The man arrested for the 2014 murder of Fr. Kenneth Walker, FSSP, and the aggravated assault on Fr. Joseph Terra, FSSP, will spend the rest of his life in prison. That was the decision of Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Pete Reinstein at a sentencing hearing April 7.
Gary Michael Moran, 57, had only been out of prison for a short time and was homeless when he attacked the two priests on June 11, 2014 at Mater Misericordiae Mission in downtown Phoenix. Moran struck Fr. Terra multiple times with an angle iron and was able to take possession of a gun which he then used to shoot Fr. Walker. Fr. Walker was killed and Fr. Terra sustained serious injuries.
Though Moran had originally pled not guilty in the violent attack, he changed his plea to guilty in February following the decision of the Maricopa County Attorney’s office to seek the death penalty in the case.
He was wheeled into the courtroom dressed in a striped inmate uniform, his head shaved. He made eye contact with the eight or nine individuals who sat behind him in the hushed courtroom, but never spoke during the proceedings.
Fr. Terra, flanked by former parishioners and Fr. David Sanfilippo, Vicar for Priests for the Diocese of Phoenix, was on hand for the sentencing. John Kelly, a Phoenix attorney who has been assisting Fr. Terra, the diocese, Mater Misericordiae and the Walker family, read a prepared statement during the hearing.
“The tragic events which took place on June 11, 2014, at the Mater Misericordiae (Mother of Mercy) Mission in Phoenix caused deep physical and emotional pain and suffering, as well as great sorrow,” Kelly said. “The untimely loss of Fr. Walker was heartbreaking, and his humility, quiet and consistent strength, and unfailing faith and devotion to God and the Church have already been dearly missed.”
While noting that society must be protected from violence, Kelly stated that “concern for the eternal welfare of Mr. Moran prompts us to ensure he be given the time to hopefully experience the power and grace of God’s mercy, which we indeed pray for. Therefore, we fully support today’s decision by the Court to sentence Mr. Moran to spend the rest of his natural life in prison, as well as the Maricopa County Attorney’s dismissal of the death penalty in this case.”
Nicholas Luber, brother of Fr. Walker, briefly addressed the court.
“Throughout his life, Fr. Ken Walker was committed to God and his faith. He was a devoted priest, a friendly neighbor. Simply put, a great person. Mr. Moran, I hope you understand the gravity of what you did. I don’t know if you ever will. I know Fr. Walker is praying you will repent and seek forgiveness.”
The defense attorney representing Moran stated that her client “has repeatedly expressed regret and remorse. Mr. Moran is very much haunted by the acts that he has done. He has nightmares.” She went on to detail his struggle with mental illness, including bipolar disorder and what she said was his inability to receive appropriate psychiatric care.
“He was clean and sober for most of the 47 days following his release [from prison for an earlier violent crime] until he fell off the wagon in the days before the attack,” the defense attorney said. Moran had applied for assistance for his serious mental illness, she said. “It doesn’t excuse what he did but it helps the parties to understand … Mr. Moran really struggled.”
The prosecutor was quick to point out that Moran had indeed received assistance after being released.
“The defendant was seen by a number of individuals. He was using meth. He did have a number of prescriptions in his possession when he was arrested,” Patricia Stevens said. “He was being provided help — this is not an individual that was released from the Department of Corrections without help.”
Reinstein noted that the attack was a violation of Moran’s probation. He also enumerated the many aggravating circumstances of the crime: The use of a deadly weapon, the extent of the injuries and multiple prior convictions.
“I’m sure if you had asked Fr. Walker or Fr. Terra, they would have helped you,” Reinstein said.
Teresa Duarte, who taught catechism with Fr. Walker at Mater Misericordiae, was at the sentencing with two other parishioners.
“It was heartbreaking,” she said of seeing Moran in the courtroom. “It was very difficult. I’ve been praying for him and for his conversion.” She forgave him immediately following the attack, she said.
Colleen Beguin of Mater Misericordiae agreed. “We want him to convert his heart. … We are praying every day for his conversion because we know that’s what Fr. Walker would want us to do.”
Moran appeared at the sentencing in a wheelchair. According to his defense attorney, he was unable to be placed in a halfway house following his release from prison in 2014 because he was in a wheelchair. According to Amanda Jacinto, the public information officer for the Maricopa County Attorney’s office, “Nothing from the original police report from the night of the incident indicates Mr. Moran was in a wheelchair” but Moran “sometimes used a wheelchair prior to his arrest because of reported foot/leg pain.”
Moran will not be eligible for parole but would be allowed to petition the clemency board for release in the future.