Detectives hope trail won’t go cold in priest’s murder probe

As it enters its third decade, the investigation into the murder of Fr. Alfred Kunz is taking on a new urgency, police say.

(Left) Fr. Alfred Kunz in the rectory at St. Michael Catholic Church (photo courtesy of Mark Nelson); (right) the final resting place of Fr. Kunz at St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery in Fennimore, Wis. (CWR photo by Joseph Hanneman).

PART THREE [Read PART ONE and PART TWO]

Though the murder of Father Alfred J. Kunz is unsolved, it is not for want of effort by police. Virtually every resident of the village of Dane, Wisconsin, was interviewed at least once by investigators. Tips sheets were handed out; public informational meetings were held. Analysts from the FBI and other agencies developed profiles of the killer; two Canadian forensic psychiatrists were consulted. More than 2,500 field interviews were conducted locally, regionally, and in Canada.

Physical evidence collected at the scene was tested—and later re-tested—for DNA, fingerprints, and trace materials. Thousands of pages of reports were shared with the Mid-States Organized Crime Information Center in Springfield, Missouri, in hopes more investigative eyes might help the case. The cemetery where Kunz is buried was put under surveillance on the 20th anniversary of the crime. Undercover investigators also attended a Solemn Requiem Mass held for Kunz in March 2018 at St. Mary of Pine Bluff Catholic Church near Madison.

Kunz’s lifeless body was found in a hallway of St. Michael School on March 4, 1998. His throat had been cut. His hands showed injuries that told police Kunz waged a fierce battle with his killer before he was knocked to his knees by a blow from a weapon. Evidence developed over the past year has expanded the list of persons of interest in the case. Police are exploring the possibility the killer himself has died. This has led to new urgency in the case, as detectives hope people who know of the killer will come forward and tell what they know.

To test various theories of how the killing was carried out, the sheriff’s office built a duplicate of the St. Michael School hallway where the attack occurred.

“We built the scene so [the crime] could be reconstructed in an attempt to try to determine how this incident occurred,” Dane County Sheriff David J. Mahoney said. Detectives tested “motion of the body and how the body would have fallen as a result. Was it a right hand or a left hand? These are all things we tried to put together in a reconstruction.”

The most controversial part of the investigation came in March 2000 when then-Sheriff Gary H. Hamblin announced that Father Kunz had “intimate” relationships with women. Police have never identified the alleged paramours, or defined what they meant by the term “intimate.” Hamblin suggested reporters refer to Webster’s dictionary, which includes definitions ranging from “a very close relationship” to “involving sex or sexual relations.” Investigators said jealousy, anger, infidelity, or betrayal could be a motive for the murder.

The allegation infuriated Kunz’s supporters. One parishioner said it was like the priest being killed a second time, with no chance to defend himself. A priest who lived in the St. Michael rectory in 1997 and 1998 while recovering from surgery called the allegations “absolute rubbish.” Mahoney said no one wants to harm Kunz’s reputation, but these kinds of “difficult interview conversations” are a necessary part of solving the case. Investigators corroborated statements from women, at least one of whom was married, stating they had intimate relationships with the priest.

“We would not release allegations that could not be corroborated,” Mahoney said. “When we talk about Father Kunz having been involved in intimate relationships, it’s because those statements have been corroborated. And I don’t mean somebody said somebody engaged in that kind of behavior. Somebody admitted to being involved in those relationships.”

Investigators seized kitchen knives, a baseball bat, tools, and photographs of Kunz from one female parishioner’s residence. The woman vehemently refuted any notion that Kunz was dating or seducing women. “The detectives say, ‘Oh, he was a ladies’ man.’ Well, what does that mean?” the woman told a Milwaukee newspaper. “He opened doors for women. He took women to restaurants. He put his arm out to support women. It was all innocent, his behavior. He was a gentleman.”

Two former St. Michael teachers who don’t believe Kunz had romantic affairs said the priest dealt with gossip and calumny in the rural community. “He was very often berated, ridiculed, and lied about by the local community,” one of the teachers recalled. “This particular day he came into my classroom, he had fire in his eyes. He spoke to (students) about lying. ‘It is never alright to lie—ever.’ The way he spoke that day made my hair stand on end.”

