Everyone needs a teacher, Father Ryan was no different. The father, Ryan, we know today was formed out in the desert, in the heat of Arizona, just north of the Fort Apache Reservation and Tonto National Forest, that's where in 1996 you could find Our Lady of Guadalupe, a religious sanctuary sometimes called a refuge. It was run by a man named Marvin Kucsera. The land is flat and dusty with the occasional small desert plant adding some green. Our Lady of Guadalupe is only about 80 acres of land with some trailer homes.
This is the place. And Kyocera, the guy that would help me understand just how Father Ryan refined his can't. He'd smooth out the edges and fix the mistakes that led him to get into so much trouble opening the first Abie. Marvin Kucsera was the perfect person to learn from. He built a national following with seven refuges in seven states. Kucsera had published two books and wrote a newsletter read across the country, all of it because he claimed to receive messages from the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ himself.
Kucsera even transcribed his conversations with Jesus for the readers of his newsletter. He'd created this whole little traditional Catholic empire, just like Ryan Kucsera was a convicted criminal. Here was someone finding success where Father Ryan hadn't yet. For years, Kucsera had mostly stayed under the radar. That is, until he and Father Ryan would get together. That's when the FBI and a local sheriff's office took notice. Clearly, in my mind, these two guys are just a fraud.
From now on her media, I'm Alex Schoeman and this is Smokescreen Fake Priest. Calling it a refuge's is a bit of a misnomer. Jim Sansbury is a former investigator who looked into Marvin Kucsera and Father Ryan. He helped me connect the dots. Back in nineteen ninety six, Stansbury had gone out to Our Lady of Guadalupe after getting a tip. But it was strange. You wouldn't know you were on it when you got there if you didn't know exactly what you were looking for, when you hear refuge, you might picture a vast forested piece of nature with little cabins spotting a hillside.
That's not what this was.
It's not a refuge, as if, you know, there's fences around it and all that kind of thing. This is just connected 40 acre plots, some of which have double wides on overpasses on them and some don't.
Jim started his investigation in nineteen ninety six. He worked in the criminal division for the Navajo County Sheriff's Office.
I was in the People Crimes Division of the Criminal Investigations.
He felt Kucsera and Ryan broke the law, pure and simple. I thought it was a fraudulent scheme, as what it's called here in Arizona.
Arizona law says anyone who knowingly gets any benefit by using a false pretense is guilty of a class two felony. One of his followers called the sheriff's office after realizing he wasn't being honest. She'd already given money. I think it was one point six or one point eight million dollars.
The father's name was Helen Jo. She lived in California and gave Kyocera more than a million and a half to buy land and buildings in Arizona before even seen the property.
The refuges were meant to be safe spaces. The idea was that one day traditionalist religious values would be threatened and then these places could provide shelter. Many followers of Kucsera and Ryan already believed their faith was under attack, so they moved to these sanctuaries and people like Helen felt they were something special worth supporting. She'd read kotsiras books and newsletters and believed in Kucsera and his sanctuary so much that she willingly gave him a fortune.
Jim's report for the sheriff's office includes pictures of the checks Helen mailed on May 31st.
Ninety six, she sent one letter that begins, Dear Marv. Here is a check for fifty thousand for startup costs. In one envelope, she includes three checks totaling more than three hundred and thirty eight thousand dollars.
All this cash is where Jim starts his investigation. You know, I followed the money. Jim finds Cruzeiros been convicted of fraud. Two board members for the refuge have criminal convictions, too. That's at least four people Jim's found with criminal convictions, if you count farther. Right. Remember, he had one for changing that check from the city of Edgerton, Wisconsin.
Jim didn't buy Father Ryan's act like at all. Kucsera hired Father Ryan to be a priest for the refuge he was leading mass, he was doing weddings, baptisms, all kinds of things. He was the the priest putting that in air quotes.
I found the guy who introduced the two con men. His name was Dale Lowinger when Father Ryan's first Dabby in Wisconsin was collapsing. Father Ryan reached out to Dale, one of his parishioners at the time, because Father Ryan also knew that Dale ran a religious sanctuary. Yes.
And he just wanted to see what our refuge was like.
The refuge Dale is talking about is a family farm where he lives today. He believes so much in the message Marvin Kucsera shared. He signed on to run a refuge for him in rural Wisconsin.
So what was the point?
It's the idea that you're willing to teach the truth, faith, hold on to the true faith and be willing to reach out and help others. The reason Kucsera drew so much devotion was that he claimed to have received messages from the Virgin Mary, the messages warned of evil forces working within the Vatican to move the church away from its traditional values. He said bishops and priests couldn't be trusted. That's why his refuges were so important. It's a pretty good system of belief to follow.
