Suspect may face death penalty in stabbing death of Nebraska priest, prosecutor says

FORT CALHOUN, Neb. — The suspect in the stabbing death of a Catholic priest in eastern Nebraska had no connection to the priest or the small town where the stabbing occurred last weekend, prosecutors said during a court hearing Thursday.

Kierre Williams, 43, was ordered held without bond while he awaits trial on first-degree murder, burglary and two felony weapons counts in the Sunday killing of the Rev. Stephen Gutgsell in the rectory next door to St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Fort Calhoun.

The 65-year-old priest called 911 before dawn Sunday to report that a man had broken into the rectory and was in his kitchen holding a knife. When a deputy arrived at the home minutes later, he said he found Gutgsell lying near the kitchen, bleeding profusely from stab wounds. Gutgsell was rushed to a hospital in nearby Omaha, where he died.

The murder charge alone carries a possible death sentence, the judge noted.

Williams, who attended the hearing via video conference wearing a jail-issued orange jumpsuit, appeared taken aback by the mention of the murder charge being a capital punishment crime. He said he was told by his lawyer, Brian Craig of the Nebraska Commission on Public Advocacy, that he faced a sentence of life in prison if convicted of the murder charge.

County Attorney Scott VanderSchaaf, the lead prosecutor in the case, confirmed Thursday after the hearing that the case is eligible for the death penalty, but said he’ll make the decision at a later date on whether to seek to have Williams executed if he’s convicted.

“We have until 30 days before trial begins to make that decision,” VanderSchaaf said. “We’re still early in the process of gathering information in this case.”

Gutgsell’s stabbing is the second killing this year in the normally quiet Omaha bedroom community of Fort Calhoun, home to about 1,000 people. Investigators have said both killings happened during break-ins where there was no clear connection between the intruders and the victims, making them all the more troubling for people who live in the town just 8 miles north of the state’s largest city.

In his request to have Williams held without bond, Assistant Washington County Attorney Erik Petersen said Williams has a criminal history in several other states. That includes dozens of cases in Florida dating back to Williams’ teens, a drug possession conviction in Texas and an assault charge earlier this year in Sioux City, Iowa.

The criminal complaint in the Iowa soup kitchen fight described Williams as homeless, but VanderSchaaf said he doesn’t think that’s accurate because Williams was working at a meatpacking plant in Sioux City and driving a car he bought in Texas. Investigators are still trying to learn more about him and figure out what brought him to Fort Calhoun.

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