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Priest: ‘Now I shake’ about church robbery, Antioch killings

Billy Varner / Phofrom Antioch police

Billy Varner / Photo from Antioch police

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Updated: December 6, 2013 6:18AM

The Rev. Benny D. Putharayil was conducting Saturday night mass at the Church of St. Michael in Ray, N.D. when a man armed with a shotgun barged in.

“It was a shocking moment because I was preaching,” Putharayil recalled Monday night, only after learning the man had been wanted for murder. “He stepped in with a gun and shouted, ‘Stop, Father.’”

Heads in the pews turned to catch sight of 54-year-old Billy Varner, who has since been charged with the murder of two women in north suburban Antioch, according to the priest and authorities.

Nearly three-dozen parishioners hit the floor, taking cover in the pews, leaving Putharayil the only one standing, the Catholic priest said in a phone interview.

Then the man gestured with his gun for Putharayil to come forward.

“My thought was, ‘Even if I die, I should be the first one,’” Putharayil said. “By God’s grace I was a spared.”

As it turns out, Varner was only looking for money when he entered the church, about a three-hour drive from Bismarck. He handed Putharayil a bag to collect the parishioners’ valuables.

The 7 p.m. armed robbery marked the beginning of the end for Varner, who is scheduled to appear in Lake County bond court Tuesday morning.

Police say they were looking for Varner since the bodies of his 82-year-old mother Dorothy Varner, and girlfriend, 61-year-old Peggy A. Henderson, were discovered Oct. 28 in an Antioch basement. He was the last known person to see them alive.

Some churchgoers wept as Putharayil gathered their valuables. But a father and son communicating with each other under the pews had no intention of letting the armed man get away, Putharayil said.

After Varner made his getaway in a van, they chased him and called the police. Others at church pulled out their cellphones, too, and called the police, Putharayil said.

Varner was arrested in North Dakota by Williams County Sheriff’s officers who recovered the stolen money. The van is being taken by flatbed back to Lake County.

“The parishioners in the church chased him out and gave a good description,” Antioch Police Chief Craig Somerville told reporters at a news conference Sunday night. “The suspect fled the scene and several churchgoers followed and it ended without incident.”

George Filinko, commander of the Lake County Major Crime Task Force, said Varner got a shotgun from a car burglary in North Dakota and used that to rob the church.

After things calmed down, Putharayil said he continued the mass.

“I was not frightened at that moment, but when I heard the news that he’s suspected for murder? Now I shake,” Putharayil said.

Contributing: Associated Press

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