Who Killed Father Ryan?

A 1981 Odessa murder haunts crime researchers, the Catholic Church, and an ex-con determined to prove his innocence

James Harry Reyos
James Harry Reyos (Photo By Jana Birchum)

On Dec. 4, 1982, a deeply suntanned man, about 40 years old, walked into the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Boise, Idaho, and readied himself for confession. He never got a chance to recount his sins to the priest. As he waited – perhaps not realizing it would be several minutes before the confessional was available, or perhaps despairing of the condition of his soul – the man swallowed a cyanide capsule. A few minutes later, he was dead.

When police came to investigate, they found that the man had no identification. A note in his pocket said only that the $1,900 he carried should be used for his burial, with any remainder donated to the church. The note was signed with what turned out to be a false name. To this day, no one has been able to identify the man, nor to determine why he had come to the church to absolve himself of his sins.

On the answers to that mystery may hang the fate of a small, quiet, meticulous man who now lives in South Austin, and who spent 20 years in a Texas prison for a murder he says he did not commit, but which investigators believe may be connected to the dead man at the Boise Sacred Heart Catholic Church.

Last year, James Harry Reyos moved into a small room just east of I-35, at a transitional living facility owned by the state's corrections department. Although he is free of prison bars, his movements and activities remain restricted. His whereabouts are determined by a weekly schedule, strictly accounted for and subject to the approval of his parole officer. It is a rigid life, but one that seems to mesh fairly well with Reyos' personality. Indeed, his personal wall calendar – given to him by aides to El Paso Democratic state Rep. Paul Moreno, who has taken an interest in his case – reflects the same attention to detail, cataloging his meetings with state representatives, reporters, and others who call or come to visit.

Reyos spends his days looking for work, attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and keeping appointments with his parole officer. At night and on weekends he is not allowed to leave his small room – not even into the courtyard that runs the interior length of the building. If he were to try, the electronic monitor strapped to his ankle would set off an alarm. But Reyos doesn't try; he is not a rule-breaker – nor, despite his prison record, has he ever been.

It is hard to find anyone who now believes that Reyos murdered Father Patrick "Paddy" Ryan in an Odessa motel on Dec. 21, 1981 – although he was duly convicted of the crime. Everyone familiar with the details of the case agrees that it would have been physically impossible for Reyos to have murdered Ryan, primarily because Reyos could prove, through a series of time-stamped receipts as well as a traffic citation issued by a New Mexico state trooper, that he was approximately 200 miles away from Odessa at the time of the murder.

But in 1983, an Ector Co. jury found Reyos guilty of murder and sentenced him to 38 years in prison. During the 20 years that Reyos lived behind bars in a maximum-security prison in Tennessee Colony, the Jicarilla Apache Indian from Northern New Mexico steadfastly maintained his innocence. And since finally being paroled in 2003 – first to El Paso, then in January 2004 to the transitional living facility in Austin – Reyos, now 49, has earnestly sought to clear his name. Along the way he has earned strong support of a wide range of people – including a former Ector Co. prosecutor, a former bishop of the Amarillo Catholic Diocese (once Father Ryan's superior), a retired police detective, and a recently deceased investigative reporter from The Dallas Morning News, Howard Swindle, who spent years looking for Ryan's real killer.

Reyos' current goal is that the Board of Pardons and Paroles and Gov. Rick Perry grant him a "pardon for innocence," which would expunge his record, restore his civil rights, and finally declare that he was not responsible for the brutal beating death of Father Ryan. After nearly 24 years, with the latest addition to his team of supporters – Lubbock criminal attorney Jeff Blackburn – Reyos may at last be on a road that could eventually lead to a pardon.

His request is no simple matter, in part because, nearly 11 months after the murder, he voluntarily confessed – a confession recanted within hours, but thus far upheld by the courts. Within a week of Ryan's murder, Odessa police had originally used Reyos' careful collection of documentary evidence to clear him as a suspect. But it took little more than Reyos' "sloppy" confession (as his attorney John Cliff describes it) to prompt prosecutors to try Reyos for the crime. Reyos had drunkenly told police that he'd beaten Ryan and sliced the priest with a razor inside Room 126 of the Sand and Sage Motel. Despite the lack of any physical evidence connecting Reyos to the murder, the brief and general confession was all that it took to seal his fate. Although false confessions are in fact quite common, even a nuisance to police, Cliff says the Odessa jurors chosen to determine Reyos' fate simply could not believe that a person would ever voluntarily confess to a serious crime he did not commit.

