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Accounts in Ex-Priest's Death Differ

The authenticity of a suicide note is debated after Siegfried Widera, wanted on molestation counts in Orange County and elsewhere, falls from a balcony.

May 28, 2003|H.G. Reza and Christine Hanley | Times Staff Writers

Conflicting accounts were given Tuesday of how a former priest died after he was confronted by Mexican police at a Mazatlan resort over the weekend.

Siegfried F. Widera, who had worked as a priest in Wisconsin and Orange County and was wanted in the United States on 42 counts of child molestation, fell from a hotel balcony Sunday. U.S. authorities described it as an apparent suicide, and relatives of Widera say sheriff's investigators from El Paso told them they had found a suicide note.

But Widera's family disputed the suicide theory and questioned the authenticity of the note.

"I don't know if it's real or not. But it doesn't matter, because he was not in the proper state of mind to commit suicide," said his brother, John Widera of Costa Mesa.

El Paso County sheriff's spokesman Rick Glancey declined to confirm the family's account that investigators believe it was a suicide note, but he said without elaborating that "there is some documentation" for the claim. The Sheriff's Department got involved in the search for Widera when authorities received word that he was hiding in West Texas or New Mexico.

Adding to the confusion, the U.S. marshal in Milwaukee -- whose office called Widera "one of the most-wanted sex-crimes fugitives in the Western Hemisphere" because of his record there and pursued him in a yearlong manhunt -- also discounted the account of a suicide note.

Though he believes the defrocked priest jumped to his death, "there's no suicide note, any way you think about it," said the marshal, William Kruziki. "When the police tried to arrest him, he ran. It wouldn't make sense for him to have scribbled down a suicide note. There's no suicide note."

Widera, 62, was ordained in 1967 and served in Wisconsin parishes. The first assaults attributed to him occurred in 1973, when he was convicted of sexual misconduct with an adolescent boy in Milwaukee.

Transferred to Orange County in 1976 with a warning that he had "a moral problem having to do with a boy in school," he served at St. Justin Martyr Church in Anaheim and St. Martin de Porres Church in Yorba Linda.

In October, Orange County prosecutors charged Widera with 33 counts of child molestation, involving four boys, allegedly perpetrated between 1978 and 1985.

After the church stripped him of the ability to work as a priest in 1986, Widera moved to Arizona. He fled in May 2002 when Milwaukee authorities filed nine counts of sexual abuse against him. It is not clear when those incidents allegedly occurred.

The U.S. marshal's office in Milwaukee had sent investigators to Europe, the Caribbean, the Southwestern United States and Mexico in search of the former priest. Earlier this month, investigators were tipped off that Widera was probably headed to Mexico.

Mexican law enforcement officials were asked to be on the lookout for Widera, and the Spanish-language television aired reports about him.

Acting on a tip received by the U.S. marshal, Mexican authorities found Widera on Sunday at the Vista Dorada Hotel in Mazatlan. Although the precise sequence of events was unclear, U.S. and Mexican authorities said he ran from police as they were questioning him and fell from the balcony of his room in the hotel.

Glancey said Texas officials believed he might have been trying to pose as a minister to Mexican villages.

John Widera said his brother never asked for his assistance in evading law enforcement.

He blamed himself and Katherine K. Freberg, an Irvine attorney for several of his brother's alleged Orange County victims, for his brother's death. He regrets he didn't do enough to help and blames Freberg "for starting this whole thing up.... She made too big a case of it."

"Obviously, John Widera was close to his brother," Freberg said. "I cannot imagine the hurt. No matter how painful, however, the truth must come out."

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