Active shooter's release leaves community speechless

This case invites commentary but leaves one speechless

In April 2009 the District 4 Court of the State of Wisconsin ordered the release of Bryan Stanley, the killer of three people in a church. Two doctors – both mental health experts – agreed that he is no danger to the public as long as he takes his medication.

24 Years Earlier

On a winter night in 1985 in La Crosse Wisconsin, veteran Officer Paul Bequette cautiously approached a lone figure hiding in the bushes beside St. Francis hospital. During the contact, the suspect became belligerent and claimed to be “the Prophet Elijah.” The troubled man, Bryan Stanley, threatened that he would call down an angel to kill Officer Bequette.

Officer Bequette took Stanley into custody and Stanley suddenly became eerily quiet. Bequette recalled that his detainee wore the “1000 yard stare.” Bryan Stanley’s mind was occupied miles from nowhere and he looked distant, dangerous, and deadly. It would be a contact that Officer Bequette would remember the rest of his life. It may have been a life-saving encounter.

The officer placed a psychiatric hold on “Elijah,” which in Wisconsin is called, “a Chapter 51 Hold.” Shortly after the hold was placed on Bryan he was examined by a psychiatrist and released from the hospital.

Days later, Officers John Matuska and Randy Rank dealt with Stanley once again and came to the same conclusion. They felt Stanley was in need of psychiatric treatment and a danger to the community. For a second time in just a handful of days, he was released by a psychiatric specialist back into the community, creating for a number of families and an entire community an eternal, “If only...”

The Tragedy

Shortly after the second release, Father John Rossiter – a jovial Irish priest and pastor of St. Patrick’s Church in Onalaska, Wisconsin – answered a knock on the door of his rectory. Standing on the stoop was a serious-looking Bryan Stanley. Stanley was short and direct, warning the smiling priest to stop allowing girls to read scriptures at mass.

Father Rossiter smiled – it was his way. He explained to Stanley that he would continue to allow girls to read the scripture, explaining, “If it’s all right with the Pope, it’s all right with me.” He bid the sour-looking Stanley, “Good day to you young man,” and shut the door.

After mass that day, Bryan Stanley crept quietly up behind the parish priest and raised a 12 gauge shotgun. He aimed carefully and fired, hitting Father Rossiter in the back of the head as he knelt before the altar, instantly killing the man. Stanley shot Ferd Roth Sr, a lay minister, as he came to assist Father Rossiter. Stanley then went on the hunt and found one other person in the church, William Hammes, the maintenance man for St. Pat’s, and mercilessly gunned him down. When it appeared Stanley was out of victims he calmly cased his shotgun and walked out of the church as if nothing had happened.

Within minutes, Bryan Stanley was spotted by a deputy a few blocks from the scene carrying the cased shotgun. Unaware that people had been killed in the church, Deputy Randy Haller of the La Crosse County Sheriff’s Department drew his firearm and shouted for the suspect to drop the weapon and get down. Stanley ignored Haller’s commands initially, but then slowly and deliberately stopped turned and began to uncase his shotgun. Deputy Haller shouted one last warning, “It’s not worth it. Stop or I’ll blow your head off!”

Stanley complied with Haller’s imperative, and laid down the still cased weapon and went prone on the sidewalk. When Deputy Haller handcuffed his captor he asked him who he was and was told, “I am the Prophet Elijah.”

Not Guilty By Reason of Mental Disease and Defect

The deaths shocked the community to the core. There was no one as beloved in Onalaska as Father Rossiter. The country had not yet been inundated by the post-Columbine Carnage. Law Enforcement training manuals did not yet contain references to the “active shooter.”

The families were devastated by the event since none had ever prepared mentally for a violent end for such peace-loving people as Father Rossiter, Mr. Roth, and Mr. Hammes. All the families could hope for was justice.

There would be no justice in the Bryan Stanley case. Psychiatric experts now testified that Bryan Stanley was clearly dangerous and so mentally ill he was not competent to understand his crimes, nor the proceedings against him. Bryan Stanley was found “Not Guilty By Reason of Mental Disease and Defect.”

He was ordered to the Mendota Mental Health Facility for treatment.

As Paul Harvey Would Say, “Now for the Rest of the Story”

After his commitment, there was a time of diagnosis and medication. Over the years Stanley’s attorney clamored for the release of Bryan Stanley. Time and time again his release was denied by local judges.

Stanley’s attorney tried once again in 2008 and La Crosse County Judge Ramona Gonzalez pointed to documented cases when Bryan Stanley refused to take his medicine at Mendota. She denied the request for release, indicating that there was no guarantee that if Stanley was released, he would stay on his medication.

Stanley’s attorney appealed the Judge’s decision to continue to protect the community from Bryan Stanley and in April of 2009, the District 4 Court ordered his release from Mendota. Another court battle is brewing because his location has been kept from the community for Bryan Stanley’s protection.

Rose Hammes, whose father was killed in St. Pat’s Church, was troubled by the court’s decision. She told a local newspaper if Stanley was to be released, “I want to know where he is.” Time and the courts will say whether her simple request will be honored.

A Police Officer’s Father Died in That Church

Sgt. Ferd Roth Jr. retired recently from the La Crosse, Wisconsin Police Department after 29 years. His father Ferd Roth Sr. was killed by Bryan Stanley as he came to the aid of Father Rossiter. The Roth family has witnessed the relentless efforts by Stanley’s attorney to gain the release of Bryan Stanley. Sgt. Roth has listened to the statements of doctors who repeatedly have marveled at Stanley’s recovery, swearing that he will be of no danger to the community “as long as he stays on his medication.”

A long career has taught Sgt. Roth that our system of justice is good but imperfect. He opined on Stanley’s release, “I didn’t think this day would come. He did what he did and there are no guarantees, by his own admission, that he will take his medicine.”

Sgt. Roth did not share the optimistic view of the psychiatrist and the District 4 court. He hoped that innocents would not be affected if Stanley once again stopped taking his medications. “I guess what I hope for is once he gets released instead of picking a church, next time maybe he’ll visit his attorney and his psychiatrist that says he is mentally competent.”


In the news reports in the many subsequent active shooter incidents since Stanley’s bloody rampage, the headlines read, “8 killed,” or “13 gunned down,” heralding the gruesome accomplishments of another active shooter. To the families the neighbors and co-workers of these victims they are not numbers.

Father John Rossiter, William Hammes, and Ferd Roth Sr. were all exemplary human beings. All who knew them were better for it. They are examples of the many good people who have died at the hands of these shooters. The kind of people a doctor, a lawyer, a judge, or a police officer might be called upon to save someday just by believing what they say and taking the appropriate action.

With the release of Bryan Stanley, he becomes an extremely rare case of an active shooter: one who has killed and lived to be released back into the community where he did his killing.

This case invites commentary but leaves one speechless. Perhaps Sgt. Ferd Roth said it best, “What can you say? It is what it is.”

Stay safe. Stay strong. Stay positive. Stay prepared!

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