If those same bishops and priests are calling you a con artist. Both Ryan and Kucsera benefited from people like Dad. Dale doesn't think people take faith seriously anymore. Skipping church for any reason.
They please, whether it's a trip to the state park or a Green Bay Packers football game or whatever, Dale was afraid for his faith and more than happy to promote the idea of the refugees. So when Father Ryan wanted to learn more, he introduced him to Kucsera. The introduction would prove more fateful than Dale could imagine.
OK, so by now, I knew how Kucsera and Ryan had met and that they teamed up, they had set up shop in Snowflake, Arizona, at Our Lady of Guadalupe as their followers start to populate the desert with trailer homes. The pair had no idea that this investigator named Jim Stansbury was on their trail. Kucsera especially just seemed fishy to him.
I mean, he clearly was a con man, and so I thought this is a good case of catching a con man in the con, he's figured out Kucsera and Ryan aren't who they say they are.
But now he's also learned as Reach goes beyond the refuge near Snowflake, Arizona.
He talks to people from all over who felt burned by KUCSERA, people who had lost their belongings spent thousands. And in some cases, the damage went way beyond the pocketbook. One woman told Jim that her family will be scarred for life because of Casares manipulation and cruelty. She lived on the refuge in South Dakota. The followers Jim found all shared the same stories.
They came from refuges across the country.
There's South Dakota, there's Wisconsin. There's it just continues.
Jim even ran into an FBI agent who is looking into KUCSERA to as I listen to Jim, I'm blown away by how similar Sarah's behavior was to what I've heard about Father Ryan. He had several different names.
He had several different addresses.
Followers told Jim the KUCSERA controlled every aspect of their lives. Once they got on the refuge, he'd pick when they celebrated birthdays and anniversaries. Regardless of the actual dates, he'd approve grocery lists. And this is crucial. Kyocera would claim to own any belongings followers would bring on to the refuge. If you bought a double wide and put it on that land, it became the refugees property. So if you wanted to leave or he decided to kick you out, you had to leave the the improvements you had done to the property of this tactic.
Father Ryan would later adopt if he kicked you out of his abbey. Your property was his future.
His followers in Arizona told Jim they assumed Father Ryan was an ordained Catholic priest. As Jim made calls, he realized that Kucsera probably knew Father Ryan wasn't ordained and that he was on parole. Jim says Kyocera actually called Father Ryan's parole officer before hiring him. I'm frankly surprised someone accused of running this kind of operation would call for references at all. But that's what's in the sheriff's report.
Kucsera called and talk to the parole officer and was told he's a con man who Sarah still hires. Ryan, knowing full well authorities in Wisconsin consider him a scammer. It's almost as if the only reason Kucsera called Father Ryan's references was to make sure he was a fake. That way, Ryan would be more willing to do whatever Kucsera wanted. Jim's investigation found Kucsera paid Ryan several thousand dollars in, quote, donations for his work on the refuge.
Clearly, in my mind, these two guys are just a fraud. Later, much later, Ryan claimed he only met Kucsera once and didn't invest much time in him, but I have photos of the two of them together in Snowflake. In one of them, Father Ryan appears to be offering communion. Eventually, Father Ryan had pissed off some of his followers and one of them decided to look into his background. His name was Paul Burgmann. It was his sister, Helen, who'd given hundreds of thousands of dollars for the refuge and snowflake.
The pair were devout Catholics.
Something about Father Ryan felt off to Paul, so he checked in with the local Catholic diocese and they told him Marvin Kucsera and Father Ryan hadn't contacted them at all. Nothing about the refuge was legitimate. Paul described everything in a letter that became part of Jim's investigation, it's estimated his sister lost between one point six and two million dollars to Kyocera. His letter is long.
Paul wrote that he told Kyocera Father Ryan was misleading everyone, that he wasn't really ordained. But instead of taking Paul's concerns seriously, Kyocera yelled at him for trying to out Father Ryan. He threatened to kick Paul off the property, even though Paul's family paid for the land. Kucsera had Father Ryan's back. He defended him when people questioned his legitimacy. That support might have been part of the reason that Father Ryan would leave Snowflake a new man.
Once Paul and Helen realized they had been swindled by both men, they called the sheriff and reached out to the actual Catholic Church. But neither Kucsera nor Ryan would ever be placed under arrest or even questioned by Jim. Neither of them would ever talk to me. Instead, no charges would ever be filed in his case. And from what Jim understands, that decision didn't have anything to do with whether Kucsera or Ryan had actually committed a crime. But I didn't get to make the decision.
