Published in February 2023.
With the fifth anniversary coming next month of the most shocking and brutal crime ever committed on Shelter Island, it still remains unsolved.
The case of Rev. Paul Wancura, an 87-year-old retired Episcopal minister, who became only the second recorded homicide victim in Island history, has produced no arrests, and no suspects have been identified.
The Shelter Island Police and the Suffolk County Police departments have designated the crime as a home invasion, burglary — several items of jewelry were stolen — and a homicide. Both departments say the investigation is “active.”
Shelter Island Police Chief Read said, “As we approach the fifth year of Rev. Wancura’s death, the case and investigation remain active for our department and Suffolk County P.D. Suffolk County has the lead in this investigation, but both agencies continue to collaborate on all sources of information and feel confident we’ll solve this case. We remind our community that, should you have any information that could assist in this investigation, you can call the Shelter Island P.D. at 631-749-0600 or SCPD Crime Stoppers at 800-220-TIPS.”
A law suit filed two-and-a-half years after the homicide, charging the minister with sexual abuse decades ago, is still unresolved.
The crime came to light on a bright, windy, March day in 2018, when Father Charles McCarron of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church went to check on his elderly colleague, who had been out of touch for several days. He thought he was prepared for the worst. But what Father McCarron discovered was a horrific and heartbreaking scene.
“It’s been kind of like a PTSD event for me,” Father McCarron said.
He had gone to Rev. Wancura’s home in Silver Beach, where the minister lived alone, because he had been absent for Sunday services at a church in West Islip where he had assisted most weekends.
He entered the waterfront house on Oak Tree Lane, the one-lane road that leads to Shell Beach, through the garage door, which Rev. Wancura had a habit of leaving open. “Knowing his age, I was prepared to find that he might have fallen, or was ill,” Father McCarron said. “But not what I found.”
The elderly minister was in a bedroom, trapped in a corner in a heap between the bed and a wall, with his wrists so tightly bound the circulation in his hands were almost cut off. It was determined that he had been in that state from three to seven days, Chief Read said.
Rev. Wancura was airlifted to Stony Brook University Hospital and placed in the intensive care unit. After enduring multiple blood transfusions and the amputation of his left hand, the priest succumbed to his wounds on April 16, 2018, just short of a month after being found.
The official cause of death was sepsis, which is a system-wide infection, often caused by injuries.
He was lucid and his own personable self during his time in the ICU, Father McCarron and others said, receiving friends and colleagues at his bedside. At times he rallied, giving hope he’d pull through. But being tied up for days, immobile against a wall, had been too much for the nearly 90-year-old man.
A visitor to the hospital, a veteran of Vietnam, said he had never seen such serious wounds since his service in the war.
Adding to the mystery is that soon after Father McCarron’s discovery of Rev. Wancura, the police reported another burglary on Oak Tree Lane they estimated occurred on the afternoon of March 4, when the owners “returned after being away for an extended period of time,” Chief Read said at the time. “Detectives are exploring the possibility that the burglary and the discovery of a burglary two weeks ago in the same area might be connected.”
The chief added that the second incident is “broadening the scope of looking at suspects.”
Chief Read, within a few days of the reports from Oak Tree Lane, said it was “not a random incident.” Detective Lieutenant Kevin Beyrer, commanding officer of the Suffolk County Police Department’s homicide squad, confirmed that assessment.
“There were elements of the crime that led us to believe that, whoever did this, planned it and knew what they were doing going into it,” Det. Beyrer told the Reporter. “We don’t believe that the person or persons who did this thought they were going into an unoccupied house.”
One of Rev. Wancura’s friends, who had visited him in the hospital, said that he had told him it was not “persons” who had committed the crime, but one man. When this was mentioned to the detective, he confirmed that the victim “did speak about one person, but we don’t want to limit ourselves. We want to keep our options open.”
The officer said his department has “looked at hundreds of people, everyone he had contact with,” noting that a clergyman “has contacts with hundreds of people.”
About a month after the first reports of the incident surfaced, the police released a description and photograph of one of the items stolen from Rev. Wancura’s residence, a Lucien Piccard Seashark watch.
A $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the killer or killers has been posted. Anyone with information is urged to phone 1-800-220-TIPS.
Rumors were part of nearly every Island conversation in the weeks after the homicide, and still circulate today. One that stuck was that an employee on a crew working on bulkheads in the area could be counted as a suspect. Det. Beyrer is aware of the theory, but said it is just that — a theory.
It’s in no way a cold case, he said, even though lately, tips on information have been few and far between. In the beginning of an investigation, especially one with the notoriety of the Wancura case, the police receive a lot of tips, he added.
“People come up with theories,” Det. Beyrer said. “Different ideas, things we might not have seen.”
But over time, the rate of the public’s contact with the police providing information drops, he said. “We’ve run every lead down, and everything that comes in, we run it down,” the detective said. “We want to bring this in.”
