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A Fugitive Priest's Last, Lean Days

June 19, 2003|William Lobdell and Jennifer Mena | Times Staff Writers

MAZATLAN, Mexico — Father Siegfried Widera, one of the most wanted sex-crime fugitives in North America, lived quietly for 10 months in this Pacific coast city, known as a refuge for Americans on the run.

For Widera, a man who once owned five cars and a home adjacent to a golf course, Mazatlan became a kind of purgatory.

As his money dwindled, Widera, a priest who hadn't worn a Roman collar for 17 years, settled into a room that rented for $35 a month. He abandoned his car and got around on a rusty three-speed bike. He took free meals offered by a poor local family, ordered a $1.50 breakfast each day at McDonald's and dined on food samples in local stores, according to those who knew him here only as "Fred."

But Widera's efforts to evade capture -- avoiding cash withdrawals and use of credit cards -- ultimately proved futile. Questioned by Mexican authorities who caught up with him last month after a year in hiding, Widera bolted from a hotel room and leaped from a third-floor breezeway window, falling 29 feet to the hotel's parking lot. He died that day at a nearby Red Cross hospital. He was 62.

Among his effects, investigators found a suicide note -- dated May 25, the day he died -- asking for forgiveness.

"I am so sorry for what I did in the past," reads a translation of the letter provided by Mexican authorities. "I ask God to have mercy on my soul. Thanks especially to my family. Sometimes I wanted to know how you survived all this. God will reward you. That will be my last wish."

His death marked the end of a yearlong manhunt for Widera, whom United States marshals called one of the most wanted sex-crime fugitives in the Western Hemisphere. He faced 42 felony counts of molestation in two states. The alleged incidents, some involving boys as young as 6, took place from 1969 to 1985 while Widera was a priest in Milwaukee and Orange County.

Stretching from Tucson to the Caribbean and from El Paso to Mazatlan, the search involved traced credit cards, false leads and a trail that went cold for months after Widera slipped into Mexico.

Those involved said the dogged pursuit was needed because of what they described as Widera's compulsion to molest children -- acts so perverse that veteran police officers are still haunted by the details three decades later.

"He spent 30 years preying on kids," said Douglas Bachert, a deputy U.S. marshal from Milwaukee who headed the search. "People around him had no idea who he was and what he was all about."

Widera was ordained in 1967 and began parish work in Milwaukee. Despite a conviction on molestation charges in 1973 that resulted in probation, Widera was allowed to stay with the church. He was transferred in 1976 to the Diocese of Orange. Although the Milwaukee diocese warned of "a moral problem" with a boy, Orange County church officials say they did not know about the conviction.

In 1985, a woman complained to the Orange diocese about Widera's sexual misconduct with her two sons. He was sent to a New Mexico treatment center for eight months, a program law enforcement officials said he did not complete, and was stripped by the bishop of his ability to function as a priest in Orange County. Formally, however, Widera remained a priest till his death.

After the treatment, Widera remade himself as a Tucson businessman, working at a family-owned business--the Tucson Container Corp. He lived adjacent to a country club, owned a small fleet of cars and played golf regularly.

Nearly two decades later, the anonymity of Widera's life came to an end as the Roman Catholic Church's sex scandal erupted.

In early April 2002, an Orange County man filed a lawsuit against Widera, alleging the priest had molested him and his brother in 1985. The news accounts detailed Widera's past, and additional alleged victims stepped forward in Milwaukee and Orange County.

Fleeing public scrutiny, Widera left that month for a Caribbean cruise.

On May 22, three days after returning from the cruise and checking into a Florida Keys resort, Widera was charged in Milwaukee with nine felony counts of molestation, acts that allegedly took place between 1970 and 1973. By May 24, the day the charges were made public, Widera disappeared. Law enforcement officials tracked his movements by his Visa card, though investigators were always at least a day behind as Widera zigzagged his way across the south in a 2002 Lincoln Town Car. On June 10, he pulled in to Portland, Texas, where he used his credit card for what would be the last time at a gas station. Sometime within the next month, he swapped the Lincoln for a late-model Buick registered to West Texas Container Corp., a company owned by his brother.

With the trail cold, the task force developed a profile of Widera to determine where he was likely to go. He was a golfer used to a luxurious life. He liked to eat and drink. He enjoyed warm weather. They figured he had driven into Mexico, where he would probably gravitate to resort towns with golf courses.

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