Nearly 95 percent of all major criminal cases end in a plea deal, an arrangement that gives prosecutors a conviction, defendants a shot at leniency, and the system a tidy resolution. But sometimes, doubts linger.
The judge follows a routine script, reeling off questions to make sure there's no doubt about the charges and consequences: Murder. Arson. Possibly life in prison.
In an orange prison jumpsuit and handcuffs, the defendant spits out mostly two- or three-word replies.
About This Series
This story is based on more than 70 interviews and the review of hundreds of pages of police, fire, and court records, as well as Daniel Montgomery's journal writings, attorney's notes, and dozens of letters he wrote to or received from his lawyers, parents, and others. Reporting for this series was supported in part by the Carnegie Legal Reporting Program at Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.
"I understand," Daniel Montgomery tells the judge eight times. "I plead guilty," he says twice.
His parents sit tensely in the front row, numb from his decision to plead and the seven-hour drive from their longtime King of Prussia home to see it. Next to them, their older son stifles an urge to jump, yell, somehow halt the proceeding.
The rest of the courtroom is filled with friends and relatives of William Gulas, 68, a Franciscan priest found scorched beyond recognition with a bullet in his back. They wear buttons with his photo. Gulas' cousin speaks. He is angry.
"I will never shed a tear thinking about what you will suffer in prison," he tells Montgomery. "You took him away from a community that loved him. And he loved you, Dan. And you sit there - and you stare."
Montgomery locks his gaze on the judge. It's his turn to break a 10-month silence, maybe explain why he, an honors student, pacifist, and friar, morphed into a killer.
He can't describe what he doesn't know - about the gun, the money, the cellphone. He says little.
"I want to say how truly sorry I am that this happened," he says. "I especially wish to apologize to the family of Father Gulas and the Franciscans. And I sincerely hope and pray that I may be rehabilitated."
They don't sound like the words of an innocent man.
MARION, OHIO AUGUST 2009
Vending machines line two walls. The floor is off-white linoleum with flecks of brown and tan. Twin girls in pigtails, white shirts, and green scotch-plaid uniforms squeal and play in the kids' corner, under a mural of a tree and balloons.
To be sure, this isn't a school cafeteria. Armed guards sit in other corners, peering at the 30 or so prisoners and visitors crammed into assigned seats at square brown tables.
There are 2,300 inmates here at the North Central Correctional Institution, about 45 minutes north of Columbus, Ohio. Most are medium-security criminals, more likely to be here for drug-dealing and burglary than murder.
I'm at one of the vending machines, waiting for a cup of coffee, when I turn and see Montgomery standing near my designated seat. As I approach, he thrusts his palm toward me. It's unnerving, though I'm not sure why. There's nothing wrong with a handshake, I tell myself.
Montgomery folds his gangly frame into a blue-plastic chair. He speaks rapidly, almost unintelligibly fast.
Just as he did in high school.
"I didn't fit in," he says.
Montgomery is talking about his religious order and the Cleveland parish where he lived. He could have been talking about Archbishop Carroll High School in Radnor Township.
We were classmates there. The teachers often sat students in alphabetical order. We were both M's.
We had many courses together, but weren't friends. Since our graduation in 1984, I had seen Montgomery once, at a 10-year class reunion. I don't recall talking to him then, and can't think why we would have been. Not the way we are now - one on one, about a murder.
He was arrested in December 2002, a Franciscan friar accused of shooting a beloved pastor, then torching the rectory to hide the killing. That the crime occurred as the sex-abuse scandal was roiling the church only heightened interest in the case.
I followed it from afar, stirred by personal and professional curiosity. I had spent years covering crime and courts.
The Montgomery I recalled seemed an unlikely killer: a lanky, nerdy, straitlaced teen. He excelled academically, usually ranking in the top 10.
Socially, he struggled.
He had to move his locker to escape bullying. His older siblings and their friends had to arrange his prom dates. At school dances, he flailed, sometimes alone, across the floor, seemingly oblivious to the snickers. Disco Dan, some called him. I know because I was there, snickering with the others. In the teen caste system, kids like Montgomery reassured the rest of us by helping to establish the pecking order. Mocking was always better than to be mocked.
Not that he deserved it.
More than anything, I recalled the way Montgomery talked: at hyper-speed, as if worried he might lose his thought or you might lose interest before he conveyed it. And he spoke with a distinct, almost theatrical affectation, as if he was auditioning, chin up, at the community playhouse.
He doesn't look too different now, sitting hunched over table No. 5 in the prison visiting room. Older, of course. More wrinkles, less hair, none of the painful-looking acne that once plagued him.
But the same face, same mannerisms. And that same Tommy-gun, staccato way of talking that made him seem so tightly wound - traits perhaps of a person who one day might snap.
Had he? I assumed so. He confessed to Gulas' murder hours after Cleveland police began questioning him. He pleaded guilty 10 months later and was sentenced to 24 years to life in prison. If he was lucky enough to win parole on his first try, he could be free by age 61.
Prosecutors had suggested that Montgomery erupted in a rage after learning his Franciscan superiors wanted to reassign him. I didn't know all the details. The three lines he read at sentencing marked his only public comments on Gulas' death.