If Kunz strayed from his vows, it was in opposition to his own pronouncements. “The Church says if you want to be a priest, you must also live a celibate life. The priesthood is a privilege, not a right,” Kunz said in 1987. “Jesus said, ‘you didn’t choose me, I chose you.’ The choice that people make after having made that commitment to God is a personal choice. I took a vow of celibacy for life. I feel like I would be untrue to my commitment to Jesus if I would back down on that, just as people in marriage make a commitment to each other. Unless I have an intense union with the Lord in prayer, I could very easily lose my way. We are all open to human weakness.”

Some clarity has been achieved during the long investigation. Investigators determined that the phone call Kunz received March 3, shortly before he was killed, was not related to the homicide, Mahoney said. A call Kunz received days before the murder from a Pennsylvania priest accused of molesting teenage boys was not related the murder, Mahoney said. The Rev. Anthony J. Cipolla told journalist Randy Engel that he called Kunz two days before the murder to seek canon law help. Kunz apparently agreed to advise Cipolla as Cipolla sought to compel the Diocese of Pittsburgh to reinstate his financial support. Cipolla is one of 300 priests from six Pennsylvania dioceses credibly accused of sexually abusing children, according to a grand jury report released August 14, 2018.

Cipolla was accused of sexually assaulting two young brothers in the late 1970s, and repeatedly molesting an altar boy over a span of years in the 1980s. Engel, author of the 2006 book The Rite of Sodomy, chronicled the Cipolla case in a three-part online series in 2016. She was surprised to learn Kunz agreed to help Cipolla; she said Father Kunz might not have known the full details of the accusations against Cipolla. In 2002, acting on the request of the then-bishop of Pittsburgh, Donald Wuerl, Pope St. John Paul II laicized Cipolla, who always denied he committed sexual abuse. Cipolla died in an automobile accident in 2016.

Cipolla wasn’t the only accused priest in contact with Kunz in the years before his death. Father Chester J. Przybylo of Chicago came to live at St. Michael in 1994 in order to learn the Latin Mass from Father Kunz. Przybylo was later accused in civil court of sexually molesting a boy over a five-year period in the late 1980s and early 1990s while assigned to Five Holy Martyrs parish in Chicago. The boy was 13 when the abuse began, according to Illinois court records. A lawsuit filed by the victim in 2006 resulted in a nearly $1.4 million settlement with the Archdiocese of Chicago. Przybylo was never criminally charged. He denies the allegations. A court threw out the victim’s civil suit against Przybylo based on the statute of limitations. The priest sued the victim and his attorneys for slander and libel, but that lawsuit was dismissed in 2012. Przybylo appealed, but the appeal was denied in 2013, according to Cook County court records. It’s unknown if Kunz was aware of the accusations against Przybylo. Dane County detectives interviewed Przybylo as part of the homicide investigation, Mahoney said.

Police are still looking at Joseph D. Cavanaugh, a man with a violent past who was allegedly in the Dane area at the time of the murder and later made statements that he “roughed up” Kunz when the priest refused to give him money. Cavanaugh hanged himself in the La Crosse County jail in August 2002 after being arrested for allegedly kidnapping, sexually assaulting, and robbing his former girlfriend.

Confusion over Father Kunz’s will

Even Kunz’s last will and testament was touched by the pederasty scandals rocking the Catholic Church. One of the co-executors of Kunz’s original May 1980 will was Father Michael L. Gibbney of Alsip, Illinois. Gibbney was accused of sexually abusing nearly a dozen boys during his 17 years of priestly ministry, according to Illinois court records. After the first allegations went public in late 1991, Gibbney went to New Mexico for treatment at a church-run center for sex abusers. He never returned to ministry. In 2010, he asked to be laicized so he could marry a woman. Pope Benedict XVI granted the request in April 2011. Gibbney was one of five priests who were the subject of a $4.1 million settlement between the Joliet diocese and 14 sexual-abuse victims in 2015.

