Disbelief after L.A. bishop who devoted his life to others is brutally gunned down
The shooting death of a beloved, high-ranking Catholic official rocked both his devoted parishioners and those in the Los Angeles immigrant rights community whom he had served for decades.
Auxiliary Bishop David G. O’Connell, 69, was killed Saturday afternoon in the Catholic archdiocese-owned home in Hacienda Heights where he lived alone.
On Sunday the street in front of the sprawling ranch house was crowded with homicide detectives and crime scene technicians alongside parishioners who came to grieve the religious leader who ministered to their South Los Angeles communities for nearly half a century.
“He worried for the people, especially the immigrant community,” said Claudia Sandoval, who with her brother, Javier Velasquez, drove from South Los Angeles to leave a bouquet of purple and white roses at a street-corner memorial of flowers and candles by the home where the bishop lived. They sought to honor the man they knew some 15 years ago when O’Connell was a pastor at St. Michael’s Church, one of five South Los Angeles parishes that O’Connell served over the years.
They said the priest collected food and clothing for homeless people, ministered to jail inmates and set aside money for parishioners struggling to make ends meet.
St. Michael’s is in a part of South Los Angeles with so much violent crime during the height of L.A.’s record homicide years in the early 1990s that it was called “death valley.”
“That area of the world was where Father Dave’s heart was,” said lawyer Linda Dakin-Grimm, who worked with O’Connell for nearly a decade, first on social justice investments, and then when she dedicated herself pro bono to immigration rights. For every immigration case that Dakin-Grimm worked, she said, O’Connell was in the background, providing food, rent money or access to good schools to people he approached as peers.
“I don’t know anybody like him,” Dakin-Grimm said. “He was truly grounded in his faith. ... You felt like you were in some holy presence.”
A former resident of the low-slung, four-bedroom house where O’Connell lived and died said it was in a relatively safe neighborhood. “But look at our times today ... all of the violence in our society,” said Sister Theresa Harpin, who now runs a restorative justice program in San Luis Obispo.
The nicely appointed home is tucked on a short cul-de-sac among other spacious single-story homes. Its large backyard contains artwork depicting the Stations of the Cross, according to Eduardo Prieto of the Knights of Columbus, who served as security there for social gatherings attended by dozens of priests.
“I’m so surprised that it happened in this area,” Prieto said as homicide investigators pulled up the driveway of the home, cordoned off by yellow crime-scene tape.
Deputies responding to a call for a medical emergency shortly before 1 p.m. Saturday found O’Connell with a gunshot wound to his chest. Paramedics later pronounced him dead at the scene. A couple who live on the quiet tree-lined street said they heard no gunshot or other unusual noise before the arrival of firefighters and ambulance crews.
Archbishop José H. Gómez on Saturday at first told parishioners that O’Connell “passed away unexpectedly.” Not until Sunday morning did the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department release a statement saying the death “is being handled as a murder investigation.”
No mention was made of suspects and no further details were released.
“We are deeply disturbed and saddened by this news,” the archbishop said in an updated release. “Let us continue to pray for Bishop Dave and his family. And let us pray for law enforcement officials as they continue their investigation into this terrible crime.”
O’Connell served as founder and chairman of the interdiocesan SoCal Immigration Task Force, helping scores of children who entered the United States without adult companions. “For me, it really is a labor of love,” he was quoted in a 2019 article. “This is, I think, what our schools and parishes are all about. Not just for unaccompanied minors but for all our children. There’s an epidemic of hurting children, even the ones who have too much. They feel we’ve abandoned them. And the migrant youths have become a metaphor for our whole society.”
In the 1990s, O’Connell gained a reputation for seeking to bridge relations between residents of riot-torn neighborhoods and local law enforcement after the police beating of Rodney King. Los Angeles County Sheriff Robert Luna on Sunday called the bishop a “peacemaker” who “had a passion serving those in need while improving our community.”
“My heart grieves after learning of the murder,” Luna posted to social media.
Other parishioners gathered Sunday at St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Church, where O’Connell served the South Los Angeles parish for more than a decade.
They recalled a man with humor, a deep commitment to social justice and dedication to serving the Black and Latino communities. They were stunned and struggling to make sense of the violence that claimed the life of someone whose calling was rooted in peace and love.
“For that to happen to him, it’s so sad,” said Joel Vallejo, 62, who said “Father David” was well known to those who attended Mass and church events.
Wilmer Martinez, 73, a longtime parishioner, said O’Connell was dedicated to his Spanish-speaking flock and often preached of kindness, forgiveness and service to others.
“God called on him to do something extraordinary,” Martinez said in Spanish.
Msgr. John Woolway, 68, presided over the 9 a.m. Mass at the church and spoke about O’Connell in an interview before the service. Woolway said he met O’Connell in 1979, shortly after O’Connell arrived in the U.S. from Ireland. They worked together at St. Raymond Catholic Church in Downey, where O’Connell organized caravans to deliver food and clothing to orphanages in Tijuana.
“He had a great sense of humor. He made the priesthood fun,” Woolway said.
In his sermon, Woolway recalled his early days with O’Connell at St. Raymond’s, where they would visit an Irish pub near the church and enjoy a glass of Guinness beer.
“That was our hangout,” he said before telling churchgoers that they needed to pray for the killer and all those who are grieving over the tragic loss.
“It’s a great loss for our community,” said Gabriela Gil, 44, who came on her birthday to the corner memorial with her family to pay their respects.
“He was loved by so many.”
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