Dan O’Connell and James Ellison’s Murders: How Did Ryan Erickson Die?

Image Credit: O'Connell Funeral Homes

The small and relatively peaceful city of Hudson, Wisconsin, was suddenly the center of a double homicide in 2002. The murders of Dan O’Connell and James Ellison were the first in the city since 1978 and had the community in disbelief. But the police had a difficult time trying to solve the matter since the motive itself remained unclear for a long time, plus there was no direct evidence. ID’s ‘A Time to Kill: The Unusual Suspect’ and Hulu’s ‘Me, Hereafter: The Funeral Home Murders’ digs into the work of the detectives and how almost three years after the murders, a wholly unexpected person seemed to be the killer they were looking for all that while.

Dan O’Connell and James Ellison Died at Work

Daniel “Dan” O’Connell was a 39-year-old proud father of two who ran a funeral home in Hudson. He had previously gotten an EMT degree while still in high school. In 1992, he graduated with honors from the University of Minnesota with a degree in Mortuary Science, but later chose to join the family business. Though what made him the most memorable was his friendly and energetic personality as well as his longtime activeness in the community. He was married to Jennie Johnson in 1998 and together they had two kids – Kyle and Kaitlyn.

On the other hand, James Ellison was a young yet ambitious 22-year-old who was working as an intern at the funeral home when everything turned upside down. He’d grew up in Barron, Wisconsin, and had hopes of helping people by becoming a funeral director. He was a senior at the University of Minnesota, majoring in Mortuary Science. James had his whole life ahead of him, with graduation on the horizon and his high school sweetheart/hopeful future wife by his side. But sadly, along with Dan, his life were cut short one afternoon in 2002.

On February 5, police rushed to the funeral home office after a 911 call reporting a shooting there. Both Dan and James had died of gunshot wounds to their heads. Shell casings were recovered from the scene and were believed to be shot from a 9mm gun but at the time, the murder weapon was not found at the scene. There were no signs of struggle and robbery was ruled out as well, but the motive was not immediately apparent.

Dan O’Connell and James Ellison Were Killed By a Priest

The police were initially, genuinely stumped in pursuit of Dan and James’ killer. The former was a much-loved member of the community and the latter was rising up to that level too, so they had a hard time coming up with any reason someone would want either of them dead. They were able to narrow down the window of this double homicide between 1:07 PM and 1:22 PM that afternoon by looking at the duo’s phone records. But after interviewing all potential suspects and verifying their alibis, the police were back to square one and the case went cold.

It wasn’t until 2004 that there was another potential break in the investigation. Authorities were looking into Ryan Erickson, a 31-year-old priest who had known the O’Connells well. He had previously worked at the church in Hudson as an associate priest during the period the murders took place and had even conducted Dan’s funeral. In 2004, they were actually investigating him for an unrelated matter when they realized the two could be connected. There were allegations that Ryan that had sexually abused an adolescent boy and was an alcoholic. Then he was also accused of molesting a boy in 1992 while he was still in the seminary.

Ryan was thus brought in for questioning. After quizzing him about the abuse allegations, the police asked him if he knew anything about the double homicide at the funeral home that occurred more than two years prior. At that point, he unwittingly proceeded to give them details about the case and crime scene that were not public knowledge, which raised questions. He was interrogated in November 2004 and then again in December. When asked how he knew the details of the crime, he said that he couldn’t remember. A search warrant for his house and office was hence carried out and on his work computer, police found inappropriate pictures of young boys. He was beginning to look like their prime suspect and the killer but he would never stand trial.

How Did Ryan Erickson Die?

About three days after Ryan was questioned the second time in December 2004, he took his own life – he died by suicide. He was actually found hanging from a fire escape at a church in Hurley, Wisconsin, where he worked. Ryan had written a few letters and in one of them, he denied having anything to do with the murders. His death meant that Ryan could not be charged but the victims’ families requested a John Doe hearing. This was to show that there was enough evidence to get a guilty verdict if there was a trial.

A friend actually testified that Ryan was upset in early February 2002 and had told him he’d killed. “He tells me that ‘I done [did] it and they were going to catch me,’” he testified in court. A school bus driver Mary Pagel also testified that she had met Dan on the morning that he was killed for a coffee. She stated that Dan had asked her if she had ever seen Ryan touch a child inappropriately. 

The investigators theorized that Dan might have found out about the child molestation allegations and had possibly confronted Ryan. James was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. In the end, in October 2005, a judge ruled that Ryan “almost certainly” killed Dan and James. He said, “On a scale of one to 10, I would consider it a 10. It is a very strong case of circumstantial evidence.”

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