The real reason was much more nuanced and American. One of the biggest questions I've had since I started looking into Father Ryan is why is he not in jail if all these accusations are true? Where's law enforcement? No convictions ever came of the Wisconsin investigation. That was when the Diocese of Lacrosse asked a different sheriff's office to investigate him for fraud. And here again, I'm hearing about a case that starts, but no conviction ever comes. What's going on?
Remember, Jim thought that this was a fraudulent scheme under Arizona law?
The county attorney disagreed, and so it didn't get prosecuted. Do you remember what his argument was, why he said it didn't qualify?
Well, essentially, there's something in the in the judicial world that that it's words that should never be spoken. But but quite frankly, they are.
And that is that it has no jury appeal.
Now, what that means is, would a jury be interested in this case? And and in this situation, you essentially have a few people that were duped by a religious nut.
And unfortunately, that doesn't have jury appeal. A lot of jurors would think that, well, you know, if you gave that much money to this guy, you deserved it. There is sort of a circular logic here.
Fraud is a crime where you tricked people.
But some prosecutors aren't willing to prosecute fraud cases where people are foolish enough to be tricked. Essentially, it means all fraudsters have to do is find the most gullible people to scam.
I completely disagree with the decision, but I see its basis is pretending to be something you're not is not illegal. It's immoral, but it's not illegal. Now, I think once you start getting money from people because you say something you're not, I think that's a fraud and I think that should be prosecuted.
But even then, Jim's case would run into problems, at least in this country, because even if you took the jury out of the equation, when you're in the area of religion or faith, it it's incredibly hard to get a county prosecutor to to pick up the case.
Yeah, it's controversial, but they don't want to they don't want to get in on people's rights.
Right. By people's rights.
What I mean is an American's right to religious freedom. It's a touchy subject in this country. One could argue that the church you donate to is none of a prosecutor's business and it's not for them to call fake. Imagine how someone like Dale, the guy who believes in Kucsera and Ryan, would react. He is the kind of person a prosecutor could be picturing when they want to avoid controversy.
It's hard to believe Dale wouldn't be furious if he felt his faith was on trial. A prosecutor going after the refuge actually fits right in with Cáceres warnings.
Our religious freedom as we know it today will not always be here for us. You will have to go through these struggles in order to live your faith again.
Now, me, I think if people commit a crime, they should face consequences. It shouldn't matter if the crime was claiming to talk to God to steal money. We're just stealing money.
Unfortunately, these types and frankly, you can go to Jimmy Baker, Tammy Baker.
I mean, you can go to others like them using a a faith based or a religion based reason to bilk people out of money just disgusts me. But today especially, it sickens him. He left the sheriff's office and now works as a chaplain for a bunch of Arizona police departments. He's also a local pastor for Jim. Someone pretending to be a religious leader calls into question the entire institution.
It makes all of those in ministry look bad. And this is already a problem in our society, is is people look at churches and they look at ministries and think they're in it for the money and truthfully, that the vast majority are not. They're in it for the right reasons. But those few that that do it and bilk people out of money, make all of us look bad. When I started this reporting, I just didn't get why Randall Dean stocks chose to become a priest of all the cons, why this one?
But I'm starting to get the appeal of pretending to be a priest or any religious figure, you're given free reign both when you're at the altar and even sometimes beyond the walls of your church.
Jim is not the first person to run into this problem. Father and son Jonathan Brady tried for years to get investigators to pay attention to his dad, but he never got much traction.
You've barely scratched the fucking surface and no one will touch this with the 20 foot pole because it's got the word religion or church.
I'm finally seeing how Father Ryan could avoid arrest for so long.
The bad part is it's not just him.
Jonathan thinks there are other Father Ryans out there, some of whom he says even learned from his dad. That might sound far fetched, but it turns out pretending to be a priest is a pretty popular con. It's one of the oldest people wanted to do it centuries before there was such a thing as jury appeal. But while I'm starting to see how the father Ryan's of this world avoid jail, it's harder to understand what makes anyone decide to pursue such an odd con in the first place.
What's the motivation? Luckily, I found someone who knows a lot about what's made so many pretend to be priests. What's the worst thing you've ever done? Do you regret hurting someone you love, then step into the confessional with Nadia Bolls Webber, a podcast devoted to ugly confessions from beautiful people. Each week, Nadia, a tattooed foulmouthed recovering alcoholic who also happens to be a best selling author and ordained Lutheran pastor, listens open heartedly as guests confess something they aren't proud of.