On November 17, 1997, Father Kunz signed a handwritten codicil to his will removing Gibbney and a Madison nun as his co-executors, and replacing them with St. Michael School Principal Maureen (O’Leary) Schultheis and Father Greg Galvin, a former St. Michael teacher. The codicil was provided to the Dane County probate court by homicide detectives, who found it among Kunz’s personal effects. In September 1998, Schultheis filed a probate court motion objecting to the original executors of Kunz’s will, citing the wishes expressed in the 1997 codicil. Schultheis was then recognized by the court as Kunz’s legal personal representative. The nearly $14,900 net proceeds of Kunz’s will went to Schultheis, court records show. The original terms of Kunz’s will left it to his executor to decide who should receive whatever assets he left behind, according to documents filed in Dane County Circuit Court. The estate was closed in November 1999.

Schultheis said Father Kunz never explained his decision to draft the 1997 codicil. If he was aware of Gibbney’s troubles in Illinois, she said, he didn’t mention them. She said the cash found by detectives among Kunz’s things was given to the church.

Questions were raised if Kunz’s 1997 codicil was properly witnessed. Three teachers at St. Michael School signed the codicil as witnesses, but they didn’t actually see Kunz sign the document, according probate court files. “According to the detective, the witnesses to purported codicil stated that they did not sign the document in Fr. Kunz’s presence or in presence of each other,” read a handwritten note with Dane County Sheriff’s Investigator Merle Ziegler’s business card stapled to it. The note was dated April 28, 1998. The witness signatures on the codicil were not dated or notarized. “M.O. (Maureen O’Leary Schultheis) has been trying to get possession of the original from police and reportedly trying to get witnesses to ‘re-sign’ the codicil,” the note read.

One of the witnesses said Father Kunz handed her the codicil document and asked her to sign it. “I signed my name to it, having no idea how that kind of thing is supposed to be done,” said the witness, who asked not to be named. “He said, ‘thank you,’ folded it up and walked away.” The teacher said after the murder, Schultheis asked the witnesses to again sign their names to a sheet of paper. “She wanted to trace our names so that she could say that our signatures were witnessed.” Schultheis said she has no recollection of asking witnesses to re-sign anything.


“You see, Tim, God always hears our prayers.” Jack Duff was dying from lung cancer. A Korean War veteran, Duff came home from the service and shortly after became disabled from radiation exposure during the war. After marrying and becoming a father of six, Jack was diagnosed with cancer. His devout Catholic wife, Mildred, sought help from the late Father Alfred Kunz, praying for the conversion of her Southern Baptist husband. Mildred met Father Kunz years earlier when her son Tim was living and working at St. Michael Catholic Church. Years after Father Kunz’s murder, Mildred sought his intercession each night as she prayed the Rosary and the Divine Office. Father Al’s picture was a bookmark in Mildred’s breviary. The prayers were constant during Jack’s two-and-a-half years of illness. Jack was baptized into the Catholic Church under the name Benedict Joseph Duff. He and Mildred witnessed their vows in the Church after 50 years of marriage. Mildred told her son that her prayers were answered. “She kept Father Kunz’s picture and prayed to him every night,” Tim recalls, “and now I believe my dad is in heaven as a direct result of this holy man.”


“Man’s days are like those of grass; like a flower of the field he blooms; the wind sweeps over him and he is gone, and his place knows him no more.”

—Psalm 103:15, from the St. Michael church bulletin, Feb. 22, 1998


“Life is a puff of smoke”

Did Father Kunz know he was about to die? Some friends and parishioners wonder. One of the last St. Michael parish bulletins published before he was killed had a number of references to the brevity of life on earth. Kunz made that a focus of his Lenten reflections on Feb 22, 1998. The ashes that mark the heads of the faithful on Ash Wednesday, Kunz wrote, “are to remind them how flimsy and fleeting are the trinkets of time. How unstable and how short is our earth’s existence.” He emphasized the point in capital letters: “NO MATTER WHO IT IS, whether of high estate or low, his stay in the world is short. Time vanishes. Life is a puff of smoke. We are gone! Eternity remains!”

A 16-year-old Alfred Kunz repairs wooden steps as part of his 4-H club’s safety campaign in 1947. (Wisconsin State Journal)

In his waning moments of life, we don’t know if Father Kunz was able to reflect on the impact of his life and priesthood. Might he have recalled a 16-year-old Alfred, hammer in hand, fixing wooden steps as part of a 4-H club safety project? “No one will be injured here if Alfred can help it,” read the caption under his photo in the newspaper. He might have remembered a brush with death in April 1965, when a tornado came so close to his car on a road near Monroe it spun the vehicle around.

