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Notes on a Stupid Murderer

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jan 19, 2010

Another murder arising from anti-Catholic bigotry in the early 20th century was recounted in Sharon Davies’ Rising Road, the extraordinary book I reviewed last week (see The Murder of a Priest). The brutal murder of Father Patrick E. Heslin of Holy Angels Catholic Church in Colma, California took place on August 2, 1921, just a week before Fr. James Coyle was murdered in Birmingham.

In this case, the murderer betrayed himself in a different way. He had apparently lured the priest out of the rectory with the story that a friend was near death, and Fr. Heslin was never seen alive again, though a ransom note was delivered to the church. The church offered a reward of $11,000 to anyone who could provide information on his whereabouts, and one William A. Hightower showed up to collect the reward, stating that some woman had told him that some man had told her he had shot and buried a man on a nearby beach.

But although Hightower was vocal in his hatred of the Church, this was California, not Alabama. Suspicious police accompanied Hightower to the spot on the beach supposedly identified by the woman. When Hightower began digging, police warned him to be careful not to strike the decedent’s face with the shovel. Hightower, apparently feeling flush, told them not to worry because he was digging near the priest’s feet.

Oops! In due course Hightower was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment in San Quentin.

Footnote: Through a little independent research, I learned that a chemistry professor at the University of California at Berkeley, Edward Heinrich, had examined the handwriting on the ransom note. In the tradition of Sherlock Holmes, Heinrich had told police that the writer “had the hand” of a baker and decorator of cakes. This cast even greater suspicion on Hightower, because he was in fact a master baker. For this and other forensic details of the case, see Geological Engineer J. David Roger’s entertaining web page summarizing 20th century cases involving forensic geology.

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