Presented by Prick's and the Moth, it's like a car wash for our shame and secrets. Listen, wherever you get your podcasts.
This was almost the perfect murder. Introducing a new podcast from Court TV. They were killed by their own children, murderer and the Menendez brothers.
I just started firing what was in front of you? My parents.
Oh, that is murder at the Menendez brothers. A Court TV mystery available. Now, listen in. Stitcher Apple podcast or your favorite podcast app. And do you have any kind of instinct to like what it is about the priesthood, why you think it draws those types of stories?
Oh, certainly just a matter of of authority. This is Peterman's. So he's an author and curator of American Religious History at the Smithsonian Institution.
It certainly seems that he is someone who recognizes the implicit authority of the role of a priest in certain communities.
He was a great person to talk to about Father Ryan. Besides being a religious expert, he's also written a book about con artists.
Well, fake priests have really been a part of the church since there was an institutional church.
It turns out this fraud goes way back and requires a serious commitment. People have been pretending to be priests since the start of the church. I'm kind of amazed at what's required to become a priest. You're expected to go through at least six years of seminary eight if you don't go to college first. It's not like regular school. They try to shape everything about the person from mannerisms to their personality. The process is called formation.
Some seminaries lay out on their website what kind of qualities a person must have if they want to even try to be a priest, truthfulness, emotional self-control, a mature respect for and cooperation with church authority. From the stories I've heard, these are things Father Ryan didn't seem to have, the way Peter was describing the church's long history. Father Ryan's Khan is so popular, it's almost a cliche, he said they were after money, sex and power.
It becomes a trope that you often hear these stories of false priests, as they were often known, who are there to take advantage of the faithful.
There was one guy in Los Angeles, his name is Erwin Meina. He got arrested for posing as a priest and selling fake trips to see the pope.
Mina is accused of impersonating a priest and swindling various church goers out of thousands of dollars since the mid 90s.
He was so enamored with how he felt as a priest that while out on parole, he went to a different church and got caught pretending to be a priest again while on parole.
But if this crime is a cliche, I feel like the church should have a system for catching people like Father Ryan.
I did find out that a Catholic priest in England and Wales is now required to carry an ID card. They announced the new IDs in 2018. Church leaders told reporters then that the fakes they heard about in the United States are one of the reasons for the change. The ads are about the size of a credit card. They have a photo of the priest, an expiration date in a bar code that can be scanned. Plus the cards are signed by the bishop from the diocese.
There's nothing like that in the U.S. and there doesn't appear to be a database or any system keeping track of fakes. But Peter said that's hard to do.
There are so many different ways now of presenting yourself as as Catholic that the church does not hold a monopoly on on the tarmac, at least not an enforceable monopoly. And so it cannot.
How can they stop them? How can they possibly keep track of everyone trying this in various places other than saying when these individual cases come up, this guy is not who he says he is. Check out his academic records, find out if he was really in the seminary he said he attended. Other than doing that. What can really be done?
Father Ryan claims he attended St. Ambrose University in the mid 70s. It's a private Roman Catholic school in Davenport, Iowa, the kind of place that touts individual responsibility on its website. I called them. They found him under one of his names. You'll notice the middle name is different. We have a record of a random DARRIAN stocks having taken an introduction to sociology class in the summer of 1976.
So he took one class.
He did not join the seminary in order to be a seminary, and he would have had to have a longer record with a registrar's office just to get one class.
OK, so he didn't go to the seminary and he never graduated? No. Up until now, everyone I've talked to didn't think he went at all. But one sociology class is not eight years of seminary. What's more, Peter thinks Father Ryan chooses his marks very carefully by targeting very often the elderly, by targeting those who feel like the church has changed on them and they are looking for ways to have a nostalgic experience of the church of their youth.
He is playing on their perceived sense of his authority as a priest. So if Father Ryan is in it for that feeling of authority, why not just do what Kucsera did? He claimed to have visions, no training or degrees needed. Why not do that?
Before this, I covered politics in D.C. in many ways, fake priests remind me of politicians, charismatic, selling people on a promise.
They seem to have that thing that makes some people want to be adored. Rock stars, comedians, actors, fake grease. What better way to demand an audience than to find one who thinks they'll go to eternal hell if they question you? We all have our ways of getting attention, knowing we're being heard and seen can be powerful. I know I like attention. I'm counting likes on social media, whatever that is, dopamine or something. These guys must be getting a huge rush.
