ROCKVILLE - As his mother wept, Robert Paul Lucas, a homeless tree-trimmer who spent the past several months sleeping in a van, was ordered held without bond yesterday, charged with killing a popular Germantown priest after awakening him in his rectory.
Investigators have charged Lucas, 25, with first-degree murder. They allege that he broke into Mother Seton Catholic Church at night and fatally stabbed Monsignor Thomas Wells, whose body was found the morning of June 8.
Lucas - who police say has acknowledged that he was in the church and might have been involved in Wells' death - is scheduled to return to court July 14 for a preliminary hearing, unless prosecutors seek an indictment from a grand jury earlier.
"It doesn't get any more insidious than killing a man [of] the cloth within 100 yards of the altar," said Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler.
Gansler could seek the death penalty if the killing occurred during a burglary, but doing so could set up a confrontation with the Roman Catholic Church, which opposes capital punishment. Gansler said the decision will belong to his office, but added that the church's position will weigh heavily.
Wells, pastor at Mother Seton for 18 months and an area pastor for 19 years, was a vocal opponent of the death penalty and often preached against it, according to the Archdiocese of Washington. Susan Gibbs, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese, said members of his parish are struggling to stand behind that position given their anger over Wells' death.
"It's hard, and it's natural to be confused," Gibbs said. "But now we are called upon to pray for Mr. Lucas." She said members of the congregation were not planning to attend the hearing yesterday before Montgomery County District Court Judge Thomas Craven.
In court, Deputy State's Attorney Katherine Winfree told Craven that Lucas would pose a threat to the community and to himself if released. Winfree said the suspect was potentially suicidal and that when police detectives questioned him Saturday, "he asked if they had some rope."
She also noted Lucas has convictions for possession of drug paraphernalia and minor theft.
Lucas viewed the hearing on closed-circuit television from the County Detention Center. His image was visible to spectators in the courtroom, including his mother, Judy, who was seated in the second row. After the hearing, she told reporters that she had spoken to her son and that he told her he was high on drugs when he broke into the rectory.
"He said he didn't even know where he was," said his mother, who lived with Lucas in Gaithersburg until last spring. "He asked everyone to forgive him. He can't even comprehend that he did this."
Lucas said her son, who was born with birth defects, led a troubled childhood, was taunted by friends and occasionally spoke of killing himself. She described him as kind and never violent.
"If he has done this, please forgive him and please pray for him," Judy Lucas said. "The man standing there who did this stuff is not my child."
Prosecutors, however, said Lucas was able to offer specific details about a break-in and told them about a conversation he had with Wells before he died. Said Winfree: "We're satisfied he knew what he did."
Investigators matched Lucas' bootprint to one found in Wells' bedroom in the rectory. Prosecutors said yesterday that they also found several items taken from the rectory in Lucas' van and that they will present forensic evidence linking him to the crime.
Neighbors in a community near where Lucas parked his van said they were stunned by the arrest.
Mary Etzler, who lives in a room in a building across from Lucas' parking spot, said he often stopped by to play with her 9-year-old mutt, Fred.
"If he killed a priest, how come he didn't kill one of the people here?" Etzler said. "I appreciate if you would tell his mother there are a lot of people where he stayed that think he's not the killer."