updated 10/3/2005 6:14:26 PM ET 2005-10-03T22:14:26

A judge ruled Monday that a Roman Catholic priest who hanged himself in December almost certainly killed two people at a funeral home more than three years ago.

Circuit Judge Eric Lundell’s finding came in the case of the Rev. Ryan Erickson, who committed suicide after being questioned by police about the 2002 slayings.

“I conclude that Ryan Erickson probably committed the crimes in question,” Lundell said at the end of a daylong hearing. “On a scale of one to 10, I would consider it a 10. It is a very strong case of circumstantial evidence.”

The testimony also established a possible motive for the slayings: The funeral director suspected the priest was molesting children and planned to confront him the day of the killings.

At the hearing, a deacon testified that Erickson confided that he shot to death funeral home director Dan O’Connell, 39, and employee James Ellison, 22.

“He tells me that ‘I done it and they were going to catch me,”’ Deacon Russell Lundgren testified.

Victims’ families requested hearing
Although Erickson cannot be charged, the victims’ families requested the hearing to determine who was responsible for the killings.

The so-called John Doe hearing is used in only a few states, typically as an investigative tool. The hearing was closed to the public, but some reporters were allowed to attend.

The day the funeral director was killed, he asked school bus driver Mary Pagel if she had ever seen the priest touch a child inappropriately and said he had a meeting with Erickson that afternoon, Pagel testified.

Pagel said she warned O’Connell not to meet the priest alone. She said she urged him to talk to police first. “Dan told me, ‘I can handle it,”’ Pagel said.

Police believe O’Connell was shot once in the head, and Ellison was killed when he came into the office to see what had happened.

Erickson, 31, was found hanged Dec. 19 from a fire escape at St. Mary’s Church in Hurley several days after he was questioned by police and denied any involvement in the killings.

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