A former Roman Catholic priest described as one of the most wanted sex-crime fugitives in the Western Hemisphere fell to his death from the balcony of a Mazatlan hotel as Mexican officials closed in to arrest him, authorities said Monday.
Siegfried F. Widera, 62, wanted on 42 counts of child molestation, including several in Orange County, and the subject of a yearlong manhunt in Mexico and the United States, died of severe cranial trauma after members of Mazatlan's Red Cross rushed him to a hospital near the Vista Dorada Hotel, just off one of Mazatlan's most popular beaches Sunday, officials said.
"Widera had posed a significant danger to children in both nations," said U.S. Marshal William Kruziki, who had been involved in the search. "His death in Mexico is a sad ending to a tremendously complicated and sad life."
Though law enforcement officials said Widera had leapt to his death in an apparent suicide, members of his family Monday disputed that, saying they had been told by a representative of the U.S. Consulate that he fell while trying to escape.
"We are taking steps" to find out what actually happened, Widera's brother John said in an interview from his home.
Widera had been a fugitive since May 2002, when Milwaukee authorities filed nine sexual abuse charges against him.
In October, Orange County prosecutors issued an arrest warrant for Widera, charging him with 33 counts of child molestation involving four boys between 1978 and 1985. The alleged molestations occurred while Widera was a priest at St. Justin Martyr Church in Anaheim and St. Martin de Porres Church in Yorba Linda.
He had been ordained a priest in 1967 and six years later was convicted of sexual misconduct with an adolescent boy in Milwaukee. He was sentenced to three years' probation.
Later, he was accepted into the Diocese of Orange, despite a warning letter from the Milwaukee's then-archbishop saying Widera had a "moral problem having to do with a boy in school."
Widera was finally stripped of his ability to act as a priest in 1986 and moved to Arizona, where, his family says, he lived in a retirement community and did hospital volunteer work.
The U.S., in a statement, went on to say that Widera "eventually became one of the most wanted sex-crimes fugitives in the Western Hemisphere."
Widera had been on the lam for a year, authorities say, but had recently been sighted in West Texas, southern New Mexico and northern Chihuahua, Mexico.
"We suspect that he may be trying to conduct himself as a member of the clergy in some of the smaller villages in northern Mexico who are unaware of his past," Rick Glancey, a spokesman for the El Paso County sheriff in Texas, told The Times this month.
"Wherever he is now," Deputy U.S. Marshal Doug Bachert said at about the same time, "there are some unwitting families that have no idea what he is about."
After a long pursuit described by a marshal's office press release as "one of the most dramatic in recent years" including "a number of near captures, sudden international trips by the fugitive, and foiled leads," Widera was finally cornered by federal and state agents of Mexico on Sunday afternoon at the Vista Dorada Hotel.
As they were closing in on him, U.S. marshals said, the former priest ran to the balcony of his second-story room and jumped to his death.
Katherine K. Freberg, an Irvine lawyer representing several of his alleged victims, said Sunday that they were reacting with relief.
"They are trying to look at the positive side," she said. "They had a great fear, since he was on the run, that he would never be caught. We feel a sense of relief knowing that Father Widera will not be molesting kids anymore.
"On the other hand, there's a definite sense of sadness for his family and sadness that it came to this. Mainly I wanted to see justice for my clients, and that's been taken from them; his death robs them of the justice they should have had in seeing him in prison."
Widera's family in Orange County called for reconciliation and forgiveness.
"The family is saddened and shocked by the death of our brother," John Widera read in a prepared statement. "Contrary to statements made by the press, Siegfried has not been a priest for the last 17 years.... He was not a threat to society.... With his death he will now be judged by our Almighty Creator and not by manipulated public opinion....
"He will be sorely missed by his family, friends and associates. We pray for those that have been wronged by Siegfried and hope that we now may all find forgiveness and peace."
Times staff writer Richard Boudreaux contributed to this story.