So I had written to Montgomery, proposing a visit. My goal was a deeper look at why, when, and how the National Honor Society member who sat near me in English and calculus and history had become a murderer.
His reply was a six-page, single-spaced letter. I was struck by how long, well-written, and frank it was. Montgomery poured out more details of his life, including some I preferred not to know, than I had gleaned during four years walking the same school halls. But I understood that one thing inmates have is time, and pen pals can be hard to come by.
The letter recounted the experiences he said had shaped him, his path to becoming the friar known as Brother Dan. He also detailed his medical problems: seizures, bouts of depression, suicidal thoughts. And, briefly, his account of what happened in Cleveland.
Montgomery said he hadn't killed Gulas.
The confession? Crafted by police, signed by him in a mentally unbalanced state, he wrote. The guilty plea? The result of bullying by indifferent defense attorneys who ignored his assertions of innocence and gave him no options.
"My lawyers told me repeatedly that I would get the death penalty if I took my case to trial," he wrote to me.
It ended: "So as you see, there has been a major injustice here, and I hope you can get the truth out there so I can go free."
Sitting across from me in the visiting room, he tells me his version again. More details, but never drifting from the outline of his letter.
The story I had envisioned wasn't so complex. Sorting his facts from his fiction might be more draining, and lead nowhere. A part of me had hoped I could just sit in front of him and recognize a killer. Another part of me doesn't want to stare.
I say little, except that I'd like to keep talking, and maybe learn more about his case.
Privately, I have my doubts: An inmate who recants a confession? Facing life in prison, who wouldn't?
CLEVELAND DEC. 7, 2002
The 911 call comes in at 12:30 p.m.
"Yes, I'd like to report a fire at St. Stanislaus rectory located at 3-6-4-9 E. 65th St., corner of East 65th and Forman," Montgomery tells the dispatcher.
"Right, got it up here," is the reply.
Fire engines roar to the scene. In a city with deep Catholic roots, St. Stanislaus is renowned. Its century-old church is as grand as a cathedral, a tour-bus magnet, and worthy of the National Register of Historic Places.
As important, the church anchors its southeast Cleveland neighborhood.
The area, nicknamed Slavic Village, was once an enclave for working-class Polish and Czech immigrants. Then the mills closed, and the jobs disappeared - replaced by ever-encroaching poverty, drugs, and crime.
Some fled. St. Stan's is the reason others have stayed. Its school is an oasis, its church a reminder of better times. One Sunday Mass is still celebrated in Polish, the bulletin printed in two languages.
Smoke billows from its rectory as firefighters swarm.
Montgomery stands outside, directing crews toward a side door into the building.
More engines arrive, as do TV news cameras. A crowd builds on the sidewalk, watching the struggle to contain the blaze.
Marilyn Mosinski is a few blocks away, helping her mother decorate for Christmas, when her father calls to report the rectory in flames. Mosinski bolts down the block, not bothering to grab a jacket on a frigid day. Her thoughts turn to Gulas.
If St. Stan's is the ship that keeps the community afloat, Father Willy is its beloved captain. In nearly a decade at the parish helm, Gulas has overseen a $1.5 million renovation of the church, a surge in parish membership, and the creation of a corporation to buy dilapidated property and rehab the neighborhood.
A native of Hazleton, Pa., Gulas had also served as the leader of the Franciscan chapter in Wisconsin - called the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Province - that staffs parishes, missions, and schools in seven states. That included Philadelphia's largest Catholic high school at the time, Archbishop Ryan.
Mosinski, 37, is tight with Gulas. Just the night before, she went with him to a holiday gala downtown. Their outing ended after midnight with Gulas laughing as they dropped him off at the rectory gates. Mosinski and the others watched the white-haired priest climb the steps into the brick building.
Now, black smoke pours from its windows - and no one knows where Gulas is. Not even Brother Dan, who escaped the flames.
If Father Willy is the captain at St. Stan's, Montgomery is a mere deckhand, and not a skillful one at that. He arrived five months earlier, after almost five years with the Franciscans. Friars in the order take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and are known as much for their devotion to the poor and downtrodden as for their brown robes and sandals.
Montgomery isn't from Cleveland and doesn't speak Polish. Some parishioners find him painfully awkward or aloof. His motormouth has so exasperated his superiors that they once sent him to a speech therapist, hoping he could be taught to slow down.
Nothing worked, at least in Cleveland. Brother Dan, 37, knows that parishioners and school officials complain about his quirky behavior, his social ineptitude.
"My time as a Franciscan may be numbered," he had scrawled in his journal late one night. "Check out Temple, Widener law schools."
That was a month ago. Then came the news he feared but had expected: The order was transferring him to a retirement villa in rural Indiana to care for older friars. He sensed it was something more - the first step toward his dismissal.
In the days since, Brother Dan had largely stayed to himself, holing up in his second-floor bedroom. That was where he was when the blaze broke out, he tells firefighters.
A ringing phone woke him. He answered it, went downstairs, noticed the flames, tried to extinguish them, then called 911. He tells them he thought he was alone in the building.
