Who killed the monsignor? Suddenly, the murder investigation ends (2023)

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Who killed the monsignor?

This is the 14th installment in an 18-part serial on the unsolved 1966 murder of Buffalo Diocese Monsignor Francis J. O’Connor.Read the rest of the series.

For the first month, the Buffalo Police Department threw everything they had at solving the 1966 murder of Monsignor Francis J. O’Connor.

Who killed the monsignor? Suddenly, the murder investigation ends (1)

Detectives were brought in from precincts all over Buffalo to help the Homicide Squad find a killer. FBI agents, State Police and the New York City Police Department were consulted.

A long-retired detective, Gregory Simonian, now 93, remembers being pulled off his normal duties at a precinct to help homicide detectives. With citizens outraged over the murder of a priest, he said “guys from every precinct” were assigned to the O’Connor probe.

“Our job was to canvass the neighborhood, talk to people who lived or worked in the area near the crime scene. The case was the absolute top priority for the department,” Simonian said.

But then, the investigation was suddenly shut down, with no arrests or explanation.

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“I think we were making some progress, talking to a lot of people,” Simonian recalled. “One day, Chief John Dugan called us all together and said, ‘That’s it. This investigation is over. Go back to your assigned precincts.’ ”

Dugan was a supervisor in the detective bureau.

Another retired detective recalled that he, too, was detailed to work on the case “for about a week” before being told, with no explanation, that the investigation was over.

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Both Simonian and the other detective, who spoke on the condition of not using his name,said they heard that homicide detectives had begun focusing on a priest as a suspect shortly before the murder probe was shut down.

“Why was it shut down? I wasn’t told. I didn’t ask,” recalled Simonian, who would later in his career serve as commander of the Homicide Squad and Sex Offense Squad. “For an investigation that important to be suddenly shut down, that had to be orders from the very top.”

A third retired police officer said Homicide Chief Leo J. Donovan told him of a meeting he and Chief of Detectives Ralph Degenhart had with Buffalo Diocese Bishop James A. McNulty shortly before the investigation ended.

“Leo told me that he and the chief of detectives had gone to see the bishop about the investigation. Leo said he asked the bishop five questions. He told me, ‘The bishop lied to me’ and the investigation was ended not long after that,” said the former officer, who knew Donovan well and asked that his name be withheld.

Joseph Martone, a spokesman for the diocese, said no diocese records exist showing McNulty meeting with Donovan and Degenhart. He added that no one currently working for the diocese had any knowledge of the murder case.

"I don’t think we can comment on that. Because we don’t have any documentation on that or any records," Martone said. "I think it’s all supposition at this point."

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There is nothing in the Buffalo Police Department’s files on the O’Connor murder – which were shown to The Buffalo News after it filed a Freedom of Information Law request – that explains why the investigation was suddenly curtailed.

The file contains dozens of reports that detectives wrote. On some days, detectives added two or three new reports to the file, detailing what they were told by witnesses who knew O’Connor and other key figures in the case.

O’Connor, 44, was not only the editor-in-chief of the Catholic Diocese’s weekly newspaper, but considered a rising star in the diocese and had recently returned from a trip to Rome to hear an address from Pope Paul VI.

About 10 days into the investigation, reports began to focus on Rev. John D. Lewandowski, a former professional wrestler and avid bowler who became a suspect.

But the detectives’ reports slowed to a trickle shortly after March 26, 1966, when Donovan and one of his sergeants drove to a Buffalo Diocese retreat house in Bemus Point to question Lewandowski.

Within two months of the March 13 murder, the investigation appeared to shut down.

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Buffalo Police Commissioner Joseph A. Gramaglia, who joined the force in 1996 and would later serve as the homicide bureau's commander, declined to comment on whether the case was shut down, but said unsolved murders are never considered closed. However, it is clear from The News' review of the O'Connor case that it has been at a standstill for decades, with the most recent report filed in 1967.

"We have our cold case detectives, but unfortunately without new information on cases they remain cold," Gramaglia said. "At any given time, if someone comes forward with information, that information gets acted on.”

In the community, there are some people who still want to know why the case went cold.

Richard J. Kubiniec, a Buffalo attorney, said a friend of his who was a former supervisor in the Homicide Squad confided in him that the investigation ended when "a monsignor" became a suspect.

Recalling his conversation with the late Detective Sgt. Edwin Gorski, who worked on the investigation, Kubiniec said:

“Eddie told me that the investigation was starting to zero in on another priest– a monsignor– and Eddie’s superiors told him, ‘Shut down the case, close the file, this case is closed.’ Eddie said he was just getting ready to question this monsignor when the homicide squad was ordered to shut it down.”

Gorski said the attorney “indicated to me that this was covered up by the churchmen, with the help of the politicians and the police. The media stood by and let it happen.”

Gorski never told him the name of the monsignor who was targeted for questioning, said Kubiniec, a former assistant district attorney who still practices law at age 88.

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Who killed the monsignor? Suddenly, the murder investigation ends (5)

Michael P. McKeating, a former Buffalo Diocese deacon of 42 years, recalled a conversation he had with Donovan about a decade after the murder.

