Broken statue/man imprisoned
By Joe O’Sullivan
Public Opinion Staff Writer
In a drama combining the ravages of alcoholism, an angel smashed to pieces and pen-wielding worshippers stands a man sentenced to nearly 10 years in prison.
Gene Haring Jr., convicted of ransacking Watertown’s Immaculate Conception Church last June, received eight years in prison Tuesday. What’s more, he may be hearing about the wreckage he left — and good wishes for his future — by the parishioners he affected.
Haring was sentenced in the Codington County Courthouse after pleading guilty to burglary. Though he only stole a fistful of cash — less than $20 was believed to be in the donation box he pilfered — the 45-year-old North Dakotan caused over $5,000 in damage, including the destruction of a century-old statue.
Late on June 11 or early the next morning, Haring busted through the church’s chapel into its main worship space.
Drunk, he tore up doors and walls while trying to pry open the sacristy.
The sacristy, according to Father Joe Forcelle, is where the valuables are kept.
“He took this statue, over a 100-year-old olive wood statue of an angel,” Forcelle said, “and tried to use it as a battering ram into the door.”
“And when that didn’t work, he took a display case filled with all kinds of things and tried to use that.”
The sacristy remained shut, but the damage was done. An antique statue was smashed into 75 pieces and a church’s faith was upset.
A maintenance worker discovered the damage in the morning along with plenty of evidence, according to Forcelle.
“When you’re drunk you’re not real careful about how you do things,” he said.
Which is how Haring came to be apprehended. DNA evidence collected at the church was run through a nationwide database, according to Detective Sgt. Tim Toomey of the Watertown Police.
“It was actually blood that was left on scene,” Toomey said, that led to a hit on Haring’s name. At the time, the defendant was in the North Dakota State Penitentiary on unrelated charges.
The chapel, normally open 24 hours, was restricted to daylight hours for two months. The break-in prompted talk about whether the church needed more security.
“We had discussion about alarm systems, cameras,” Forcelle said.
But those ideas were scrapped.
“We are not going to allow a single incident to dictate how we operate,” he said. “We’re trying not to over-react.”
Moreover, parishioners felt violated.
“If somebody broke into your home and took a family heirloom to try to break other things in your home, that’s what a lot of people (felt),” Forcelle said.
A way to channel those sentiments is to communicate that grief directly to Haring.
“The parish council agreed to let parishioners write letters of encouragement, but also to let him know what he did impacted them,” Forcelle said. “Not to make him feel guilty … but to help create a lot of change in his life.”
Terry Sutton, Haring’s attorney, said in court his client has struggled with alcohol, a rocky relationship and bipolar disorder.
Noting Haring reached out to the church, Sutton added: “He just wants to make amends and get this behind him.”
Deputy State’s Attorney Chad Nelson described the incident as “wanton destruction of property.”
“This really was just a senseless kind of activity,” Nelson told the court.
Before hearing the sentence, the defendant acknowledged his actions.
“I see where I messed up,” Haring said.
The blow to the church was lessened last Thanksgiving, when the statue returned after a three-and-a-half month rebuilding process in St. Louis, Forcelle said. For $1,800, a company reglued all 75 pieces together. People can’t tell the difference between it and its untouched sister.
But the father, who has seen vandalism in previous assignments in Vermillion and St. Paul, remains disappointed.
“If we were in downtown Chicago, it would be a different story,” Forcelle said. “Why out here? Why in the middle of the prairies?”
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Tags: burglary, church, news, prison, Watertown