Duped and Deluded

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, a “delusion” is a false belief held without reservation – usually as a result of self-deception or mental disorder – and often leading to harm.

I came into contact with some people in the grip of a delusion when I wrote about a double murder in the small Wisconsin town of Hudson. The perpetrator was a young priest with a messiah complex. He hung himself when he was about to be arrested, and henceforth became known to his followers – who sensed Satan at work when they contemplated his fate – as “The Hanged Priest.”

During his priesthood The Hanged Priest had a coterie of admirers numbering in the dozens. Most of them just liked the way he celebrated the Mass – a lively, one-man show in Latin (pidgin-Latin, he couldn’t actually speak the language but he faked it pretty well), climaxed by a teary-eyed elevation of the Eucharist high above his head for a full two minutes. He wore a monk’s cassock during the performance, and often could be seen on the streets of Hudson in the same outfit.

The congregants who were wowed by his liturgical histrionics were referred to by the other parishioners as “kneelers”, because they knelt while the Host was elevated. A sub-group among the kneelers had all the earmarks of a cult. By the time I interviewed some of them it was well-known that the priest had committed two murders to cover up the fact that he’d been using his ministry to groom young boys for sex. According to investigators, several abused boys had been forcibly prevented from talking to the police by their parents. It wasn’t until those boys reached adulthood and asserted their right to tell the truth that the full facts became known.

I talked to the mother of two boys who were probably (the records are confidential) among his victims. She practically worshiped The Hanged Priest, and did everything she could to convince me that “this holy man” had been framed. She said allegations that he was a pedophile would be laughable if they hadn’t caused the poor fellow such misery, and proudly described how her sons went to night prayers and on fishing trips with him. Later, when an open hearing was held to present evidence of The Hanged Priest’s guilt, and put his motives on record, this same mom knelt at the courthouse door with a rosary in her hand, and shouted that everything the prosecutors and witnesses said were lies. Her husband was comparatively low-key, but just as deluded. “He did everything passionately,” he said of the priest. “Preach, hunt, fish, drink beer. He just reeked passion.”

Of course, he hid his real passion in plain sight, facilitated by a group of people so deluded that they sacrificed their own children.

The story of The Hanged Priest appears in The Family That Couldn’t Sleep at Night, an anthology of true crime stories I wrote, published by Calumet editions.

Poverty-Stricken

Poor is one thing, poverty-stricken is another. I came to grips with the difference when I wrote about the O’Kasick brothers, a gang of three armed robbers who struck about a dozen times in Minneapolis in the 1950s.

The O’Kasick’s crime spree came to a halt when they got into a gunfight with the police, killed one cop, crippled another one for life and got away clean. At that point they’d stolen more than $20,000 over a 15 month period, real money in those days, yet they barely had cash for gas to make their getaway. They hid out in what is now the Boundary Waters wilderness, where horseflies and mosquitoes feasted on them and they slept in their car for lack of blankets. They weren’t stupid, in fact the leader, Roger O’Kasick, was pretty bright, but they were children of poverty and all the money in the world couldn’t change that.

They had 10 brothers and sisters, a father who routinely beat his sons and raped his daughters, and a mother who, according to an older sister, “fell apart and died one day when we were kids. She wasn’t sick or nothing, she just couldn’t take it any more.” Dad had the boys out boosting car parts when they were eight years old. He sent them to local junkyards to sell what they’d stolen, while he lurked outside and confiscated whatever cash they received. A couple of them went to reform school for those thefts.

One summer day when the O’Kasick brothers were children, a probation officer came around. He was trying to find their father. Dad was out on a bender, but their mom talked to the officer, who took note of her “distraught, downcast demeanor and disheveled appearance.” When he inquired about the welts all over her hands and face, she explained that they didn’t have much in the way of screens, so the mosquitoes bit them. “We can’t sleep at night,” she said.

If they can’t afford to get the screens fixed, poor people find boards or some other crummy-looking thing and use it to patch the windows. Poverty-stricken people lay awake all night and let the mosquitoes bite them.

Roger and two of his brothers started robbing stores in their mid-20s. Roger planned the robberies. They went off like clockwork. In the shootout with the police, which came about due to a fluke when they were on their way to rob a supermarket, it was Roger’s forethought that put them in a position to outgun their pursuers and elude the massive dragnet put in place to capture them. Nevertheless, he was at a loss when they sat in the woods and tried to figure out what came next. His imagination hit a wall.

The O’Kasicks emerged from the wilderness less than a week after they arrived, and made a bee-line for the worst place in the world they could go, back to Minneapolis and their fate. The title of the story I wrote about them is “The Family That Couldn’t Sleep at Night”. It’s in the book by the same title, published by Calumet Editions.

Family-Cover-230x335