Reyos had done exactly that – and moreover, the reason he gave to explain why he'd done so only further alienated the jurors. According to Reyos, on Dec. 20, 1981, one day before the priest was murdered, he accepted an invitation to visit Ryan at his apartment in the rectory at St. Williams Church in Denver City, Texas, the tiny Panhandle town 94 miles Northwest of Odessa where both men lived, so that Ryan could look through a photo album of pictures from Reyos' childhood on the New Mexico Apache Indian reservation. At the apartment, Reyos said, the two began drinking beer and when that ran out, Ryan began mixing vodka drinks. Then suddenly, Reyos said, the priest grabbed him by the shirt collar and pushed Reyos to perform oral sex. Reyos complied.

Afterward, Reyos was shocked, ashamed, and frightened. "I didn't even grab my stuff" before hurrying out of the rectory, he recalled recently. "I was walking down the street thinking, 'That didn't happen; that couldn't happen with 'Father [Ryan].'" The next day, Reyos said he had a hangover, and in his hazy mind, the incident was surreal: "It was like a dream – but it did happen."

The incident was a turning point for Reyos. He was 25 years old, lonely, out of work, and ashamed of his sexuality. He'd known he was gay since childhood, but he'd never admitted it, in part because in the conservative Native American culture in which he was raised, homosexuality was a sin and a weakness. His discomfort with being gay – his "dystonic homosexuality," as a psychologist categorized it at trial – had already led to other problems, primarily alcoholism. Indeed, by the time Reyos met Father Ryan in Denver City in early December 1981, he'd already been arrested 30 times on alcohol-related charges – for being drunk in public or for drunk driving – and had lost a field job with Mobil Oil because of his addiction. (Despite his numerous arrests, Reyos had never been charged with any violent crime.)

Father Patrick Ryan
Father Patrick Ryan

Ryan's abrupt death sent Reyos into a tailspin. Less than 24 hours after their sexual encounter, Ryan was violently murdered in an Odessa motel room he'd checked into under an assumed name. "I feel a lot of guilt about that," Reyos told the Houston Chronicle. "I was still in the closet and in denial about myself ... and he was a priest."

The guilt ate at Reyos for the next few months. On Nov. 18, 1982, he was living in a room at the rundown Bow and Arrow Lodge in Albuquerque, N.M. After days of drinking and downing several Quaaludes, he stumbled outside to a pay phone and called police. "He said that he wanted to talk to the proper authorities," Albuquerque 911 dispatcher Dolly Woody testified at Reyos' trial. "And so I asked him what it was about, and he said, 'The killing of a Catholic priest in Odessa, Texas,' ... And I asked him ...'Who are you?' And he said, 'You are talking to the killer.'"

Police picked Reyos up at the Bow and Arrow and took him into custody; although the officers testified at trial that they only detected a slight odor of alcohol on Reyos, an Albuquerque public defender called to counsel Reyos that afternoon said that he was clearly intoxicated. He couldn't answer questions directly and instead kept repeating the same things over and over – notably, a protestation of innocence: "In the name of God, I didn't do this."

Nonetheless, Reyos' taped confession was entered into evidence at his trial and was the lynchpin to his conviction – one juror told the Odessa American that they convicted Reyos "based on his confession and characteristics" – presumably, that he was gay, perhaps also that he was an alcoholic and an Indian. The drunken and recanted confession was enough to override the obvious documentary evidence that exonerated him – including 10 receipts for various items, like gas and a new tire for his pickup truck, and even a copy of a speeding ticket he received near Roswell, N.M., all gathered during the time when the murder was committed. To Cliff, it was a combination of prejudice and incredulous indignation toward Reyos' allegation that his victim, Father Ryan, was gay that swayed the jurors. Cliff now thinks that perhaps he and his former law partner, John Smith (now the Ector Co. district attorney), miscalculated by trying to prove Reyos' innocence instead of simply raising the requisite doubt about the state's flimsy case. "We shouldn't have taken on that burden, to convince them of his innocence, but I don't know what else we could've done," he said. With Reyos' conviction, Cliff lost interest in criminal law; Reyos' case, he said, simply "soured my stomach."

Since then the courts have summarily dismissed Reyos' claims of innocence. Cliff handled Reyos' direct appeal, but failed to raise any real issues for El Paso's 8th Court of Appeals. The only issue he raised was whether the state's evidence – that is, Reyos' confession – was sufficient to support the guilty verdict. In November 1984, the court ruled that the confession was enough in that it provided the necessary evidence to support the legal principle of corpus delicti – specifically, the fact that Ryan was dead and that he'd been murdered was all that needed to be corroborated by the confession. However, the court noted, it could not rule on whether the confession itself was legally admissible evidence since Reyos' appeal did not raise that question. In 1994, Texas Civil Rights Project Director Jim Harrington filed Reyos' writ of habeas corpus with the Court of Criminal Appeals, again raising the issue of sufficiency, challenging the El Paso court's interpretation of the corpus delicti rule, and arguing that Texas law provides insufficient protection against wrongful convictions based on false confessions. That appeal was also denied – without a hearing and without a written ruling – by postcard. That was the end of Reyos' appeal to the courts for help, and it has left him with apparently one final option to clear his name: getting the Board of Pardons and Paroles to recommend, and Gov. Perry to grant, a pardon.

