Unsolved murder of Father Reynaldo Rivera investigated by On The Case With Paula Zahn

Father Rivera smiling in priests robes
Father Reynaldo Rivera’s murder remains a mystery. Pic credit: @OnTheCaseWithPaulaZahn/Facebook

On The Case With Paula Zahn is examining the strange murder of Father Reynaldo Rivera, who was lured away from the St Francis Cathedral in Santa Fe, New Mexico, before he was tortured and killed.

Father Rivera was a beloved Franciscan priest who had spent years serving the Catholic Church in New Mexico. His murder remains a mystery, but the cops suspect he may have been a victim of an act of revenge and was probably just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

On the night of August 5, 1982, a man who identified themselves as Michael Carmello telephoned the rectory at St. Francis Cathedral and requested a priest come to give his grandfather the last rites. The priest who answered, Father Patrick Gerard, said his eyesight was too poor to drive at night, but he told the caller to ring again in about 15 minutes.

When the call was returned, Father Rivera answered and agreed to give the man’s grandfather the last rites. The priest was told to meet the caller at a rest stop in La Bajada, NM., about 30 miles southwest of Santa Fe. From there, Carmello would take Father Rivera to a house in Waldo, NM.

Unfortunately, Father Rivera was never seen alive again. His body was discovered on August 7, a few miles away from the rest stop. He had been shot in either the chest or the stomach and strangled with some wire, possibly a coat hangar.

Father Rivera’s car was found abandoned approximately 120 miles to the west, near Grants, NM. Its gas tank was empty. The victim’s personal belongings, such as his eyeglasses, wallet, and sacramental kit, were missing from both crime scenes.

One strange detail recounted years later by reporter Steve Terrell was that the public phone at the rest stop had been broken, meaning the caller must have phoned from elsewhere.

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Police could not understand why someone would want to kill Father Rivera

The police were baffled as to who would want to kill such a popular man. Retired Deputy Chief Gilbert Ulibarri, who spent years working the case, theorized that the killer wanted some kind of revenge against a priest, any priest. And Father Rivera was just unfortunate to be the one to answer the call.

Ulibarri explained, “They wanted somebody in the cathedral. Something in that person’s life happened that involved the cathedral and a priest. I’m not saying it was Father Rivera. Just revenge.”

Two years after the murder, on July 20, 1984, Father John Kerrigan from the Sacred Heart Church in Ronan, Montana, vanished without a trace. The cops eventually found Kerrigan’s car, wallet, and some bloodied clothing, but they never found his remains.

The investigators wondered if the two murders were connected as there were some similarities, including the presence of a coat hanger in both cases.

Ulibarri traveled to Montana to investigate but eventually concluded that the cases weren’t linked.

Father Rivera’s murder still gets lots of media attention

Father Rivera’s murder was even featured on the TV show, Unsolved Mysteries, but after 40 years, the cops seem no closer to finding the killer.

The New Mexico State Police say the case is still active, and files are now with the state’s Cold Case Unit.

Deputy Chief Scott Ford has said, “We would like to be able to solve this and bring some closure to Father Rivera’s family, to the archdiocese.”

On The Case With Paula Zahn airs Wednesdays at 10/9c on Investigation Discovery.

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