BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) – A 54-year-old Illinois man charged with first-degree murder in the deaths of his wife and mother in northern Illinois has been arrested on suspicion of using a shotgun to rob parishioners at a northwestern North Dakota church.
Billy Varner was arrested Saturday night near Williston, N.D., some 1,000 miles from his home in Antioch, where the bodies of his wife, Peggy Henderson, 61, and his mother, Dorothy Varner, 82, were discovered Oct. 28.
Cynthia Trujillo-Vargas, a spokeswoman for the Lake County state’s attorney’s office, said Varner was charged Monday with two counts of first-degree murder. Police have not said how the women died.
Authorities say Varner walked into the Church of St. Michael in Ray during Mass shortly after 7 p.m. Saturday, told the three dozen parishioners to get on the floor and forced The Rev. Benny Putharayil to fill a black garbage bag with money.
“He was yelling, ‘I don’t care, you die, you see my face. Don’t use your cellphones, and the gun is loaded,’” Putharayil said Monday. “I began to move down the pews, asking for money. There were a lot of tears and a lot of crying.”
Putharayil, 46, who has led the congregation for 5 years, said he was prepared to die.
“I was not frightened. God has given me the grace to face that situation calmly,” he said.
The man fled without harming or even pointing his gun at anyone, Putharayil said. Three men from the congregation briefly followed him in their own vehicles and were able to give a description to authorities.
Three Williams County sheriff’s deputies located Varner’s vehicle on U.S. Highway 2 about 13 miles from Williston, gave chase, and apprehended him a short time later when he pulled over and gave himself up, Sheriff’s Detective Caleb Fry said. Varner was driving a van that authorities in Illinois said he had taken without permission from a family member, Fry said.
Fry said Varner was arrested on multiple charges. Formal charges were not immediately filed Monday morning. Fry said North Dakota authorities were working with Illinois officials who want to question Varner.
Fry did not know if Varner had hired an attorney.
During a Sunday night news conference in Antioch, 60 miles northwest of Chicago, Antioch Police Chief Craig Somerville said, “We salute all who participated in this effort to take a dangerous subject off the streets.”
Putharayil said that after the robbery, members of his congregation talked about what had happened for a few minutes, prayed for the robber, then held the Mass as planned.
“I switched on my mic and started putting them at ease. Many of them were in tears,” he said. “Toward the end of the Mass, I got word that the man had been caught.”
Putharayil said he thanked God that no children were in attendance Saturday night.
Officials with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Bismarck issued a statement Monday saying they were grateful no one was hurt and that they were cooperating with the police investigation.