By law, the BPP is charged with making parole decisions and pardon recommendations to the governor. (Only the governor can grant a pardon, and can only do so if the board recommends it.) In order to consider a pardon for innocence, such as Reyos is seeking, the board must first receive a request for review from the governor, then it requires the petitioner to offer evidence of his innocence – meaning either a positive court ruling or order, or the affirmative support from at least two of the original trial officials (the prosecuting attorney, presiding judge, and the chief of the investigating law enforcement agency). Reyos filed a pardon request with former Gov. George W. Bush in late 2000, but it was ignored and forwarded to Perry in 2001; to date, Perry has not said whether he will ask the board to review the Reyos case. As it stands, even if Perry were to ask, the board would likely find that Reyos lacks the "evidence" they conventionally require to review a case.

The circular situation is a catch-22 for Reyos and his defenders. Although it might be possible, few think Reyos could get his case back in front of a court. And so far none of the trial officials in Ector Co. has responded to requests for support – not even Reyos' former defense attorney, Ector DA John Smith. "Since he's been DA he has refused to be interviewed in connection with the case. He thinks it's not right for a DA to be doing that," Cliff said. "But John will tell you privately, over a glass of scotch, that [James] was his only innocent client."

Indeed, virtually everyone who has reviewed the case has become convinced of Reyos' innocence. A few people – notably, The Dallas Morning News' Howard Swindle, his colleague Tim Wyatt, and retired Boise Police Detective Frank Richardson – were so convinced that they have gone out of their way to try to provide the evidence that Reyos needs by trying to answer the lingering question in the case: Who killed Father Ryan? Without an answer to that original question, Reyos may forever remain unpardonable.

New Mexican Highways

Father Patrick Ryan was an Irish-born priest who reportedly spent a decade as a Pallottine missionary in Africa before being reassigned, in 1979, to St. Williams Church in Denver City under Bishop Leroy Matthiesen of the Amarillo Diocese. Ryan often picked up hitchhikers along the 30-plus mile stretch of road connecting Denver City to Hobbs, N.M., and on Dec. 6, 1981, the 49-year-old priest was driving that stretch of road in his red-and-white Chrysler when he stopped to pick up Reyos, who was hitchhiking to Hobbs to look for work. The two men drove into town and spent the evening at a local bar, drinking beer and vodka, before Ryan drove them back to Denver City. Reyos says Ryan introduced himself only as "John," and he only learned Ryan was a priest later that night when Ryan dropped him off outside the St. Williams rectory. Reyos says he never knew Ryan's real name until he saw television news reports of his murder in Odessa.

The two had several friendly encounters over the next two weeks, until the evening of Dec. 20, when Reyos says that Ryan assaulted him in the rectory living room. When Reyos fled the apartment, he left his backpack behind him in the rectory. It contained his photo album and several audio cassettes of country music he'd taped off the radio that he thought Ryan, an accomplished accordionist, would enjoy.

The next morning, Reyos found a $750 check from his father waiting in his mailbox – Reyos' share of the royalties from mineral rights on the Apache reservation. The windfall meant Reyos could retrieve his pickup from a bail bondsman in Hobbs to whom he'd handed over the vehicle as collateral after he was arrested for driving without a license. But Reyos needed a ride to Hobbs. "The only person I could think of to help me out," he recalled recently, "was Father Ryan."

Reyos nervously returned to the rectory. "[Ryan] came to the door and the first thing he said was, 'I am sorry about last night, I don't know what got into me,'" Reyos recalled. "I said, 'Forget about it. The reason I am here is to see if you can drive me to Hobbs.'" Ryan agreed and the two got into the Chrysler and headed toward New Mexico. Along the way, Reyos says, Ryan stopped to pick up a middle-aged black man hitchhiking west. The three arrived at the home office of bondsman Charlie Bostick in Hobbs around 11:30am. Although Reyos asked Ryan to wait for a few minutes while he went inside to talk, Ryan drove off while Reyos was inside talking to Bostick's daughter – an account she confirmed at trial. According to Reyos, that was the last time he ever saw Ryan. Approximately nine hours later, Ryan was dead.

