This story first appeared on Oct. 6, 2005.
Before dawn on Sunday, Dec. 19, the Rev. Ryan Erickson sat in his bedroom in the rectory of St. Mary's Catholic Church and picked up a pen to explain why he was about to kill himself. Twice in five weeks, police had questioned him about the killings of a funeral home director and his intern three years earlier in Hudson, Wis., where Erickson had been an associate priest. Three days before, they had searched his rectory and seized, among other things, his computer. On that morning it took two false starts before Erickson found the words he wanted. To two friends from Hudson who had driven up to support their troubled friend, he wrote: "I've lived a hard, but exciting life. I learned and I taught. I helped people, and I hurt them. But I NEVER killed anyone. "My ego, my pride, my lust, my envy have always stopped me from being the best person I could be. I am tired." In a suicide note to his parents, which was released by Hudson police on Monday, Erickson also denied that he killed funeral home director Daniel O'Connell and mortuary science intern James Ellison in February 2002. Erickson, 31, was found shortly after 7 a.m. that Sunday, dressed in his cassock and hanging from a fire escape at the back of the rectory. On Monday, a judge in Hudson found probable cause that Erickson killed O'Connell and Ellison shortly before O'Connell was to confront the priest with allegations that he had sexually abused a teenage boy. The judge also found it likely that Erickson had committed sexual abuse. On Wednesday, Hurley Police Chief Daniel Erspamer released copies of his investigation into Erickson's suicide, which included the note to his friends. . Suicide concerns Richard Reams and Tom Burns had made the 200-mile drive up from Hudson to Hurley, which is on the Wisconsin-Michigan border, on Friday night. His friends noticed how worked up he was about being questioned about the killings. But after a Saturday of talking, eating, watching movies and accompanying him on rounds, they felt that Erickson had calmed down. "He seemed so, so relaxed, and so happy we were there," Reams told an investigator hours after Erickson died. "He was just happy and was kind of his old self." But Erspamer, who attends St. Mary's, was so concerned about whether Erickson might kill himself that he took another officer and church deacon Russ Lundgren with him to talk with the priest on the Thursday before the suicide. Hudson police had searched the rectory and seized Erickson's computer and other items, including a document entitled "Last Will and Testament." "In it, he said he was at peace, and he talked about himself in the past tense, and that worried me," Erspamer said. "Under Wisconsin law, I could detain him if I thought he was a danger to himself or others. But when I talked to him, he assured me he was fine. He had an attorney, he had friends, he had support and he was fine." Erspamer talked briefly with Erickson again on Saturday, just before the 5:30 p.m. mass. "Father Erickson stopped by and asked me how I was. He asked me! I said I was fine but how was he? He said he was doing pretty well," Erspamer recalled. "After that, I had the best sleep in days thinking maybe I didn't need to worry about him. And the next morning I got the call of an emergency at the church." Erickson had been at St. Mary's only about four months, Erspamer said, "not long enough for people to know him real well, but long enough for the older parishioners to appreciate his conservative approach to Catholicism, including offering the mass in Latin." . A wound reopened Judge Eric Lundell's conclusion Monday that Erickson probably committed murder and engaged in sexual assault" is kind of reopening the wound for us," Erspamer said. "We didn't want the guy to be guilty. Was he guilty? The judge said so, and I guess he was." Erickson's closest acquaintance in Hurley probably was Lundgren, Erspamer said. Lundgren told Hudson police after the suicide that Erickson had told him back in November, "I've done it, and they are going to get me." Lundgren refused Wednesday to talk about the case, or explain why he didn't tell authorities immediately. At Monday's hearing, Lundgren testified that he met Erickson in the priest's office in Hurley on Nov. 12, 2004, the day after Erickson was first questioned by Hudson detectives Shawn Pettee and Jeff Knopps. "He was very upset, very angry," Lundgren testified. He said Erickson was furious that he had been questioned about the murders, and the more Erickson talked about it, the angrier he became. Then, he quoted Erickson as saying, "I've done it and they are going to get me." Asked what Erickson meant, Lundgren testified, "I believe he was talking about the murders." The transcript of the interview that Pettee and Knopps conducted with Erickson was made public on Wednesday. Erickson was not asked if he committed the murders. He denied involvement in a second interview on Dec. 7, a transcript of which has not yet been released. Asked by the detectives "why this tragedy may have happened," Erickson replied: "not a clue." But he cited a variety of rumors and then added with a laugh: "Is that good enough for you?" the transcript said. Asked whether he'd had meetings with Dan McConnell or his wife, Jennie, Erickson told detectives that "the only meetings that I had with Dan" were when they were in a car together "because we were burying someone," a reference to O'Connell's funeral home business. Erickson said that the week before the murders, he had spoken with O'Connell and that "he wanted to go to confession sometime and that he wanted to have his house blessed." . `Loved as brothers' It was just after 7 a.m. and getting light on Dec. 19 when church janitor Rodney Batiste saw Erickson hanging from an iron railing. He thought it was a dummy. "Father Ryan is always a joker, and I am thinking he might do something like that just to try and scare me or something," he told police. A few minutes later, Reams found Erickson's body and alerted authorities. An hour later, Reams and Burns were reading a suicide note from Erickson. "Thank you for the weekend. It took my mind off of these last days," Erickson wrote. "I loved you as brothers and always appreciated your help, generosity and love." . The writers are at firstname.lastname@example.org. . LEARN MORE To see the transcript of the Hudson police detectives' interview with the Rev. Ryan Erickson, hear audio excerpts of that interview and read previous stories about the Hudson killings, go to www.startribune.com. . A note to two friends Here is part of a suicide note that the Rev. Ryan Erickson wrote to two friends, Rick Reams and Tom Burns of Hudson, before he committed suicide. The men went to Hurley, Wis., to spend the weekend before Christmas with Erickson. On that Sunday morning, he killed himself. . Rick and Tom: Thank you for the weekend. It took my mind off of these last few days. I want you to know that along with another person named you were my closest friends. I loved you as brothers and always appreciated your help, generosity and love. Your families are wonderful and I am sure they will do great things in this terrible world. If you get back to Rome please light some candles for my eternal rest. Have Masses said for me too. I've lived a hard but exciting life. I learned and I taught. I helped people and I hurt them. ... But I never killed anyone. My ego, my pride, my lust, my envy have always stopped me from being the best person I could be. I am tired. With my love, Father Ryan. Again - thank you for everything.