A COMMUNITY IN SHOCK
After the crime became known, a sense of fear flooded through every Island neighborhood, affecting people of all ages, but especially senior citizens. The Island had been that clichéd place where people didn’t feel the need to lock their doors at night.
The incident on Oak Tree Lane inspired the town supervisor at the time, Gary Gerth, to sum up what was on the minds of many residents: “This has shattered the innocence of Shelter Island.”
The only other homicide case in the Island’s 300-year history occurred in 1998. Kenneth Payne III was arrested for killing his neighbor Curtis Cook, with police reporting that Mr. Payne was angered by threats Mr. Cook made to his girlfriend and daughter, and a belief that Mr. Cook was guilty of child molestation charges that were pending against him.
Mr. Payne was sentenced to 25 years to life in an upstate prison, but released after six years when the State Court of Appeals determined he had been sentenced on a wrong charge.
Reports of the Wancura case of an elderly minister assaulted, bound, left alone and subsequently dying from the attack, in a small Island town, attracted extraordinary attention. There were stories in media outlets as far afield as Britain.
On Aug. 13, 2021, a North Carolina man filed suit in New York State Supreme Court against the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island and two Long Island Episcopal parishes for $20 million, alleging that when he was a boy, he was sexually abused by Rev. Wancura from 1978 to 1985.
Rev. Wancura had assisted with services in several Episcopal parishes, including Holy Trinity in Greenport and Caroline in Setauket. It was there that Lew H. Crispin III of Buncombe County, N.C., alleges in the suit that Rev. Wancura abused and sexually assaulted him on a “regular and ongoing basis for a period of approximately seven years, beginning around 1978, when Plaintiff was about eight years old, and ending in or about 1985, when Plaintiff, then about 15 years old, was baptized and confirmed and then immediately ceased attending Caroline Church, never to return.”
The suit claims church officials were aware, or should have been aware, that Rev. Wancura was a sexual predator of children.
Represented by his attorney, Gil Santamarina of Manhattan, Mr. Crispin is seeking $20 million in damages that the abuse, he claims, “caused and will continue to cause Plaintiff to suffer severe and permanent damages, including but not limited to physical injury and mental and emotional distress.”
Since the original filing, the three suits have been consolidated into one before a State Supreme Court in Manhattan, where the main branch of the Episcopal church oversees the Long Island congregations. The church has filed a motion to dismiss all the charges.
Asked last week about the status of the action, Mr. Santamarina said, “We’re still waiting for a decision on the dismissal. I don’t think they will succeed with their motion. Unless they define success as delay. If so, to that extent they succeeded.”
The diocese has had no comment since the suit was filed, and reiterated their position last week. Denise Fillion, director of communication for the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island, responded to a request for comment via email, stating that Bishop Lawrence Provenzano, the leader of the Episcopal Church on Long Island “cannot provide any further comment on this for the time being. I will be in touch if that changes as the case proceeds.”
An Episcopal archdeacon of Suffolk County, Rev. Wancura served in many roles throughout the Diocese of Long Island, including, for a decade, serving at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Greenport.
A graduate of Queens College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Business Administration, he held a Master of Divinity from the General Theological Seminary in New York City.
He had also served with the U.S. Army Counterintelligence Corps in Austria and France, before finding his vocation in the Episcopal priesthood.
Rev. Wancura was interred in the cemetery of the Caroline Church of Brookhaven in Setauket on April 23, 2018, where he had served as pastor for close to three decades. He was laid to rest alongside his wife, Helena, who died in 2007.
At a memorial service held at St. Mary’s in April 2018, his friend, Islander Twoey Brayson, remembered Rev. Wancura as a man of “keen intellect,” who was versed in history and theology, who “liked to dance, sing, enjoyed a good cigar and a wee dram of Scotch … He was still a student. He never acted old … He loved Shelter Island for its natural beauty but also for its peacefulness … Paul is truly missed by all who knew him, loved him and were enriched by having him in their lives.”
Michael Russell, a parishioner of the Caroline Church, recalled Rev. Wancura as an energetic and dynamic pastor. “A whole bunch of us became parishioners after meeting him,” Mr. Russell said. “He built our church up.”
Father Peter DeSanctis, pastor of Our Lady of the Isle, remembered him as a man of dedication “to Our Lord, to his wife and to his professional obligations. Paul was always on the alert, not waiting for the phone to ring or the knock on the door, for situations where an intervention would be helpful.”
Father DeSanctis especially remembered his friend’s selflessness, recalling that when he first visited him in the ICU, before he had a chance to speak, Rev. Wancura asked him how he was doing, and about Father DeSanctis’ brother.
“He was thinking about me, and there he was in his hospital bed,” the priest said.
Asked about the day he found his friend, and the images that accompany his memory, Father McCarron said he’s “talked about it and worked through it” with a person in his diocese who counsels priests on personal issues.
He paused, and added, “Paul is where he always wanted to be. I believe he’s doing pretty good.”