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William Hightower and the missing priest

One of the most infamous crimes in our County took place in August of 1921 and involved a priest, a possible kidnapping, and a pretty stupid criminal.
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A 3D render of a polygraph lie detector machine drawing red lines on graph paper

One of the most infamous crimes in our County took place in August of 1921 and involved a priest, a possible kidnapping, and a pretty stupid criminal.

One evening that month, a man approached Holy Angels Catholic Church in Colma and knocked on the door. The door was answered by Marie Wendel, the housekeeper. The man, whom Wendel had never seen before, asked to see the resident priest, as he had a friend who was dying and who needed last rites.

Once alerted to the situation, Father Patrick Heslin, 58, went away with the stranger. He was never seen alive again.

The following day, once the community knew the priest was missing, a 150-person search party was formed to scour the area.

Father Heslin was well-liked in the area. Nobody could fathom why anyone would want to harm him, so initial theories about his disappearance included becoming lost or meeting with some kind of accident. Darker rumors existed, however, including $50,000 ransom demands and a hit ordered by a criminal who confessed to Father Heslin and suddenly the priest knew too much.

The search went nowhere and so the police were surprised and somewhat pleased when a man named William A. Hightower told the authorities that not only did he know where Father Heslin was buried, but he volunteered to take police to the spot: Salada Beach in Pacifica, where he said they would find the body. As the police started digging at the area in question, one of the officers told Hightower to be careful where he walked so as not to damage Father Heslin’s head, which might very well be needed to determine the cause of death. Hightower bizarrely told the officer not to worry because the head was at the opposite end of the shallow grave where they were digging.

Father Heslin’s body was just where Hightower said it would be. The police immediately took Hightower into custody. The police used, apparently for the first time in a criminal case, a new-fangled piece of equipment called a lie detector. It indicated that Hightower was lying and so he quickly went to trial on October 3, 1921. The evidence was damning and the housekeeper Wendel testified that Hightower was indeed the man who came to the door one evening the previous August. The jury found Hightower guilty of first-degree murder and he was whisked off to prison for a life sentence. Reports vary as to whether he ever confessed to the crime and gave a motive for the murder.

He stayed in prison for nearly 43 years before being released in May of 1965 after 27 unsuccessful parole hearings.

What do you think of this infamous crime in San Mateo County’s past? The crime remains well-known in the annals of local true crime.