Watching the smoke pour from the rectory, Mosinski has a bad feeling. Gulas isn't answering his cellphone. She thinks of that damn toaster oven, the one Father Willy could never get to work right.
Then a buzz goes through the crowd. About a body.
Firefighters find Gulas' charred corpse splayed near the doorway of his first-floor office. The smoke is so thick, they nearly trip over it. One firefighter, Justina Saxby, sees what looks to be blood on Gulas' face and notices that the priest is shirtless.
When the flames are extinguished, rescue personnel wheel the body out to a waiting ambulance. Mosinski and others huddle to pray over Gulas as Brother Dan leads them in the Our Father.
Later that night, Cleveland Police Officer Bonnie Simmerly sits in her patrol car outside the church. A teenage girl approaches.
She is crying.
"I think Brother Daniel did it," the girl tells the officer.
Why? Simmerly asks.
"Brother Daniel got caught hurting a girl," the teen replies, "and he was supposed to get fired."
The next day, arson investigators wait for Montgomery after the 11:30 a.m. Mass and ask him to come downtown. They say they have questions about the fire.
GROVE CITY, OHIO DECEMBER 2009
The store at the Marathon Oil gas station on Broadway here is largely indistinguishable from most of its competitors. It boasts racks crammed with candy bars, nuts, beef jerky. The clerk and cash register are walled behind double-paned glass. The restroom key dangles from knotted rope.
But the station, 150 miles south of Cleveland, might give me something the others do not: information about who killed Gulas.
It's a bitterly cold night, seven years after the murder. Station owner Amer Alahmad stands in blue jeans and a red sweater, smoking a Marlboro Light. Alahmad, a Jordanian, and his relatives own three mini-markets in Ohio, including one in Cleveland called K&S, four blocks from St. Stanislaus.
Alahmad glances at a copy of Montgomery's confession, a two-page, typed statement that the friar signed in 2002. I had found it in a thin court file.
I was curious to find out if Alahmad knows what it says: that Montgomery bought the murder weapon at his store. Prosecutors listed Alahmad as a potential trial witness.
In the confession, Montgomery says he had never been to K&S market before, but heard it was the scene of "drug dealing and other illegal activities."
The day before the fire, it says, he walked to the store and asked the counter clerk, a medium-build black man about 30 years old, where he could get a weapon.
"The guy reached under the counter and pulled a gun out. He said, 'How 'bout this one?' " the confession states. It was a .38-caliber snub-nosed handgun, black with tan grips. And it was loaded. According to his statement, Montgomery paid the man $40 and left.
To me, the account sounds implausible.
Montgomery was a pacifist with no criminal record, history of violence, or ties to firearms. He lived under a vow of poverty, talked oddly, and typically wore his brown friar's robe and sandals - in other words, he was a memorable character.
Wouldn't the weapon purchase have been easy to verify? And wouldn't prosecutors have pounced on the chance to charge whoever had sold the gun used to kill a popular priest?
They didn't. In fact, they never found the weapon - or mentioned where Montgomery had gotten it.
Alahmad says the confession is flawed. He says that he didn't sell weapons. And that he had banned his employees from arming themselves after his uncle was shot trying to foil a store robbery.
Besides, he says, Montgomery's description of the cashier doesn't make sense. On the afternoon before Gulas' murder, a young girl, not a middle-age man, was working the counter, he says.
Like all his employees, she was white. "I just hire white people there at that time," Alahmad tells me.
He says he told the police the same thing.
I ask him if he has any thoughts on how an introverted white friar living on $200 a month might have scored a gun in that neighborhood.
Alahmad is not sure. He says he recently paid $600 for a gun, and that was a legal purchase. It's hard to imagine an illegal one being cheaper.
Then again, he says, maybe Montgomery stole it from someone he knew, or pilfered it from a car, or found it. If you believe Alahmad, most Americans carry a gun. And the ones who snap always seem able to get one.
"I know stories weird like this," Alahmad says in slightly mangled English. He tells me about a man in his homeland who had been molested as a child by a teacher but kept it secret. "And the guy, he doesn't say nothing," Alahmad says. "When he was 27 years old, he went and shot the teacher."
Maybe he's right, I think. Montgomery snapped.
But why confess to a murder and fire, then lie about where you got the gun? And would someone who "snaps" and buys a gun wait almost a full day to use it?
Alahmad shares another detail before we part. He motions to a cramped room to the left of the cashier's glass cage in his market.
On a table sits a video-monitoring system. Next to it is a week's worth of surveillance tapes from cameras strategically placed inside and outside his store.
Alahmad says it's the same setup he has at K&S market in Slavic Village. The same setup he showed police after Gulas' death. "They see I have the cameras, so I told them," Alahmad says.
He tells me he offered to let detectives review the tapes, which would prove Montgomery hadn't visited the store.
Alahmad can't remember if they did. But after investigators left his store, he says, no one called to ask him about the murder again.
A church worker's surprising discovery in the charred rectory
Scouring for evidence, detectives make a jailhouse visit.
The path to a plea deal ends the case, but not the questions.