It took about an hour for Reyos to get his truck. Reyos stopped at Tipp's, a nearby bar, where he bought beer and bumped into an old friend named Harold. (Harold died before Reyos' trial.) The two men headed to Levi's Auto Parts Center where Reyos bought gas and a new gas cap – for which he retained, as was his habit, the time-stamped receipt. Reyos dropped Harold off at his home around 1:30pm and turned the truck north, heading to Albuquerque where he planned to visit his family over the Christmas holidays.

   Reyos’ supporters suspect that this man, who commited suicide inside the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Boise, Idaho, in December 1982, is quite likely connected to, or in fact responsible for, the murders of Fathers Patrick Ryan in Odessa and Benjamin Carrier in Yuma, Ariz. Although Boise Detective Frank Richardson traced the dead man’s distinctive belt buckle back to one Arizona gift shop, investigators have never been successful in identifying the man who remains known only as the Boise John Doe.
Reyos’ supporters suspect that this man, who commited suicide inside the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Boise, Idaho, in December 1982, is quite likely connected to, or in fact responsible for, the murders of Fathers Patrick Ryan in Odessa and Benjamin Carrier in Yuma, Ariz. Although Boise Detective Frank Richardson traced the dead man’s distinctive belt buckle back to one Arizona gift shop, investigators have never been successful in identifying the man who remains known only as the Boise John Doe.

On his way out of Hobbs, Reyos happened upon the same black hitchhiker that he and Ryan had picked up that morning. Reyos said that the man – who has never been identified – told him that Ryan stopped abruptly several blocks from Bostick's, dropped him off, and then drove away. The two drove to Artesia, where Reyos bought gas at a Mobil station around 4:30pm, before arriving in Roswell around 6, where Reyos dropped the man at the bus station. From there, Reyos took a spin around the Eastern New Mexico University campus where he'd been a student a year before. At a nearby Minit Mart, Reyos ran into an old college friend, David Myer. The two drove to a local bar, bought a case of beer, and headed to Myer's house where they drank and talked until about 8:30pm, Myer testified. After leaving Myer's place, Reyos took a drive 15 miles southeast to Bottomless Lake State Park before turning around and heading east to Tatum, where he stopped for gasoline – again, leaving with a receipt, which he later gave to Odessa police. Reyos drove around, drinking beer, until 12:15am, when he was pulled over by a state trooper 15 miles west of Roswell, and issued a speeding ticket.

On his way back to town, Reyos drove his truck into a ditch where he remained until passing motorists stopped to help him out. Realizing that Reyos was drunk, one of the passersby drove Reyos in the truck to Sambo's restaurant in Roswell. At the restaurant, Reyos discovered that he had a flat tire so he went inside and called a wrecker service – the receipt from the wrecker indicated the time as 4am. The truck was towed to a nearby truck stop; after the tire was replaced, Reyos fell asleep in his truck.

Approximately three hours later, around 8am on Dec. 22, Reyos woke up and headed out, stopping first at an Allsup's Convenience Store to buy some beer. About 30 miles outside Roswell, he got another flat tire. He hitchhiked back into town to a Chevron station, where he arranged for the truck to be towed again. It took most of the day for the truck's wheel and tire to be fixed, and Reyos finally headed out around 7pm – according to yet another receipt – finally making his way to Albuquerque.

The Sand and Sage

Meanwhile, the man later identified as Father Ryan had checked into Room 126 of the Sand and Sage Motel in Odessa, just before 8pm on Dec. 21. He signed in using an assumed name, and a fake address and license plate number – deceptions that would later make his body difficult to identify.

When a cleaning woman opened the door to Room 126 the next day, the place was in shambles. There was dried blood on the walls, some of it in and around the gaping holes that had been punched through them. The air conditioner was broken and dangling from the wall. A coffee table was overturned, as was the bed, and the frame was broken; there were clothes strewn around the room, along with several beer cans and cigarette butts. The phone had been ripped from the wall, and the television smashed. Right inside the door was a wristwatch with a broken band and next to that a naked, bloody man, lying face down, his hands tied behind his back with a sock, his body covered with abrasions; across his buttocks was a long, superficial slice wound. (A guest had checked into the next room at 9pm and heard nothing, leading Reyos' attorneys to conclude that the murder occurred between 8 and 9.)

The room had obviously been the scene of a violent struggle. "I wouldn't say it was a scuffle, I would say it was an out-and-out fight," Odessa Officer Philip Miles, the first at the scene, told the court. And according to Officer Kevin Jones, from the OPD's Identification Unit, there was plenty of evidence that could lead investigators to the killer. There were hairs on the body and on the carpet; there were bloodstained fingerprints, stained bedding, and smoked cigarette butts among the items he collected. But investigators could not find any identification for the dead man, and the name and address he used to check in were quickly determined to be fake. Ryan remained in the morgue, tagged as a John Doe, for four days.

