Funeral arrangements have been announced for Fr Stephen Gutgsell, a Nebraska priest killed on Sunday, December 11, during an apparent home invasion in Fort Calhoun.
An African-American suspect from Sioux City, Iowa, 43-year-old Kierre L. Williams, was arrested at the scene and has been charged with first-degree murder, burglary, possession of a weapon as a felon, and use of a weapon to commit a felony. He was arraigned in court on Thursday morning and is being held without bond.
The Archdiocese of Omaha has released a statement calling the killing a “tragedy.”
“We continue to pray that the Lord of mercy and love will welcome Father Gutgsell into his Heavenly kingdom,” said Archbishop George J. Lucas.
“May Our Blessed Mother intercede for us all as we grieve his death.”
Police were called over the weekend to the rectory of St. John the Baptist Catholic Church by Gutsgell, 65, who reportedly told police a break-in was taking place. He was later found stabbed and was rushed to a nearby hospital, where he succumbed to his injuries.
According to the Associated Press, Williams was already facing an active misdemeanor assault charge stemming from a violent incident at a soup kitchen in Sioux City, where he was believed to be homeless. It is not immediately clear what caused him to target St. John’s and/or Gutgsell.
The priest previously faced criminal charges of embezzlement at a parish assignment, the former St. Patrick Catholic Church in South Omaha. He was sentenced to probation in 2007 and returned to ministry the same year.
His brother, Fr Michael Gutgsell, also of the Omaha Archdiocese, pled guilty to similar charges this summer after stealing funds from a fellow priest as well as parishioners, later giving $700,000 to a homeless man.
Local authorities in Washington County say there is no known connection between Stephen Gutgsell and his alleged killer, who has a criminal record in multiple states.
“There’s still an ongoing investigation. We’ve got some search warrants out and some other things we’re still looking at, but as far as the information we have now, there is zero connection in regards to Mr. Williams and Fr [Stephen] Gutgsell,” said County Attorney Scott Vander Schaaf during a press conference Thursday morning.
“Also to the state of Nebraska, for that matter. We can’t find a connection.”
Vander Schaaf says Washington County judge Edward H. Matney has set a preliminary hearing for Williams on Wednesday, January 3. No motive has been determined, but investigators hope to release more information soon.
If convicted, Williams could face the death penalty on his first-degree murder charge. Only one person has been executed in the state of Nebraska since 1997.
Guttgsell’s murder is the second in the past four months in the mostly sleepy city of Fort Calhoun, which has only slightly more than a thousand residents and very little violent crime. The priest is at least the fourth in the U.S. Catholic Church to have faced a physical attack this year, including separate incidents over the summer involving a Nigerian priest in Louisiana and an elderly Washington priest.
Auxiliary Bishop David G. O'Connell of Los Angeles, another priest lost this year, was shot and killed by his housekeeper’s husband in February.
In Omaha, Gutgsell will be remembered this weekend at his parish, St. John’s, with a visitation on Sunday, December 17, at 4pm CT, followed by a vigil and Rosary at 7pm. A Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated at 11:15am on Monday, December 18, at St. Cecilia Cathedral. Interment will follow at Calvary Cemetery.
Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger.