The Rev. Bernard T. Pagano, a maverick Roman Catholic priest who was accused and then cleared in a string of armed robberies by the “Gentleman Bandit,” has died. He was 81.
A resident of Wind Gap, Pa., Pagano died after a stroke Aug. 1, according to the News Journal in Wilmington, Del.
In 1979, the priest was suspected of committing nine armed robberies in Delaware and Pennsylvania in which a polite, middle-aged gunman demanded money from store clerks.
A woman who claimed to have been Pagano’s lover gave police photographs of him because he closely resembled the composite drawings of the robber.
During Pagano’s 1979 trial in Delaware, several witnesses said the lanky priest, then 53, was responsible for the robberies. Pagano drew attention for his cavalier attitude toward the proceedings, and played racquetball during a break in the trial.
In a dramatic turn, Ronald W. Clouser, from the Philadelphia suburb of Brookhaven, showed up with a lawyer and admitted that he was the real Gentleman Bandit. Though his hairline was not receding as much, Clouser closely resembled the priest.
A 1981 made-for-TV movie, “The Gentleman Bandit,” sympathetically retold Pagano’s tale.
But for some law enforcement officials, there was more to the story.
Norman Cochran, who at the time was the Delaware State Police superintendent, said this week that he is still convinced Pagano committed several robberies. He also believes that Clouser committed robberies about the same time in areas north of Wilmington.
“The ones that we charged Father Pagano with were south of the city,” Cochran said. “The modus operandi was entirely different.”
Cochran said Clouser touched his victims in a sexual way -- something he said Pagano did not do.
Despite authorities’ misgivings, the case against Pagano was dropped and prosecutors apologized. Clouser pleaded guilty and served a prison sentence.
Pagano, the associate pastor at St. Mary Refuge of Sinners in Cambridge, Md., at the time of his arrest, once angered church authorities when he entered a charity wrestling event as “The Mad Monk.”
After he was cleared of the robberies, Pagano moved to New Jersey, where he was an advocate for people wrongly accused of crimes, and he served as a parish priest at St. Mary of Mount Virgin Church in New Brunswick.
He also spent about five years in the 1990s as a chaplain at the veterans hospitals in Lyons and East Orange, said Tom Malek-Jones, the chief chaplain for the facilities.
A World War II airman from Newark, N.J., Pagano was considered a valuable asset for his work with veterans of that era and did not seem like a robber, Malek-Jones said.
Pagano retired a few years ago.