Back in Denver City, Ryan's parishioners were getting nervous; no one had seen the priest for several days. When Ryan failed to show up to St. Williams for Christmas Eve mass, and was again a no-show on Christmas, Angel Perez, the head of the church men's group, climbed through a window in the rectory to see if he could find any paperwork that would help police find the priest and his two-toned Chrysler. Inside, Perez found several puzzling clues. On the stove was a fully cooked meal of steak and potatoes. They had obviously been there for a while, he said; the food was cold, and the grease in the pan around the steak had turned white. On a chair Perez found a backpack with a photo album inside, but he could not find any papers that would help ID Ryan's car.

It turned out those papers wouldn't be necessary; a missing persons alert put out by Denver City law enforcement was quickly answered by Odessa cops who said they had an unknown Doe on ice. On Dec. 26, several members of the church made the trip south to check out the body they identified as their beloved Father Ryan. Denver City was reeling, and parishioners immediately began a vigil in the freezing cold outside St. Williams. Later that day, backpack in hand, police came calling at Reyos' apartment, where he'd returned the night before from his sojourn in New Mexico. Odessa Detective Jerry Smith questioned Reyos for four hours about his whereabouts and why his backpack had been at the rectory; Reyos told them everything and gave Smith his bundle of receipts. The police asked Reyos to pull up his shirt so they could look for cuts and bruises. Aside from a small scratch on his hand, Reyos was uninjured. On Dec. 27, Smith took Reyos to Hobbs to see Ryan's car, and at 5:30pm, Reyos passed a polygraph exam. And that was that, or so it seemed.

Reyos is still plagued by guilt – perhaps, if he hadn't gone to Ryan's looking for a ride, he says, the priest might not have been murdered. "If I hadn't called [on] him that morning, he'd still be alive," Reyos says. "I had guilt over the sexual assault – that I had been there; that I was gay."

Physically Impossible

Given the documentary evidence that Reyos was able to provide to account for his whereabouts on the night of Dec. 21, 1981, Reyos' attorneys determined that, in order for him to get from Roswell to Odessa, kill Ryan, clean himself up, and get all the way back – 215 miles to the west side of Roswell, in time to get the speeding ticket – Reyos would've had to travel approximately 127 miles per hour for four hours along several twisting two-lane highways. Not likely. Indeed, six days after the murder, Odessa investigators had considered that same evidence and cleared him as a suspect.

But provided with Reyos' belated drunken confession, prosecutors simply ignored the evidence and insisted that Reyos was the killer. "The confession was pretty much it. I mean, how much more clearer can you get than that?" former Ector prosecutor Anthony Foster told reporters from the television show American Justice in 2002. "We were able to prove that he knew Father Ryan; he was relatively familiar with Father Ryan, and we had the confession. We thought we were good to go." Yet there were several other odd things that didn't – and still don't – fit with the prosecution's version of events. For example, Ryan's Chrysler was not at the Sand and Sage when his body was found; the car wasn't located until Dec. 27, outside the Moose Lodge in Hobbs, where witnesses said it had been parked since the morning of Dec. 22. If Reyos had killed Ryan, how did he get the Chrysler to Hobbs and then get himself, in his truck, back to Roswell? When police searched the car, they discovered there was money in the trunk, but Ryan's accordion and his silver chalice, which he always carried when traveling, were both missing. Neither has ever been found. Further, none of the physical evidence found inside Room 126 – fingerprints, hairs, fibers, semen, and saliva taken from Marlboro cigarette butts – matched Reyos. In fact, Reyos recalled that after forensic testing, three different law enforcement agencies – including the Texas Department of Safety and the FBI – excluded him as a suspect. But the state stopped searching for the real killer on Nov. 18, 1982, and tied their case almost exclusively to Reyos' drunken confession – and it worked. At least for a time – just over nine years, in fact, until the pieces finally began to unravel. Interestingly, it was Ector Co. Assistant DA Dennis Cadra who pulled the first string. In 1984, Cadra had been the assistant Ector Co. DA when he was assigned to handle the Reyos appeal. Since Reyos only raised one issue for the court to decide – whether there was sufficient evidence to sustain his conviction – Cadra didn't read the entire court transcript. "I skimmed through it briefly," he said recently. "I saw the receipts [that showed Reyos traveling] north and northwest, and I asked one of the prosecutors, 'How did you account for that stuff?' He said, 'Oh, we didn't.'"

