Police Believe Cold Case Finally Cracked

Sister Margaret Ann Pahl
Sister Margaret Ann Pahl

TOLEDO (AP) -- A Roman Catholic priest charged in the 1980 strangling and stabbing of a nun whose body was found covered by an altar cloth in a hospital chapel always was a suspect in the killing, police said.

Police never could gather enough evidence, though, until they reopened the case about five months ago.

On Friday, police arrested the Rev. Gerald Robinson, who performed the funeral for the 71-year-old nun. Police Chief Mike Navarre would only say that ''new technology'' led them back to Robinson, 66, who was charged with murder. Navarre would not talk about evidence or a motive.

Robinson and Sister Margaret Ann Pahl worked together at Toledo's Mercy Hospital where he was the chaplain. Pahl was strangled before she was stabbed about 30 times on April 5, 1980. Her body was found surrounded by lit candles with her arms folded across her chest in the chapel where she was the caretaker.

It was described by some investigators as a ''ritualistic'' killing.

''It is about the most outrageous thing I can think of,'' said Ray Vetter, a retired deputy police chief who investigated the killing. ''It was even more galling that we didn't make an arrest. It must have aged me 10 years.''

Police never suspected robbery as a motive because they found Pahl's purse and several gold crucifixes near her body. No fingerprints or footprints were found. Investigators determined that the killer used a small knife. There was some evidence but not enough to get a conviction against anyone, Vetter said. Robinson, whose office was steps from the chapel, remained a primary suspect because he was near the chapel at the time of the killing, Vetter said. ''He was a suspect, but he wasn't the only suspect,'' Vetter said on Saturday.

Jan Schaeffer, who worked in the hospital's emergency department, said she suspected Robinson because he was one of the few people near the chapel, which was tucked away in the hospital. ''It was somebody who would have had to know what sister's habits were,'' she said. ``It had to be somebody who knew the territory and knew the routine. That leaves you with very few people.'' She said he was quiet and aloof. Robinson stayed at the hospital until 1981 when he was appointed pastor at three parishes in Toledo. He moved to a church in suburban Toledo in 1989 and five years later became the church-appointed Catholic representative at Flower Hospital and Lake Park Nursing Home in Sylvania. He has continued to perform pastoral care at nursing homes and hospitals in the Toledo area, said Sally Oberski, a diocese spokeswoman.

He was being held in the Lucas County jail. It was unclear if he had legal representation. He will be arraigned Monday morning in Toledo Municipal Court.

Police started up the cold case based on a tip provided to the Lucas County prosecutor's office.

The Rev. Michael Billian, spokesman for the 19-county Diocese of Toledo, said church officials will cooperate with police. ``It certainly saddens the diocese,'' he said.

The slaying over Easter weekend in 1980 shocked the city. Hospital workers collected money for a reward and the county government offered another $10,000. Pahl was a former director of the hospital's nursing school and also was an administrator at hospitals in Toledo and Tiffin.

The victim's sister, Catherine Flegal, said Saturday she was shocked to hear of an arrest more than 24 years after the crime.

''I thought it was very sad to think anyone could do such a thing, worse yet it was a priest,'' she said. ''I think that man must of been very sick. Lord only knows what possessed him to do such a thing.''

Flegal said her sister had been a nun for 50 years.

Posted 1 a.m., 4-25, bwray@wtol.com