Priest's Death Leaves Behind A Trail Of Riddles -- Police Suspect Thieving Pastor Was Murdered

PITTSBURGH - The Rev. Walter Benz was sick in bed, his brain infected by a lethal virus, his body wasted by leukemia, his soul tainted by sin.

A pastor at two parishes for 26 years, Benz had just confessed to skimming $1.35 million from the collection plate.

That wasn't all. Parishioners learned that the Roman Catholic priest had been living lavishly with a lady friend and amassing six-figure gambling losses in Atlantic City. He had rooms at the rectory, a house in the suburbs, a condo in Florida, a collection of precious coins and a Cadillac. He had 27 handguns, most still in the box. He had stylish Japanese furniture and a statue of Buddha.

Now he was trapped in a purgatory of catastrophic illness and impending criminal prosecution. The more the law closed in, the more his health seemed to fade. By the time he began admitting his transgressions, viral fever had addled his brain to the point where he was showering with his clothes on and forgetting how to feed himself. On the day authorities showed up at his sickbed to arraign him, Benz slipped into a coma.

Nine days later, somebody crept into his room at a Catholic nursing home and plucked the oxygen-tube catheter from his nose and the IV needle from his arm. Benz, 72, died two hours later on Sept. 4.

He left behind a confession that implicated his companion, a former church secretary, and a series of riddles. Who did it? Why kill a dying man? Vengeance? Or mercy?

Dr. Cyril Wecht, the Allegheny County coroner, wants to conduct an open inquest, but he is waiting for Allegheny County detectives to find the mysterious couple whom a nursing-home aide said he spotted in Benz's room the night he died.

"They said they had suspects, then they didn't, then they did. If there were people there, they should've been identified by now," Wecht said.

Was it an inside job?

Police say they can't find the couple. Among the leads they are pursuing is whether the couple even exists - implying that pulling the plug was perhaps an inside job.

Two months after the death, which police are investigating as a homicide, nobody, it seems, knows where the case is headed. "There are lots of loose ends," said Inspector Daniel Colaizzi, chief of Allegheny County detectives.

Meanwhile, the priest's former companion, 51-year-old Mary Anne Albaugh, is facing the same charges of theft, tampering with records and conspiracy that Benz would have faced. She was to face a preliminary hearing in state district court Nov. 6, but both sides requested a two-week postponement, a sign that a plea agreement may be in the works. Her lawyer would say only that he was talking with prosecutors. Albaugh has not commented on the case.

Nature of relationship unclear

Speculation persists about the nature of the relationship between Benz and Albaugh. Although some parishioners routinely refer to her as Benz's "girlfriend," Colaizzi said that Benz had his own room at her house and that the two stayed in separate rooms when they vacationed in Atlantic City, often with Albaugh's teenage son.

Benz's and Albaugh's lawyer, James Ecker, said, "As far as I know and as far as I have been told, there was no sex relationship" between his clients. "Who knows but the two of them?"

The uncertainty of Albaugh's fate is only one of the untidy elements left by the unraveling of the life she shared with the priest, who told authorities before he died that they became partners in crime after she caught him ripping open collection envelopes one Sunday.

Benz was by most accounts a highly personable, almost flamboyant priest.

"He was very down to earth. He didn't preach to you," said Donna Books, a parishioner at the St. Mary Assumption Church.

Fleecing the flock

Yet people say the priest was personally distant, unavailable outside of Mass and constantly complaining about church finances. He was always putting the pinch on parishioners. "Every time people met him, he said, `You have to give more,' " said Barbara Hartmann, rushing to Mass last Sunday, flashing her collection envelope. "Now we know why. Your faith really takes a knock when something like this happens."

Benz admitted to police and Pittsburgh Diocese officials that he began fleecing the flock back in the early 1970s, when he was assigned to the Most Blessed Sacrament Church in nearby Natrona Heights, where Albaugh was a parishioner with a troubled marriage. She later became a volunteer cook at the church rectory.

Benz was transferred to St. Mary in 1992 during a diocese reorganization, said the Rev. Ronald Lengwin, diocese spokesman. Albaugh joined him on the payroll as driver, cook and eventually church secretary. According to county records, she and her husband divorced that same year.

