RAY, N.D. – From his usual pew near the back of St. Michael’s Catholic Church here, parishioner Mike Weyrauch turned around to see who was coming so late for Saturday evening Mass.
“This gentleman walked through the back door of the church with a 12-gauge (shotgun), swung it back and forth and said ‘Everybody stay put,’” Weyrauch said.
The man directed everyone to the outside of the pews and told the Rev. Benny Putharayil to collect money from more than 20 in attendance and put it in a black trash bag. Weyrauch feared the worst.
“I thought it was going to be really bad,” said Weyrauch, 63. “That’s probably the most scared I have been in my entire life.”
No one was hurt during the armed robbery and the suspect was apprehended, but parishioners learned Monday that the man had been the subject of a manhunt.
The man, identified as 54-year-old Billy E. Varner of Antioch, Ill., was charged Monday with two counts of first-degree murder in connection with two deaths in Illinois, said a spokeswoman for the Lake County State’s Attorney’s Office in Illinois.
Nathan Schell, one of a few parishioners who pursued Varner to keep law enforcement updated on his location, said he realized later the situation could have been more serious.
“At first I just thought he was a desperate guy and trying to get money for his family or something,” said Schell, 24. “I was kind of shocked and realizing how lucky I was not to get hurt myself.”
Authorities in Illinois had been looking for Varner to question him about the deaths of 61-year-old Peggy Henderson, whom Varner lived with, and 82-year-old Dorothy Varner, his mother, according to the Antioch Police Department. The women were found dead Oct. 28 in their Antioch apartment. Police have not said how they died.
It was unclear where Varner was headed when he stopped in Ray, about 35 miles from Williston in northwest North Dakota.
“I’m sure he was just passing through and low on cash,” said Detective Caleb Fry of the Williams County Sheriff’s Office.
The man was in the church for about five minutes, Weyrauch said. As he left, he told church members to give him five minutes to get away.
The Williams County Sheriff’s Office said it received multiple 911 calls at 7:21 p.m. from the church.
Schell said his father attempted to follow the man’s van, and Schell and another man headed the opposite direction.
Schell said they kept police dispatch updated on the van’s location until law enforcement located Varner on U.S. Highway 2 about 13 miles from Williston. Varner was apprehended after a short vehicle pursuit in a van that was stolen from Illinois, Fry said.
The shotgun used in the robbery also was stolen, but authorities are still investigating where it was stolen from, Fry said.
The amount of money that was stolen is undisclosed, but Fry said it was recovered.
While in the church, the man did not attempt to conceal his identity, Weyrauch said.
“He swore a bunch,” Weyrauch said. “He said, ‘I don’t give a damn if you see my face or not.’”
Church members were quiet and cooperated with the man, Weyrauch said. Schell said he’s glad no kids were in attendance.
“The best thing was that everybody stayed calm and got him out of there as quick as possible,” Weyrauch said.
The priest remained calm and the service continued after the man left, Weyrauch said.
“I think that was probably the best thing to do,” he said.
On Sunday, three investigators from the Lake County Major Crimes Task Force flew to Williston and interviewed Varner, Fry said.
Varner waived extradition in Williams County District Court on Monday and was headed to Illinois on an afternoon flight, Fry said.
Varner has not been charged in Williams County, but Fry said he anticipates he will be charged later this week with multiple counts of armed robbery and terrorizing.
The Williams County State’s Attorney’s Office declined to comment.
Putharayil said the Catholic Diocese of Bismarck requested that he not comment while the investigation is ongoing.
“Thank God nothing happened, that’s the main thing,” Putharayil said.