While I've only talked to him through emails, I still have a picture of Father Ryan in my head. Everyone says he's this friendly, charming guy. I'm imagining this guy who burst into a room. Peter and I talked about this, too, there's an old tininess to the scam. It makes me think of a snake oil salesman like the wizard in The Wizard of Oz. Don't forget, he's a con man, too. He pretends to be a fortune teller with connections to European royalty.
Please, Professor, why can't we go with him to see all the crown heads of Europe, you know? Oh, you mean the thing is. Well. I never do anything without consulting my crystal first.
They're everywhere in American culture. Remember the Spielberg movie Catch Me if you can.
I sure am a little lady. The jumpsuit is open. It's been a while since I've done this. Which one is the jumpsuit again?
Father Ryan's ability to mostly avoid conviction always makes me think of one story in particular, The Music Man. It's about a con man who pretends to be an instrument salesman. I don't think of it because both Father Ryan and the Music Man target small Midwest towns or because my grandma was so obsessed with musicals, their doorbell was seriously give my regards to Broadway. The connection for me is the con artists ability to casually escape trouble in the musical. The main character sings and sways away whenever his legitimacy is questioned.
Just a minute here, Professor. Sorry, we need your credentials. Why, certainly, gentlemen, I have just what you want over my hotel. Please come with me. Good night, ladies. Good night, lady. Good night. Good night. We're going to leave.
Father Ryan has his own song and dance. You've heard all the things that make him hard to pin down by using religion.
He's able to scare off at least some prosecutors from doing anything. But then there's the fact he's selling rebellion. This can be a big advantage because it pits you against authority. That way, whenever a figure of authority tries to take you down, supporters don't see this as a cause for concern. They see it as proof. The right politicians use this all the time. They run against D.C. politics, the swamp, the media.
Father Ryan hits the media, too. Usually a newspaper or two would pick up Father Ryan's story. When the diocese would put out a warning, he'd claim reporters were spreading lies about his legitimacy. Today, those types of articles are all online. One of the things that stands out about Ryan being able to still pull this off is that most cons like this have come to an end. It's hard to imagine somebody successfully going from town to town in the Internet age, a con man would get caught quick with just a Google search.
Here's Peter again.
It's funny to think that of these individual flim flam men, it's making it much more difficult to go out and ply their craft.
But while the Internet age might scare some father, Ryan kept going. He didn't let what happened in Arizona get in the way. Not long after Helen and Paul raised questions, Cáceres refuge in Arizona caught the attention of the local diocese.
They sent a scathing letter listing all the different ways Sarah's refuge violated canon law. Those are the laws within the Catholic Church. But by the time they sent this, Cruzeiro was long gone. The last time Dale saw him, he was living a new life in Mexico. I do know that he kind of toward the end just got tired out and I think said no.
To this day, no one I've talked to is entirely sure what happened to Marvin Kucsera. The last address, court records show, is a P.O. Box in South Dakota in two thousand fifteen. Dale cleaned up the mess left by KUCSERA in Arizona on October 28, 1996. Paul Bergman watched someone fill up a rider moving truck with the rest of his things and drive away. He and his sister would avoid financial disaster, they managed to keep ownership of the land despite Casares best efforts.
For Kucsera, a chapter appeared to come to an end, but for Father Ryan, a new chapter was just getting started. Father Ryan's son thinks his time with Kucsera was transformative. Kucsera gave Father Ryan connections within the traditional Catholic world. He showed him the value of publishing to attract donors, and the followers would be willing to sign over their belongings.
What aspect of that you think? Sarah taught it like everything.
Father Ryan would soon take all these lessons and show back up in the Midwest, this time in a new state with sharpened skills ready to reopen the Holy Rosary Abbey.
Next time on smoke screen, things are looking up for Father Ryan. He gets creative, expanding his work into the lumber industry. There were plenty of people in the industry who thought it was legitimate and there were plenty of people in the industry who referred to him as the fake father.
But behind the scenes, something much darker is happening. She was very vulnerable after her husband died. She trusted him completely. He's got old time religion, there is his cash in a coffee can, and he makes his decisions down on his knees.
He's a full grown man and he. Fake priest is production of Neon How Media, it is reported and hosted by me, Alex Shuman, the executive producer is Jonathan Hirsche. Producers are Natalie Ryn and Tina Robbins. Catherine St. Louis is our editor. Fact checking by Laura Buller's. Thanks to Matt McGinley for our theme music. And a blue dot sessions for tracks. You hear on this episode Sound Design and Additional Composition by Jess Bernstein. And the song you hear now is Old Time Religion by Parker Milsap or engineer Scott Somerville.
Special thanks to Peter. So Odelia Ruban, Haley Fagre share Morris and Vikram Patel.