In Wisconsin, Threats, 2 Dead Undertakers, and Plenty of Questions

New York Times/February 15, 2002
By John W. Fountain

Hudson, Wis.-- When an undertaker and his young apprentice were found shot dead in a funeral home here on a sunny afternoon last week, this town became intrigued over the inevitable question of who was responsible for the killings, the first in Hudson in 24 years.

The police say they are following at least 10 leads in the Feb. 5 crime. But perhaps the most intriguing came the day after the killings, when the head of the state funeral home association told the authorities that an obscure Christian anti-embalming group had been sending threatening letters to funeral homes, including the one in Hudson, since early last year.

"Thus saith the Lord, because you have heard not the words of the Lord, I take from you your sons and daughters into early graves," read the notes, according to records in Eau Claire County Circuit Court. "And prepare for burial yourself. Amen."

The letters came from a group based in nearby Augusta called the Rest of Jesus Ministry. The group, which believes embalming desecrates the body, denies any connection to the killings. But the questions surrounding the organization have left local residents more perplexed.

"It really is just a tragedy, a bizarre tragedy that has made people feel a little uncomfortable," said Gretchen Murphy, 28, a Hudson resident.

The killings were discovered at 1:40 p.m., when the St. Croix County coroner stopped by to sign a death certificate at the O'Connell Family Funeral Home, which is in a quiet residential neighborhood. There, the Hudson police said, the coroner found the bodies of the undertaker, Daniel O'Connell, 39, who ran the longtime family business, and James Ellison, a 22-year-old intern, in an office. Shell casings littered the floor, there were no signs of forced entry, nothing appeared to have been taken and there was no apparent motive, Sgt. Marty Jensen said.

For Hudson, a town of 10,000 where summers along the St. Croix River flow with the sounds of jazz, the case, is "huge," Sergeant Jensen said. The Police Department has sought the help of outside law enforcement agencies, including the state's Department of Crime Investigation.

On Tuesday, the police set up a roadblock in front of the funeral home, stopping more than 300 drivers to ask if anyone had noticed anything suspicious in the area last week.

The police and court records provide a sketchy portrait of the religious group under investigation by several Wisconsin police departments because of the letters sent to funeral homes. Its leader, Kathryn J. Padilla, 55, who is said to teach from the Bible at weekly gatherings at her home in Lincoln, Wis., also speaks in tongues and is believed by her followers to be a prophet.

On Tuesday, the authorities in Eau Claire County charged Mrs. Padilla with disorderly conduct and stalking in connection with the letters. The police carried out a search warrant of Mrs. Padilla's home on Feb. 8, seizing receipts, photographs and documents, including a letter titled "Prepare for War," court records show.

Sergeant Jensen is quick to point out that the religious group is just "one of the top five" leads investigators are pursuing. At first, the police suspected that the two men were killed by someone seeking formaldehyde, which can be used to lace marijuana. But none was stolen.

Mrs. Padilla declined to comment, referring calls to her lawyer, Thomas Bilski.

In a telephone interview, Mr. Bilski said the Rest of Jesus Ministry was founded three years ago by Mrs. Padilla and three other people, and has 15 adult members and 10 children.

Although he admitted that members had delivered the recent letters to two Eau Claire County funeral homes and that the group had sent letters to others over the past year, he described it as an exercise of religious freedom.

"They're just a Christian religious group," Mr. Bilski said. "They're not fanatical or anything like that. She's been arrested for essentially distributing a letter with her religious beliefs in it."

A copy of one of the letters sent last year, bearing the heading, "My people who deal with the corpses," was filed this week in court.

"Respect for the body," it said, "comes by wrapping it in white linen and laying it in a place prepared - pickling of the body, by the draining of the blood, by the draining of its leftover blood is an abomination to Me and this practice Must Cease! Failure to comply to cease from the pickling of the body and the adoration of the dead, will bring a judgement of much death upon this land."

Asked why the congregation kept delivering the letters after news of the killings, Mr. Bilski said: "Kathryn doesn't have radio or a TV. She didn't know about the murders."

The Wisconsin Funeral Home Association has urged its members to be vigilant. In Hudson, though, many just feel stunned.

Daniel O'Connell, who lived with his wife and two children, ages 8 and 11, was a youth softball coach, a member of the Rotary Club and the Chamber of Commerce, and an ambulance worker. Mr. Ellison, who had worked at the business for more than a year as an intern, was scheduled to start full-time after graduation this spring from the University of Minnesota.

Mr. Ellison was a "hard worker" and just the "nicest Christian boy," said Tom O'Connell, 74, the undertaker's father, who started the business.

As Mr. O'Connell sat at a restaurant this morning, people stopped to offer condolences.

"I don't know of anybody who had a type of grudge, nothing," he said tearfully. "I've been searching my mind and searching, but there's absolutely nothing, just nothing."

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