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Shelter Island homicide unsolved after six years: Island and County Police report case still ‘active’

It’s been six years this month, on March 19, 2018, when an 87-year-old retired Episcopal minister was found barely conscious, wrists bound, alone in his Silver Beach home on Oak Tree Lane.

After being airlifted to Stony Brook University Hospital, Rev. Paul Wancura endured multiple blood transfusions and the amputation of his left hand, before succumbing 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.

And since that windy, bright March day six years ago, there have been no arrests, and no suspects have been identified.

The Shelter Island and Suffolk County Police departments have made no statements on leads. Both departments have designated the crime as a home invasion and burglary — several items of jewelry were stolen — and a homicide, and say the investigation is “active.”

On Monday, Island Police Chief Jim Read said in a statement to the Reporter, “The Shelter Island Police Department, in collaboration with the Suffolk County Police Department Homicide Squad, is fully committed to resolving this case. Despite the passage of time, the investigation into Rev. Paul Wancura’s death remains active, and we are diligently pursuing all available leads, both old and new. Our agencies are dedicated to bringing this investigation to a resolution and ensuring that justice is served. We understand the importance of this case to the community and to those affected by Rev. Wancura’s passing, and we are working tirelessly to achieve closure. Thank you for your ongoing support and cooperation as we work to bring this investigation to a successful conclusion.”

Detective Lieutenant Kevin Beyrer, commanding officer of the Suffolk County Police Department’s Homicide Division, said Tuesday that the case “is still a priority for our department,” but would answer no questions on developments.

Chief Read, within a few days of the reports from Oak Tree Lane, said it was “not a random incident.” Det. Beyrerh as 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.”

Given that Rev. Wancura was lucid during his time in the hospital, Det. Beyrer was asked Tuesday what descriptions he gave of the person or persons who assaulted him. “We’re not going to comment on our conversations with him,” the officer said. 

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.”

Adding to the mystery is that soon after the discovery of Rev. Wancura in his home, the police reported another burglary on Oak Tree Lane, 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.” 

‘Shattered Innocence’

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. But a sense of uncertainty, even fear, especially during the quiet times of  winter, still affects many people.

Just last week a young professional woman who lives and works here, and grew up on the Island, said, “I still think about it when I’m alone, I’m one of those people who grew up not locking our doors. But now, yes, I’m locking doors and being aware.”

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. A book is supposedly in the works on the case as well as a documentary.

A lawsuit filed two-and-a-half years after the homicide, charging the minister with sexual abuse decades ago, and a diocese and parishes with covering up the abuse, is still unresolved.

A Shocking Discovery

The crime came to light on a day when the Island was just on the cusp of spring. 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 as horrific as it was heartbreaking.

“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 from Sunday services at a church in West Islip where he had assisted most weekends.

Father McCarron 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 was almost cut off. It was determined that he had been in that state from three to seven days, Chief Read said, and he would be dead just short of a month after being found.

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.

Lawsuit in Island homicide case still active: Plaintiff claims abuse by priest, sues for $20 million

On Aug. 13, 2021, two-and-a-half years after the death of Rev. Paul Wancura, resulting from a home invasion on Shelter Island, 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 on 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 the $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; it’s been more than a year without any decision from the court.

Asked Monday about the status of the action, Mr. Santamarina said he and his client are still waiting for a decision on the dismissal. He characterized the court’s taking so much time without acting as “not normal.”

There had been discussions to negotiate a settlement between Mr. Crispin and the church, but none since the church’s motion to dismiss the case, Mr. Santamarina said. 

The diocese has had no comment since the suit was filed, and reiterated their position on Monday. Denise Fillion, director of communication for the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island, noted that, “The only update I can give you is that nothing at all has changed in the case from a year ago.”