Perhaps he recalled standing in front of St. Michael School in April 1974 while his beloved church building smoldered in ruins behind him; or watching Bill Cleary and Stan Ptak carry away sacred statues rescued from the fire. He looked so small in the face of such devastation, yet it was he who prevailed and built a new church. Maybe he remembered hunting trips to the town of Siren in Wisconsin’s Burnett County with Galvin, when he taught the “pure rookie” how to shoot. He also taught Galvin more enduring lessons. His onetime St. Michael teacher became a priest and director of vocations for the Diocese of Norwich, Connecticut.

Maybe Father Kunz remembered taking Mark Nelson and other altar boys on a Christmas tree harvesting trip each December. Or his humorous thanks to his altar boys for not tripping him in the sanctuary. He could have recalled the breakfasts he spent with his teachers at the O’Malley Farm Cafe in nearby Waunakee (one egg, over easy with dry wheat toast). He always ordered a small bowl of stuffing for Julie Howard because he knew how much she liked stuffing. Maybe he recalled the countless funerals, baptisms, and weddings at which he officiated. Or the hundreds of hours spent mowing the cemetery grass. Or sitting up late each night on the telephone, counseling grieved parishioners or offering canon-law advice to other priests and bishops.

Father Kunz’s time on Earth was marked by a “willingness to pour his life’s energy into serving the Church,” Father Galvin said. While the community still struggles to make sense of the murder 20 years later, Kunz left behind words of comfort and counsel.

On the “Our Catholic Family” radio program he said: “So very frequently, people in a time of crisis or in a time of suffering will say, ‘Why does this have to happen? Why does God permit this?’ Suffering only has a meaning in relationship to the cross of Christ. So when we speak and pray for the gift of knowledge, (pray) that we understand how to put our lives in union with the cross of Christ—so we don’t become victims of despair.”

 

(Matt C. Abbott contributed to this report. Anyone with information on Father Kunz’s murder should contact the Dane County Sheriff’s Office, (608) 284-6900 or tips@danesheriff.com)

About Joseph M. Hanneman 9 Articles
Joseph M. Hanneman writes from Madison, Wisconsin.

5 Comments

  1. Thank you so very much for writing this excellent series on Fr. Kunz, and a grateful thank you to the individuals and families who helped by sharing pictures and fond memories of Father Kunz. Father was a very good man and an extraordinary priest. Including Father’s timeless quotes in the articles will enable many more who did not know him personally to be guided by his teachings and example.

  2. Thanks for this 3 part series.
    From what appears to be someone with personal knowlegde: In Spirit Daily’s published ‘unedited Mail’, there is an unnamed commenter who backs up his belief that Father Kunz’ murder was ‘related to his investigation of abuse scandals in the diocese.’ He quotes extensively from (the late) Father David Prezedwiecki, OFMI who went to Rome and handed to ‘Fr. Stanisław Dziwisz, personal secretary and very close friend of Pope John Paul II’ . . . ‘a comprehensive set of dossiers on a variety of Cardinals, Bishops and priests including clerics that directed/ supervised seminaries. His investigation tangentially extended into the lay community of public officials that collaborated and supported these decrepit clerics, even defending them from public scrutiny.’ ‘Within weeks of Fr. Przedwiecki’s return, Fr. Alfred Kunz was murdered in a hallway of his Church . . .'”Fr. Przedwiecki became a “suspect” and treated as such. And to this day, there is no resolution to this hideous murder.”
    With all the recent news of the abuse scandals into the highest levels of the Church it would seem that Father Kunz knew too much and was as Father Hardon, SJ stated ‘martyred for the Faith.’

    • I saw that published email. I’ve followed (and written about) the case long enough to say that the information contained in that email is highly suspect.

      • I thought it rather unusual, odd, in fact, since none of the information presented in the ‘unedited mail’ comment was even mentioned in any of the three part CWR piece. Thanks for your clarification.

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