February 7th, 1985 was a typical Thursday in Onalaska, Wisconsin. It was about -8 degrees at 9 am when a man walked into St. Patricks Catholic Church on Main Street and killed three men.
The Children’s mass had started at 8 am. Just before the service, a man asked Father John Rossiter if he was going to allow girls to read scripture. The Father replied he was because the Pope had allowed it. The man left the church only to return an hour later. Once the church had emptied, he approached Father John Rossiter, 64, who was praying at the altar and shot him.
The man then found Ferdinand Roth, 48, in the vestibule. Roth had just put his coat on and was about to leave when he was shot. The church custodian, Willam Hammes, 66, was in the basement when he was shot by the man.
Several minutes later, a police officer found the man about a half-mile away. The officer yelled at the man to put the gun down, and eventually, the man shoved the gun in a snowbank and was arrested without incident. He told the officer he was the prophet, Elijah.
Who was the man?
The man was 29-year-old Bryan Stanley. Stanley was obsessed with religion. He believed he was receiving messages from God and had a mission to kill three people. According to him, the Catholic church was becoming too liberal. And he had to save the church and world from sin and communism.
Stanley had a history of mental health. He was medically released from the army due to a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized after serving.
Stanley was previously found mentally incompetent to stand trial, but once his condition was improved my medication, the trail moved forward with Judge Peter Pappas. Judge Pappas was tasked with determining if Stanley was legally responsible for his actions. Stanley pleaded guilty to the three counts of first-degree murder. He also plead innocent because of mental disease. Three psychiatrists interviewed Stanley, and all diagnosed him with chronic paranoid schizophrenia.
Stanley knew killing was wrong, but he thought it was ok since he was “operating on a special law from God.” Judge Pappas ruled him insane and not legally responsible. Stanley was sent to the Mendota Mental Health Institute in Madison, WI, the same place Ed Gein lived until his death. Wisconsin law allows for Stanley to petition for release after 4 months, but ultimately his release will depend on Judge Pappas. If the Judge believes Stanley will not be a danger to himself or others, he may be released.
In 1996 a new law was signed by then-governor Tommy Thompson allowing for a “fifth condition” for commitment. The bill would allow families to seek help through an involuntary commitment process. Stanley’s mother, Mary, fought for ten years to get this law passed as she believed it would have helped her son. Those in the mental health system who may be a danger to themselves or others may be committed for no longer than 30 days.
Stanley petitioned to be released a few times over the years. After his 1999 petition was denied he needed to focus his energies on something, so he wrote a book. Stanley graduated from UW-Stevens Point in 1977 with a soils degree. Wanting to use his knowledge for good, he wrote The Becoming of Driftless Rivers National Park*. The 280-page book took him six years to research and write. The book is about the driftless area, which is a unique, unglaciated region that spans for states and 24,000 square miles.
An appeals court looked at his 2008 release application and overruled the previous ruling. Bryan Stanley was released from Mendota in 2009. He moved back to LaCrosse, where he lived for three years.
In 2012, the court determined he violated his release when he “suffered thoughts that caused him discomfort and anxiety.” Neighbors were surprised to learn about their quiet, kind neighbor’s past.
After 2012, no records or articles mention Bryan Stanley. He most likely is still at Mendota Mental Health Institute.
*Affiliate Link: I am an Amazon Associate and if you order the book through this link I will receive a small percentage.