CHATHAM, N.J. – An arrest in the brutal slaying of a Roman Catholic priest has brought little solace to this bucolic, upscale community, which widely views the suspected role of the longtime church janitor as a second tragedy.
More than 150 people at St. Patrick’s Church for Sunday’s early Mass prayed for the Rev. Ed Hinds, whose body was discovered in the church rectory Friday, and for Jose Feliciano, who is charged with stabbing the priest 32 times with a kitchen knife.
“This is a tragedy for this community,” the Rev. Owen Moran said after leading Mass. “It’s a tragedy for Father Ed and his family, and it’s a tragedy for the Feliciano family.”
Authorities say the slaying occurred at about 5 p.m. Thursday after an argument between Hinds and Feliciano in the rectory.
Morris County Prosecutor Robert Bianchi told CNN that the two men argued “over Feliciano’s continued employment.” He said Hinds dialed 911 from his cell phone and said he was being attacked and needed help. The call was cut off. The 911 operator called back and Feliciano answered and said “everything’s fine,” Bianchi said. The operator wasn’t able to send authorities because the calls from the cell phone could not be traced, he said.
Bianchi said investigators found the priest’s cell phone, bloody clothing and bloody towels at Feliciano’s home in Easton, Pa., and in a park across the street.
“It’s just not believable,” said parishioner Dan Langborgh, 47, who lives across the street from the church. “Jose is a very nice guy who has been around for many years. He’s the last person I would have suspected.”
Feliciano had worked at the church 17 years and his family is part of the parish. His son is a graduate of the church school, which runs from kindergarten through 8th grade, and his daughter is a student there.
Neighbors and friends in Easton said the Feliciano family moved to the gritty working-class community — 45 miles west of Chatham — from a house next to St. Patrick’s in 2004. Hinds took over leadership of the parish in 2003.
Police shooed reporters and passers-by away from the Felicianos’ home on Sunday afternoon, their squad car parked a few feet from a front yard statue of St. Francis of Assisi. The community of 27,000 people has a median family income of $42,000.
Residents described Feliciano as a quiet family man who was protective of his children and chatted amicably with neighbors each night as he walked his beagle, Fria.
John O’Brien, 61, said neighbors were initially puzzled by the team of assault-rifle wielding SWAT officers that descended on the home Saturday.
“He was just a normal family man trying to make a living,” O’Brien said. “I couldn’t believe it when I heard what he had done.”
Hinds, who was born in nearby Morristown, was a regular sight in the neighborhood around the church where he walked his cocker spaniel, Copper.
Parishioner Michael Marotta, 47, said he would not have hesitated to leave his three children in the care of either Hinds or Feliciano, whom he described as caring, quiet, hardworking men. Marotta, whose 10-year-old son is enrolled at St. Patrick’s School, lives down the street from the church.
“Everyone loses in this,” Marotta said. “The church, the broader Chatham community and the Hinds and Feliciano families. It’s disheartening.”
Bianchi said Feliciano and another man found the body Friday after Hinds failed to show up for 8 a.m. Mass. Bianchi said Feliciano was performing CPR on the priest when officers arrived and his halfhearted attempts struck them as suspicious.
Hinds was dressed in his clerical robes and appeared to be brewing coffee in the rectory kitchen at the time. He sustained wounds to his upper torso, the back of his body and his head from a kitchen knife, officials said. Hinds also had defensive wounds on his hands and face, Bianchi said. An autopsy determined the cause of death was severe trauma.
The slaying rocked the New York City bedroom community of about 10,000 residents, where the last violent death occurred in 1990. The median family income is $132,000 and authorities and residents had initially suspected that Hinds died at the hands of a needy outsider who had come to him for help.
“Everyone thought it was an outsider because Father Hinds always opened the church to the needy,” Langborgh said.
Parishioners learned of Feliciano’s arrest Saturday near the end of 5 p.m. Mass.
Parishioner Juliette Peros told the Star Ledger of Newark that several people cried when the announcement was made and a woman seated behind her yelled, “Jose! No, Jose!”
“It’s so sad,” said parishioner Pat Patello, 52. “I don’t think this town will ever get over this.”