After a few months, the priest who replaced Benz at the other church said he had inherited some curious financial discrepancies, including complaints from parishioners who said they had donated more than their year-end church statements showed, Lengwin said.

Missing records, missing money

Records were missing or incomplete, and Lengwin said the diocese hadn't audited church offerings during the reorganization. "It was just during that one period of time that we weren't paying closer attention to them."

A year later, the same sort of financial irregularities began surfacing at Benz's new parish, and Lengwin said Benz blamed the discrepancies on the bookkeeper, who at the time was dying of a brain tumor. Police said Albaugh allegedly was forging the bookkeeper's name on checks that were being deposited in her and Benz's accounts.

Meanwhile, Benz's relationship with Albaugh was drawing attention. In 1996, one parishioner complained to the diocese that the friendship seemed "closer than it should have been," Lengwin said. Benz, confronted by the bishop, said it was platonic.

Even this year, when a rectory worker told diocese officials that the priest wasn't always staying at clerical quarters overnight, Benz said he was sleeping over at Albaugh's only on the days when he needed a lift to doctor's appointments.

"We didn't know that he was keeping house with this woman," Lengwin said.

The couple had been living together for three years, police said.

Police are brought in

Faced with mounting losses at the church, the diocese conducted an audit that, according to police, turned up $249,000 in discrepancies in church accounts from 1992 to 1996, the bulk of it from weekly donations.

The diocese turned the matter over to local authorities, who spent a year building a case. They found big cash deposits in the bank accounts of Benz and Albaugh. Albaugh told police in July that the money came from winning a grand or two weekly at casino slot machines. Benz said his influx of personal savings had come from the sale of his Florida condo and returns on his investments.

Evidence indicated otherwise.

Casino records showed they were net losers. Police said the Taj Mahal alone tallied $117,000 in losses by Benz. After searching Albaugh's home, police seized documents that indicated Benz's investments consisted of an IRA set up to reinvest dividends and interest, not pay him whopping returns.

Benz resigned a day after Albaugh's home was searched. Albaugh called the diocese and, according to a police affidavit, told a church official that Benz "had something to get off his chest." A church official came to their home, according to the police affidavit, and Benz admitted stealing money, estimating that he took a thousand dollars a week for 26 years at both churches, for a rough total of $1.35 million.

Quizzed by detectives, Benz tried to protect Albaugh and said he acted alone. Then he acknowledged that the two teamed up after the woman saw the priest emptying envelopes.

A mysterious couple

After Benz went into the coma, Ecker, his lawyer, said that Albaugh, who had power of attorney to act on Benz's behalf, wanted him taken off life support. Ecker said he discussed the matter with a lawyer for the diocese, who insisted that removing the feeding tube would violate church law.

"I said, `Let's wait and see next week. God works in mysterious ways,' " Ecker said.

The next week, an alarm went off in Benz's room indicating his IV tube had come undone. Police said a nurses' aide went to the room and saw a middle-aged couple standing over the comatose cleric, with the man holding the priest's hand. While medical personnel scrambled to the scene and reconnected the life support, the couple disappeared.

After searching fruitlessly for this couple, detective Colaizzi said police have added another theory to the investigation: They didn't exist. He wouldn't comment on any alternative suspects, however, although the circumstances suggest that the person knew the layout of the nursing home.

Nursing-home authorities won't divulge the name of the nurses' aide, and Assistant Administrator Albert Dingman said he had no reason to doubt the account. However, detectives and Benz's lawyer are uncertain how somebody could have entered the nursing home's locked door, avoided signing the visitor's log and found the room where Benz was dying. Colaizzi said none of the registered visitors match the descriptions of the mysterious couple.

The inquest the coroner wants to hold would try to determine to what degree, if any, the removal of the oxygen and feeding tubes contributed to the death. Wecht said even the brief loss of the supplemental oxygen supply could have pushed somebody so ill over the edge.

As for the money, Ecker said he was not convinced his client took it, or at least all of it. He said the church had a $1 million insurance policy and suggested that the diocese estimated its losses commensurately. Lengwin called the implication "irresponsible" and said the church filed an insurance claim only for the $220,000 to $250,000 that the audit had found missing.

Even though the diocese has commissioned a panel to determine if additional financial safeguards are necessary, many parishioners remain outraged that it took so long to clamp down on Benz.