“I asked Leo why they never solved that case. Leo said, ‘We did solve it. We knew who did it. We were about to bring him in when the investigation was stopped,’ " said McKeating, who left the deaconateto remarry after the death of his first wife.

According to McKeating, when he asked the homicide chief who shut down the investigation, Donovan pointed his finger up to the ceiling.

“I took that to mean that somebody above him gave the order,” McKeating said. “Leo was a powerful guy in the department at that time. There were very few people who would be in a position to give him that kind of order.”

Donovan never told him who the suspect was or why the investigation was closed, said McKeating, whose career has included working as a lawyer, an investigative reporter for The Buffalo Evening Newsand as the Erie County budget director.

But 85-year-old attorney William E. Carey, one of the last surviving Erie County assistant district attorneys from 1966, said Donovan revealed to him the identity of the individual he believed killed O’Connor.

“Leo told me they were looking at Kelliher,” said Carey, referring to Monsignor Franklin M. Kelliher, a former wrestler and boxer, who was known to inflict “corporal punishment” on priests who misbehaved in the diocese. “Leo said they were told to quiet it down.”

Carey, who served as a prosecutor from 1964 to 1970, said Donovan did not tell him why investigators suspected Kelliher, who also served as the director of the old Working Boys Home. Kelliher's name is not mentioned in any of the police documents provided in the Freedom of Information request to The News.

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Edward C. Cosgrove, who served as Erie County district attorney from 1974 to 1981, said that when he took office, he initiated a thorough review of all of the unsolved homicide cases whose files were available dating to 1940.

Declining to discuss who may have been responsible, Cosgrove said,"After reviewing the O'Connor case, there was nothing I could do. Had I been able to with that case or any other, I would have gone forward with my State Police officers, FBI agents and homicide detectives.”

For more than two decades beginning in 1988, Cosgrove led a Buffalo Diocese fundraising campaign that raised more than $24 million to benefit retired priests and nuns, according to The Buffalo News' archives. He has also served as a trustee for a Buffalo Diocese seminary school and parish church.

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And while no one who was in a leadership position at City Hall, in the Buffalo Police Department or in the Erie County District Attorney’s Office in 1966 is still alive, retired State Supreme Court Justice Timothy J. Drury knew them all.

Drury, 81, also a former homicide prosecutor, has urged The News on several occasions to investigate the murder and the reasons why the probe suddenly ended.

“Based on everything I know, and all the people involved, I have no doubt that the investigation was stopped and covered up at the direction of the bishop. I believe the bishop was concerned that the findings of the investigation would cause embarrassment for the diocese,” Drury said.

O’Connor was murdered three years before Drury joined the Erie County District Attorney’s Office, but he worked closely with many of the people involved in the case – including Donovan, Gorski, Degenhart and the late Michael F. Dillon, the DA at the time.

“It bothers me because this was a huge scandal. To cover up the murder of one of their own, possibly by one of their own, that is a major scandal in the history of Buffalo,” Drury said.

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In Buffalo,two sistersbefriended O’Connor while they were preparing to become nuns at the Sisters of St. Joseph Motherhouse on Main Street, where he lived and served as chaplain. Mary Joan Hess Moore and her sister, Ann Louise Swartz, saw police swarm the motherhouse after O’Connor’s body was found on March 13, 1966, and they prayed that investigators would find out who killed him.

But about a month after the murder, they learned there would be no answers.

“Our mother superior called us together for an announcement. She said, ‘The investigation is being discontinued. The police haven’t been able to find anything. The case is over,’ ” Moore recalled.

She and her sister – who never became nuns, got married and raised families – said they have never felt right about that.

“Why weren’t the bishop and the diocese outraged over that?” Moore said. “Why weren’t they pushing to have this case solved? Were they afraid of something that was going to come out in the investigation?”

Buffalo is not the only place where there are allegations that police prematurely ended a homicide investigation involving a priest.

The Rev. John Feit was suspected in 1960 of murdering schoolteacher Irene Garza in McAllen, Texas, after taking her confession. A sheriff advised church officialshow to avoid having him be arrestedand to get Feit transferred out of town, according to a letter written by a church official. Feit was not charged with murdering Garza until 2016. He was convicted and later died in prison.

In 2006 in Toledo, Ohio, the Rev. Gerald Robinson was convicted of stabbing to death a nun 26 years earlier in a hospital chapel where they worked together. Robinson had been a suspect from the start, but two officers testified at Robinson's trial that when he was being questioned by detectives in 1980, a deputy police chief, a monsignor and an attorney interrupted the session and Robinson was allowed to go home. He was not arrested until 2004.


Coming Saturday:Former prosecutor links a monsignor to murder

Catch up on the series:Who killed the monsignor? Exploring the murder of Monsignor Francis J. O'Connor, its investigation and its legacy



  • Francis J. O'connor
  • Buffalo Diocese
  • Catholic Diocese Of Buffalo
  • 1966 Murder
  • Buffalo Murder
  • Cold Case Files
  • Buffalo Police
  • Religion

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