Cadra found that a little odd, but put it out of his mind until late 1991, when he retrieved the transcripts from routine document destruction. "I read them cover to cover several times," he said. He outlined the evidence and charted Reyos' receipts. In the end, Cadra was convinced that Reyos was, in fact, innocent. So much so that on Dec. 31, 1991, he wrote an extraordinary eight-page letter to then Gov. Ann Richards, outlining the evidence to support Reyos' innocence and asking the governor to request that the Board of Pardons and Paroles review the case. It was the only such letter of its kind that Cadra wrote in his 30-year career as a prosecutor. "I began reading the seven-volume transcript on a Sunday night and ended up studying, reading, indexing and outlining it several times through that night and the next day without even going home," he wrote. "Based on my having done so, and despite my sixteen years' experience as a prosecutor, I came to the firm conclusion that it was physically impossible for Mr. Reyos to have committed the crime for which he was convicted and for which he has been in the Texas penitentiary for almost eight years." Cadra wrote that he agreed with a defense psychologist who testified that Reyos would've been incapable of committing such a brutal murder and that he believed Reyos' "confession" to police in 1982 was born of great guilt. "I am somewhat ashamed that I did not fully investigate this matter when I first developed doubts about Mr. Reyos' guilt" back in 1984, Cadra confessed. "I know the demands on your time are overwhelming, but I feel I would be remiss in my duties as a citizen and as a public official if I did not pass this information on to you," he wrote.

Cadra's letter was stunning – it is rare that a Texas prosecutor ever writes such a letter without hard physical evidence, like DNA, on which to issue a regret for a wrongful conviction. The letter caught Richards' attention; in 1992, she asked the BPP to review the case. The board did so, but denied Reyos any relief – perhaps in part because none of the other Ector Co. officials stepped up to the plate.

Reyos is gentle, quiet, and, even more strikingly, extremely neat and organized – his small room in South Austin is tidy in the extreme. In fact, it is Reyos' attention to detail, in the form of cataloged receipts, that proved he did not kill Father Ryan.
Reyos is gentle, quiet, and, even more strikingly, extremely neat and organized – his small room in South Austin is tidy in the extreme. In fact, it is Reyos' attention to detail, in the form of cataloged receipts, that proved he did not kill Father Ryan. (Photo By Jana Birchum)

Nonetheless, the Cadra letter set off a chain reaction. According to Dallas Morning News reporter Tim Wyatt, the letter fueled his colleague Howard Swindle's interest in the case. On July 4, 1993, the paper ran a lengthy page one story, charting Reyos' relationship with Ryan and his travels in New Mexico on the night of Ryan's death. But he didn't stop there, Wyatt said. Swindle was convinced, as was Wyatt, that the only way Reyos would ever find relief was if someone could actually find Ryan's killer. "[Swindle] decided he would have to prove it was someone else [that killed Ryan] before the state would do anything," Wyatt said. That's what the two men set out to do, and they soon found an unlikely ally in Boise Detective Frank Richardson.

Desperate for Priests

The reporters were not only convinced of Reyos' innocence, they also suspected there was some connection between Ryan's death and the Catholic Church. Wyatt constructed a complex database of priests, scouring the U.S. Official Catholic Directory – an annual yearbook of clergy that lists diocese, assignments, and deaths, among other things – for the five years leading up to and after Ryan's death. "I put everyone into the database," Wyatt recalled. The reporters were looking for patterns, and they found one. "There were clearly some [priests] that were killed; there were clearly some that were missing," he said. The team also scoured old wire reports, and found a string of priest murders stretching from Texas, New Mexico, through Arizona, and up into the Pacific Northwest. While several of the cases had produced viable suspects, several others had not – significantly, a murder in Yuma, Ariz., remained unsolved, Wyatt said. And the Yuma murder was eerily similar to the murder of Father Ryan: In early November 1982, 54-year-old Father Benjamin Carrier was found in a Yuma motel room, face down, naked, his hands tied behind his back, dead from asphyxiation.

There was a further coincidence. In 1993, Boise Police Detective Frank Richardson happened to see a story on Reyos' case on the television program A Current Affair. The story nudged Richardson's intuition. Although he didn't have any hard evidence to support his instinct, Richardson suspected that there was a connection between Ryan's death and an 11-year-old cold case that still nagged at him. On Dec. 4, 1982, just three weeks after Reyos was arrested, a suntanned man walked into the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Boise, Idaho, for confession. In his pocket was a folded note and $1,900. But as he waited his turn in the confessional, the man swallowed a cyanide capsule and died. The note in his pocket said only that the money he carried should be used for his burial, and the rest donated to the church. The note was signed with a pseudonym, "Wm. L. Toomey," which Richardson said he later discovered was the name of a company that manufactured priest and nun garb. There was no doubt in Richardson's mind that his Boise John Doe was intimately connected to the Catholic Church; for that reason, the story of the Ryan murder aroused his suspicions.

