryan!!! JAMES HARRY REYOS.

    Reply

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