The Rev. Bernard T. Pagano, the Roman Catholic priest put on trial here on charges of being Delaware's "Gentleman Bandit," was set free with a public apology from the state today after another man, who said his conscience bothered him, pleaded guilty in the case.
Pagano, hugging and kissing former parishioners and other well-wishers, walked to St. Patrick's Church, two blocks from Superior Court where he had been on trial, and said a mass of thanksgiving.
In the courtroom, where all six felony charges against the Cambridge, Md., cleric were dropped, Delaware Attorney General Richard Gebelein said, "We wish to sincerely apologize to Father Pagano for the personal turmoil and trauma he has been through."
The attorney general's office decided to drop the charges against the 53-year-old priest after Ronald W. Clouser, 39, of Brookhaven, Pa., agreed to plead guilty to second-degree robbery in connection with three of the holdups for which Pagano was on trial.
Clouser pleaded guilty to three similar crimes last year in Pennsylvania, where Pagano is still charged with one attempted robbery. The priest said today he believes that charge will be dropped.
As part of the plea bargain today, the state agreed not to prosecute Clouser on two other armed robbery charges and one charge of attempted robbery involved in the Pagano case. It also said Clouser would not be charged in three other Delaware robberies he said he was involved in.
The court accepted Clouser's guilty plea after two psychiatrists, one in Pennsylvania and one in Delaware, declared that Clouser -- although suffering from what one doctor called "reactive depression" -- was indeed mentally competent when he made the surprise announcement Monday that he, not Pagano, was responsible for the robberies.
Clouser, an employe of the U.S Postal Service, said he committed the crimes to help pay $125 a week in court-ordered family support payments.
He was released on $5,000 unsecured bond by Superior Court Judge Andrew Christie, who had presided over the Pagano trial.
When Gebelein announced in court that charges against the priest would be dropped, Pagano and his attorneys patted each other on the back, smiled broadly and clasped hands.
Several women, former parishioners of Pagano who had shown up regularly in the courtroom during two weeks of testimony in the trial, wept quietly when they heard the attorney general say he was sorry.
After more than an hour in the courtroom listening to Clouser tell the judge he understood what he was doing and the attorneys explain the events to the jury, Pagano went to church.
There, Pagano donned a cream-colored robe and told his many supporters he "would go through this all again" because of the expressions of love he had received. He asked his well-wishers to pray for Clouser and to love him.
"What is past is past," he said later. "We have to take it from here and go forward."
Clouser, who pleaded guilty to committing three armed robberies in Delaware County, Pa., last summer, said he decided to come forward because his conscience bothered him.
"I just feel a lot freer now," said the trim, silver-haired man whose stature is similar to Pagano's.
Clouser said he knew Pagano had been charged with the robberies last February but delayed coming forward because "at the time I was obsessed with a battle for custody of my [three] children." He was also in the process of divorcing his wife.
Clouser said he believed at the time Pagano would be vindicated. But recently, after reading press accounts saying Pagano had failed three lie-detector tests and had been picked out as the "Gentleman Bandit" by all the robbery victims, Clouser said he wasn't so sure. At that point, he said, he began to have pangs of conscience.
Finally, last Friday night, he recounted, "I couldn't be alone with myself . . . I even considered committing suicide." But he concluded, that wouldn't "do anything for Father Pagano . . . That would be a cop-out."
On Monday, Clouser called his former attorney, Saul Segan of Philadelphia, and confessed.
Clouser, who spent six weeks in a Philadelphia psychiatric institution earlier this year, is on sick leave from his job as an industrial engineering coordinator for the postal service. He said he needed the money from the robberies to help make his family support payments.
After paying $125 a week in support, he said, he was left with "only about $10 a week for himself.
After Clouser confessed to his attorney, Segan immediately arranged to bring him to Superior Court in Wilmington.
There, before going into court to tell his story, Clouser embraced Pagano warmly, according to the priest's defense attorney, Carl Schnee.
"That told me exactly what had happened," Schnee said, his voice choking with emotion as he recalled the scene for the jury this morning.
The jury, after being old only that someone had confessed in the case, was sent home on Monday. Judge Christie recalled the jurors to the courtroom this morning to give both Schnee and Gebelein an opportunity to explain the events of the last four days.
Although Gebelein said Clouser convinced the prosecutor's he had committed the robberies by telling them "many details only the robber would know," the attorney general said many bizarre elements continued to cloud the case.
For example, Clouser failed a lie-detector test when asked if, indeed, he committed the robberies by telling robberies. And four of the robbery victims failed yesterday to pick Clouser out of a police lineup as the man who robbed them.
The defense never presented its case because the dramatic developments came just after the prosecution had rested its case against the priest. But Schnee said the defense was prepared to provide several witnesses who could vouch for Pagano's whereabouts on the days of the robberies.
In an interview at a Wilmington television station this afternoon, Pagano said he had provided police with "good general information about my schedule" on the days in question and gave them the names of witnesses who could verify his account.
Police, he charged, "never followed that up."
One police investigator, however, denied the priest's claim that he supplied alibi witnesses and said Pagano gave conflicting stories about where he was at the times some of the robberies were committed.
Police reportedly were angered by the prosecutors' decision to abandon the case against Pagano and accept Clouser's plea to second degree robbery, rather than first degree. Second degree robbery carries a maximum sentence in Delaware of 10 years in prison, whereas first degree robbery could bring a 30-year sentence.
Three crimes similar to those in the Gentleman Bandit case occurred after Pagano was arrested, which might have caused some investigators to suspect they had the wrong man. But police said there were enough differences in the cases to make them believe the robberies were committed by someone else.
Clouser has since confessed to those three as well.