Richardson contacted Reyos' lawyers, and word of the Boise John Doe soon reached reporters Swindle and Wyatt. Additional clues from the Boise case solidified Swindle, Wyatt, and Richardson's now shared belief that the man was connected to the murders of Ryan and Carrier. Specifically, Richardson was intrigued by the man's suntan – hard to come by in December in Idaho – and by the unique bolo tie and belt buckle that he wore. "We traced the belt back to one gift shop in Phoenix," Richardson recalled recently. Yet Richardson and the BPD were unable to find a positive ID for their John Doe. They ran his fingerprints through several databases without results. Swindle and Wyatt also tried and failed. "We got a cop to run them in certain places, and this was kind of off-the-books," Wyatt recalls. "He didn't find much."

The absence of a match meant that the researchers could rule out several possibilities: John Doe was never charged with a crime, he never served in the military, and he was not a member of a licensed profession. That left few possibilities, and the one that nagged at the men was that John Doe was a priest. "Catholic priests move in circles and travel gratis and can literally pop up in places," says Wyatt. "For example, Father Ryan never had a driver's license, [and] we never found any [other] documentary evidence."

Indeed, exactly how Father Ryan popped up in West Texas isn't entirely clear. According to reports in the Odessa American at the time of his death, Ryan was born in Ireland and entered the seminary there in 1949. Reportedly he traveled with the Pallottine Society of priests for several years, before heading to Africa to do missionary work. He then reportedly took a furlough back to Ireland before he was reassigned to Denver City – although no official record appears to exist concerning how, under what circumstances, or even when Ryan came to Texas. Efforts by the Chronicle to trace Ryan's movements from Ireland were unsuccessful, despite several communications with church officials in Dublin. Bishop Leroy Matthiesen, now Bishop Emeritus in Amarillo, oversaw Ryan's work in Denver City, but is also vague about Ryan's past. "He came from Ireland," he said. "They sent missionaries to South America and then they came up here." When asked how it was that Ryan ended up in West Texas, Matthiesen said he couldn't remember. (Prior to 1979, neither the U.S. Catholic directory nor any other publicly available diocesan record makes mention of Father Ryan, who is then listed until his death in 1981.)

Matthiesen's memory loss doesn't surprise Richardson or Wyatt, who say that the Church offered very little help to them as they tried, along with Swindle (who died of cancer last year), to get information that could point to the identity of the Boise John Doe or to help determine who killed Ryan and Carrier. "[Swindle] came from Dallas, and we went to the ... [Boise] church and questioned the priest," Richardson recalled. "All we got out of him when we confronted him with our suspicions was a big, old grin." Richardson has since retired from the force, and the John Doe case remains unsolved. "It's ironic that the cyanide kicked in before he could get into the confessional. He was about to make a huge gesture, to croak in the confessional," said Wyatt, who said the dead man had apparently miscalculated the time he would spend waiting for confession. "He died without absolution."

Nonetheless, Richardson, Wyatt, and Swindle all agreed on the basics of what they believed happened to Fathers Ryan and Carrier. "What I can prove and what my gut feeling is are different," Richardson said. They believe Ryan knew his attacker – maybe the Boise John Doe – with whom he had planned a rendezvous for sex. Inside the Sand and Sage motel room, something went very wrong, erupting into a violent, sexually charged killing. That scenario is also plausible to retired prosecutor Cadra and trial attorney Cliff, neither of whom believes that Ryan's death was a random event. Perhaps, Cliff posits, Ryan met his attacker through the church, possibly at Jemez Springs in New Mexico, the infamous, and now bankrupt, Catholic facility for alcoholic and pedophile priests.

That's also what Cliff's trial partner John Smith, the current Ector Co. DA, thought. "He had a theory that Father Ryan [was at a] ... retreat hidden [in New Mexico] where they would send wayward priests, and then send them to small counties," Cliff said. Indeed, Swindle and Wyatt considered the same theory, and that perhaps John Doe also spent time at Jemez Springs. In November 1993, Swindle wrote a letter to one of the Paraclete fathers, who minister to their wayward brethren and who worked in Eastern New Mexico, asking him to look at a sketch of the Boise John Doe, to see if he could identify the man, but he never got a response.

After Ryan was killed, two young men came forward to say that Ryan had approached them in a Hobbs parking lot – the priest, they testified at Reyos' trial, propositioned them, saying that he was "looking for a young stud to fuck him." And had Ryan come to Denver City with a problem, that would also fit into what is known about Matthiesen, who researchers say "shopped" for priests at the facility in Jemez Springs to fill the small outpost parishes dotting West Texas. "One quarter of the priests in [the] Amarillo [Diocese] were from Jemez Springs. [Matthiesen] basically told them that they'd take anyone," said Leon Podles, a Maryland-based writer whose book on the Catholic church sex scandals is slated for publication later this year. "They were desperate for priests in Amarillo." Gretta Wooley, of the Amarillo chapter of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, says that although much has been revealed about the Catholic Church's handling of predatory priests over the past few years, in Amarillo they're "still scratching the surface. ... In Amarillo [we're still working on figuring out] what has happened and [on trying] to get them to release the names of the perpetrators that they know of."

