PHOENIX » A homeless ex-convict beat a priest with a metal rod in his residence at a Phoenix church then wrestled away a handgun owned by the clergyman before fatally shooting the man’s assistant, police said Monday as they announced an arrest in the case.
The attack occurred after the Rev. Joseph Terra opened the kitchen door of the Mother of Mercy Mission rectory to investigate noises in a courtyard on Wednesday night, police said.
Badly injured, Terra made it to his bedroom and retrieved his .357-caliber gun but was unable to fire before the attacker grabbed it, forced the priest to his knees and demanded money, according to court records.
Terra soon blacked out. When he regained consciousness, the Rev. Kenneth Walker had been shot. He died later that night. Terra, who was able to give Walker last rites after the assault, remained hospitalized on Monday.
Suspect Gary Michael Moran, 54, an ex-convict with a history of violence and drug abuse, was arrested Sunday night on suspicion of first-degree murder, burglary, and armed robbery, among other charges.
Moran stole a camera from the priests and fled in Walker’s car, which was found abandoned a few blocks away from the church, authorities said.
Police Chief Daniel Garcia called the attack "a vicious, tragic, horrifying offense" committed by a criminal who was just released from prison in April.
Moran had served about eight years on charges that included aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.
In that case, police said, Moran broke into a Phoenix apartment and stabbed a resident in the abdomen with a steak knife. They said Moran didn’t know the victim or recall the crime and cited a history of drug abuse.
Moran also was sentenced to more than four years in prison after pleading guilty in 2001 to misconduct involving weapons. He was convicted in two 1989 burglaries, as well.
During his recent stint in prison, Moran was found guilty of more than a dozen infractions, including four for drug manufacturing and possession, Corrections Department records show.
"He is a career criminal, a violent felony offender," Garcia said.
During the investigation, Terra was only able to provide a limited description of the suspect, but detectives said they were later able to link Moran to the crime scene through DNA.
Witnesses also helped authorities identify Moran.
On Sunday, a man came to the police station to report that he had heard Moran "was bragging about beating a priest and robbing him," according to court records.
A day later, a woman told police Moran had given her a black bag that contained the priest’s camera.
Police said Moran acknowledged his involvement in the crime.
According to court records, Moran first told investigators during his interrogation that he didn’t remember what happened.
He later said he was attacked and that "there was a struggle in the hallway with the gun with one of the priests, and the other priest then came after him and he then shot that priest," the records state.
Moran’s public defender didn’t respond to a request for comment on Monday, and jail officials said his attorney was declining all interview requests on Moran’s behalf.
The news of his arrest came just as a Mass was to be held for Walker at another church in Phoenix.
"We’re relieved that he’s not out there doing it again and we hope some good comes out of it for him," Walker’s stepsister, Sasha Keys, said, adding that nearly $42,000 in donations had poured in from around the country.
"I’m still getting letters in the mail with checks," she said.
Police confirmed that Terra’s gun was used to shoot Walker.
Phoenix Bishop Thomas Olmsted said over the weekend that the question of gun ownership among priests has not been a topic of discussion and isn’t prohibited by the church.
"There are some priests that go hunting for javelina, and for deer and for elk," Olmsted said. "So there would be some (gun owners), but it’s not a question that I generally ask priests."
Terra was moved out of a hospital intensive care unit Saturday and is expected to make a full recovery.
Walker was born in upstate New York, had 10 siblings and was drawn to the priesthood after attending traditional Latin Mass with his family in high school. He later joined the seminary, made good grades and enjoyed playing soccer, said the Rev. Joseph Lee, academic dean at the Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary in Nebraska.
Walker eventually joined a Catholic order that specializes in Latin Mass and became a priest in downtown Phoenix. He recently officiated a younger sibling’s wedding in Kansas — the last time he saw many of his relatives.
Associated Press writers Jacques Billeaud and Emaun Kashfi contributed to this report.