BERNALILLO, N.M. — A short-order cook jailed on charges of fatally stabbing and beating a priest was exactly the sort of person the Rev. Michael Mack would have tried to help.
Steven A. Degraff, 33, already jailed on an unrelated crime, confessed to Sandoval County sheriff's deputies that he killed Mack, 59, court records said. Degraff had served time in four other states.
"He tried to rape me," Degraff said during his arraignment Friday morning. He said the alleged attempted rape occurred in December.
Degraff, who appeared in court in arm and leg irons, pleaded innocent before Magistrate Margaret Cassidy Baca and remained jailed under $1 million bond on charges of murder, kidnapping, robbery, aggravated burglary, stealing a vehicle, criminal damage to property and six counts of tampering with evidence.
Mack had moved to the Servants of the Paraclete compound near Jemez Springs less than a week before he was murdered. He was to serve as a counselor and start a year of personal study and spiritual reflection, said the Rev. Ray Gunzel, director of the compound's Father Fitzgerald Retreat and Renewal Center.
Mack was a former associate director of the University of Arizona's Catholic Newman Center. A Dominican priest for 22 years, he worked in Winslow before moving to New Mexico.
"This Steven Degraff was one of the first people that Mike would
have been reaching out to help. He was always working with the underdogs, the misunderstood and the oppressed," Gunzel said.
Mack's murder "was a real blow to us. Nothing like this has ever happened here," Gunzel said.
Gunzel said priests at the facility will be looking at how to boost security at the isolated compound in the Jemez Mountains in north-central New Mexico.
The Servants of the Paraclete became notorious in New Mexico in the 1990s after pedophile priests under treatment at the monastery were placed in parishes in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe in central New Mexico. The Rev. Peter Lechner, who now heads the monastery, has said that today it's used primarily for retreats, and fewer than 10 people live there long term.
Sheriff's deputies said Mack, who lived alone in a cottage about two miles from the main compound, had been stabbed and bludgeoned to death. His pajama-clad body was found Dec. 8.
Degraff allegedly entered Mack's home and stole his wallet, keys and car, court records said.
The suspect reportedly told investigators he was armed with a knife and a hammer during the murder, the records said. Sandoval County Undersheriff Karl Wiese said investigators have not yet found the murder weapons.
He later led deputies to the car, which was found on Thomson Ridge in Sandoval County with the keys still in the ignition, the records said.
"We believe that (the murder) was theft-oriented with the intent to steal items from the residence," Wiese said.
Wiese said Degraff had been "cooperative with investigators."
Investigators found hairs at the cottage that appeared to match Degraff's long, brown hair, Wiese said.
The hair samples were sent to the state Crime Lab in Santa Fe where they are being analyzed to see if they match a sample of Degraff's DNA, authorities said. Deputy District Attorney Patrick McNertney said the analysis could take weeks.
Deputies had seen Degraff sitting on a guardrail along N.M. 4 across the road from Mack's home, court records said.
But investigators and Gunzel said the two did not know each other.
Degraff, who had been in the Jemez Springs area for about 10 months, had worked as a cook at a restaurant in La Cueva, several miles north of Jemez Springs, said Sandoval Sheriff's Lt. Stephen Reynolds.
Sandoval County sheriff's investigators caught up with Degraff after receiving an anonymous tip he had been arrested last month by Pojoaque Pueblo police.
Degraff had been held by Pojoaque police on charges of possession of drug paraphernalia and auto theft in an unrelated case.
On Dec. 28, he was transferred to the Sandoval County jail for allegedly keeping and disposing of a stolen rental car in a third unrelated case, court records showed.
Mack himself had sought treatment at the compound six years ago for anxiety and depression that had resulted in dependence on alcohol and drugs, Gunzel said.
Court records said Degraff had been incarcerated in California, Nevada, Pennsylvania and New York before coming to New Mexico.
Authorities declined to provide details about Degraff's previous criminal history.
— Arizona Daily Sun