Yesterday’s Crimes: The Lost Priest in the City of Souls

Father Heslin’s Grave (Bob Calhoun)

By 1880, San Francisco’s 70 square blocks of cemeteries between the Panhandle and the Inner Richmond had become a ghetto of the dead. Tombstones and statues were falling over. Once ornate mausoleums were stripped of bronze doors, and San Franciscans carted away whole skeletons and used them as Halloween decorations.

The growing population of the living was also hungry for the land that the dead occupied. Under pressure from a growing anti-cemetery movement, the city’s graveyards and at least some of the departed migrated south to the town of Lawndale, which was later incorporated specifically as the necropolis now called Colma.

In 1921, Irish-born Father Patrick Heslin had transferred from the Catholic parish in Turlock to the Holy Angels Church in Colma. There he ministered to a modest congregation of living people and a burgeoning population of dead ones entombed in Holy Cross, Cemetery, Colma’s largest graveyard. Heslin was reportedly dissatisfied with his new assignment, which was likely heavy on funerals.

On Tuesday, Aug. 2, 1921, a man clad in goggles and a heavy overcoat came knocking on Father Heslin’s door. Heslin’s housekeeper, Marie Wendel, later told the press that the mysterious man “appeared to be excited.” The man claimed he was on “a death call,” and needed the priest to administer the last rites to a dying man.

Heslin gathered his sacraments, and got into the man’s car. Wendel and a neighbor watched as the car headed towards the coast and disappeared in the fog.

Heslin was never seen alive again.

The next day, Archbishop Edward J. Hanna received a partially typewritten ransom note at St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco.  The abductor wrote that Heslin was “fastened with chains” in a heavily-booby-trapped bootleg cellar where a candle burned in cradle filled with “all chemicals necessary to generate enough poison gas to kill a dozen men.” The cellar door was also supposedly rigged with matches set to set off a gas can if anyone but the kidnapper tried to enter.

“I had charge of a machine gun in the Argonne, and poured thousands of bullets into struggling men,” the kidnapper boasted.

The missive closed with a badly scrawled run-on sentence: “HAD TO Hitt (sic) Him four times and he is unconscious from pressure on Brain so better hurry and no fooling.”

Experts agreed that the letter writer was not only demented, but “a fanatic who harbors animosity toward the Roman Catholic Church” according to the Chronicle. Police also believed that Heslin had already met with foul play despite the kidnapper’s all-caps demand for “SIXTY-FIVE HUNDRED DOLLARS IN FIVES, TENS, AND TWENTIES, FIFTIES AND HUNDREDS.”

Still hopeful of rescuing the priest, San Mateo County Sheriff Michael Sheehan organized a posse to comb through all the cow paths, smuggler’s shacks and mazes of scrub oak that dotted Pacifica’s Mori Point at the time. However, even with hundreds of Catholic men supplied by a massive Knights of Columbus convention in San Francisco that week, the posse found few “clews” as the Chronicle spelled it back then. Father Heslin remained missing.

In a desperation move, the Archdiocese of San Francisco offered a $5,000 reward on Monday, Aug. 8, 1921 for the return of Father Heslin, dead or alive. Two days later, William A. Hightower came forward, claiming that a pair of prostitutes told him where Heslin was buried. Hightower led SF Police Chief Daniel O’Brien and several detectives to a spot in the sands of Salada Beach, now Sharp Park Beach, where he said he’d uncovered a priest’s prayer scarf before he stopped digging.

As Hightower assisted police with digging up the potential body, an officer asked him to slow down for fear that he might strike the dead priest in the face with his shovel.

“Don’t worry,” Hightower replied. “I’m digging near the feet.”

Police knew they had their man, and soon unearthed Father Heslin as well. The priest had taken two bullets: one in the heart, and another through the skull. Hightower was arrested and taken to jail. During a search of Hightower’s apartment, detectives found the rented Corona typewriter used to type up the ransom note, and an “infernal machine” constructed from metal pipes and shotgun shells.

Hightower was a railroad camp cook in Salt Lake City, before migrating to Bakersfield looking for work in oil fields. Instead, he opened a bakery there and became known for his pastries. He also invented a machine gun that he tried to sell to the army during World War I, but the rejection of it “affected his mind” according to the LA Times.

An early polygraph machine was used in interrogating Hightower, but he was really undone by a mountain of evidence and witnesses who contradicted him. Despite public calls for the death penalty, the jury took pity on him and sentenced him to life instead.

After nearly 44 years of baking pastries in San Quentin, Hightower was released on parole in 1965, and died soon after.

Father Heslin can still be found in Colma today, right in the middle of Holy Cross Cemetery.

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