Dead End

After hitting a wall with Church officials, Wyatt said that Swindle returned to Ector Co. in an effort to get access to the physical evidence from the Ryan crime scene – especially the fingerprints. It was the last obvious avenue to see if they could connect the Boise John Doe to Ryan's death. "Howard said, in the interest of justice, would you consider letting us examine the evidence?" he said. Surprisingly, Odessa officials agreed. "We got carte blanche to go ahead and look," Wyatt recalls. "And the evidence was gone – there wasn't a fingerprint, there wasn't a hair, there wasn't shit. And that was pretty much it at that point; we were screwed." Indeed, in violation of their own internal policy, in 1993 the Odessa police destroyed all of the physical evidence connected to the Reyos case. No one seemed to care, says Wyatt. "I think the Odessa police said, who cares? [We got] a drunk Jicarilla," he said. "Nobody was going to listen without new evidence, and with that evidence gone, that ended it right there."

The reporters' quest had hit a dead end, but they never stopped thinking about the Reyos case. "Even in the years after Howard got cancer, we'd always bring up the fact that we were kind of embarrassed that we couldn't bring it to conclusion – that we couldn't prove it," Wyatt said. "We were good enough to figure it out, but we couldn't prove it." Wyatt said that even on his deathbed, Swindle was thinking about the case. "It never left Howard's mind. That was the one story he never got to see the end to. He was still thinking of it until his death. And it may never end for James Harry either."

Project Innocence

For those who have spent any time with James Harry Reyos, it seems inconceivable that he could be responsible for the murder of Father Patrick Ryan. The deed itself was horribly violent: a loud, raucous, and bloody struggle that destroyed the room where it occurred. Reyos is gentle, quiet, and, even more strikingly, extremely neat and organized. His small room in South Austin is tidy in the extreme – cans of tuna fish are all lined up in perfect stacks, with the labels all facing the same way. There's hardly a speck of dust, and the bed is always made up with tight, flattened corners.

Even with his history of alcoholism, his defenders say they find it hard to believe that alcohol would've so drastically altered Reyos' personality that he would instigate and carry out such a violent, angry crime. Although Reyos had been arrested 30 times for drinking-related infractions, they note, he was never once cited for violent behavior, nor was he ever arrested for a violent crime. In fact, it is Reyos' attention to detail, in the form of cataloged receipts from his journey through eastern New Mexico, that should've saved him from going to prison at all. Now, his future depends on the mercy of the Texas criminal justice system – hardly an encouraging prospect. Although the Board of Pardons and Paroles has recommended, and the governor has granted, 10 pardons for innocence since 2000, most of those have been granted on the basis of DNA evidence that conclusively cleared the defendant of guilt.

Reyos' situation is not completely hopeless. Last month, after being contacted by the Chronicle, Panhandle attorney Jeff Blackburn, director of the Innocence Project at Texas Tech, agreed to take on Reyos' case. Blackburn is probably best known for his work to exonerate, and to gain pardons for, the infamous Tulia defendants, who were wrongfully convicted as the result of a scandalous 1999 Swisher County drug sting. "I think we can do a total turnaround here," he said. "This case is constitutionally reprehensible. When there's this much injustice, there must be a way to get it overturned. It may be tortuous, but we'll do it."

Got something to say on the subject? Send a letter to the editor.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More crime
Working 'The Corner'
Working 'The Corner'
Neighbors and officials plan one more effort to save the neighborhood around 12th and Chicon

Jordan Smith, July 13, 2012

More by Jordan Smith
'Chrome Underground' Goes Classic Car Hunting
'Chrome Underground' Goes Classic Car Hunting
Motoreum's Yusuf & Antonio talk about the biz and their reality TV debut

May 22, 2014

APD Brass Shifts Up, Down, Across
APD Brass Shifts Up, Down, Across
Musical chairs at Downtown HQ

May 9, 2014


crime, Boise Sacred Heart Catholic Church, James Harry Reyos, Patrick Ryan, Ector County, Howard Swindle, Rick Perry, Board of Pardons and Paroles, Jeff Blackburn, John Cliff, John Smith, Jim Harrington, Tim Wyatt, Frank Richardson, Charlie Bostick, David Myer, Philip Miles, Kevin Jones, Angel Perez, Jerry Smith

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle