The Unsolved 1980s Franciscan Priest Murders

Is the old saying true — "Once is anomaly, twice is a coincidence, three is a pattern?" It's a question that's hovered over corners of the American southwest for decades. Between 1981 and 1984, at least three Catholic priests were killed in the region. Their deaths coincided with a mysterious suicide in Idaho and a disappearance in Montana, and many have entertained the possibility that all these events are connected.

The first link in the chain is the death of Father Patrick "Paddy" Ryan in December 1981 in Odessa, Texas. Born in Ireland, Ryan served in Africa before being assigned to the United States. Per The Austin Chronicle, he was based out of Denver City, Texas, which is connected to Hobbs, New Mexico by road. Ryan frequently picked up hitchhikers along that path, and one of those hitchhikers was James Harry Reyos. The two became friendly, though Reyos only knew the priest by his alias, John.

On December 20, Ryan assaulted Reyos in the St. Williams rectory. The next day, Reyos said, he felt he had no choice but to turn to Ryan for a ride back to Hobbs. Along the way, they picked up a third man, and Ryan drove off with him after dropping Reyos off. Ryan was found dead nine hours later, naked and bloody in an Odessa motel. Reyos, who picked up the third man himself before learning of Ryan's death, was arrested, confessed, and convicted. He later recanted his confession, and no hard evidence connected him to Ryan's death. He remained in prison until 2012 (per the Innocence Project of Texas).

Two other priests were killed around the same time as Rivera

Within months of Patrick Ryan's death, two more priests were murdered in the American south, one in New Mexico and one in Arizona. The next to die was Father Reynaldo Rivera of Santa Fe. Per his obituary in The Santa Fe New Mexican, he was a native of the region and served in several parishes before being assigned to the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Francis. He was a member of the Franciscan order and, according to KOB 4, a beloved figure in the community. He was also dedicated to his calling and apparently thought nothing of heading out in response to a phone call placed on August 5, 1982, by a man who claimed that he was dying and needed last rites. The caller told Rivera to meet him at the La Bajada rest stop. It's the last detail in the case pointing to Rivera's whereabouts. According to the Rio Grande Sun, he was found two days later in a field, dead from a gunshot to the chest. His car was found in another city.

That November, it was reported that Father Ben Carrier, a California-based priest, was found dead in Yuma, Arizona (per 11 KYMA). Carrier was known in his home parish for his work with the homeless, and his death generated intense local media interest. He was found in a motel room with his hands tied by electrical tape. The cause of death was strangulation. Suspects at the time included two young white men, but no arrests were made.

The priest who vanished was implicated in child abuse

In July 1984, two years after the murders of Reynaldo Rivera and Ben Carrier, Father John Kerrigan disappeared. He was not a priest of the American south. His parish was in Montana, and according to the Crossland Foundation, he was two days into a transfer from Plain to Ronan when he entered a local bakery. It was the last time anybody saw him. Kerrigan's bloodstained clothes were found on a highway the next day, and his car was found a week later with bloodstains on the seat and a bloody shovel in the trunk (per the Billings Gazette).

Investigators at the time connected Kerrigan's disappearance to Rivera's death due to the similarities in the cases. Specifically, both men appeared to have been murdered, their cars were abandoned elsewhere, and, according to The Charley Project, Kerrigan was also a Franciscan. "Unsolved Mysteries" paired the cases together, and they've become known as the Franciscan priest murders.

Another point that led investigators to link Rivera's death with Kerrigan's disappearance was the fact that Kerrigan spent time at the Servants of the Paraclete Center in Jemez Springs, New Mexico, the state where Rivera was based. The Paraclete Center, which has no surviving records, was used for troubled priests experiencing substance use, mental health, or sexual misconduct issues. Per the Missoulian, allegations of child sexual abuse against Kerrigan were known to local authorities before his disappearance and became public knowledge in 2015. No such allegations have been made about Rivera, but the geographic link reinforced a suspicion that the men were targets of a murderer who sought out priests.

The four cases have been loosely connected, but never by hard evidence

Possible links between these four cases go back to when Reynaldo Rivera was first reported dead in 1982. Notably, The Rio Grande Sun made a casual connection between his and Patrick Ryan's death in the former's obituary. Police in Montana and New Mexico — including Lieutenant Gilbert Ulibarri of the Santa Fe Police Department — felt that Rivera and John Kerrigan were likely victims of the same killer (per the Missoulian). And the similar nature of Ryan and Father Ben Carrier's deaths led to speculation that they were possibly murdered by the same man.

Inside Hook took the dots connecting Rivera to Ryan, Ryan to Carrier, and Rivera to Kerrigan and wove them around a fifth death — that of an unidentified man in southern garb who swallowed cyanide in the Sacred Heart Catholic Church of Boise, Idaho on December 4, 1982 before reaching the confessional. Per the Austin Chronicle, a 1993 report on Ryan led Detective Frank Richardson to follow a hunch based the Idaho man's belt buckle — one that suggested Ryan and Carrier were killed by a man they knew (the former possibly approached him for sex). It may have been the Idaho man, but Richardson was frank about lacking hard evidence.

The absence of evidence is also an issue in trying to tie Ryan and Carrier to Rivera and Kerrigan, or the two Franciscans to one another. After extensive investigation, Ulibarri came to the conclusion that there was no connection between Rivera's death and Kerrigan's disappearance (per KOB 4). The one firm fact connecting all four priests is that, as of January 2024, their deaths remain unsolved.

If you or someone you know may be the victim of child abuse, please contact the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-Child (1-800-422-4453) or contact their live chat services.

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).