Police took tremendous care to be thorough in investigation versus priest who eventually was cleared

Aspen Police Detective Jeremy Johnson, the lead investigator, knew he had a monumental task ahead of him.
Aspen Police Department/Courtey photo

Aspen Police this week released a redacted report detailing the 500 hours of investigation, including interviews of 86 witness and assistance from the FBI, of an ex-altar boy’s accusations from prison in 2021 of sexual abuse by a priest who had served at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in the mid-2000s.

No corroborating evidence was found, and the 9th Judicial District Attorney’s Office announced in April it would not file criminal charges. The Archdiocese of Denver announced this week that it had concluded its own investigation, and Father Michael O’Brien would return to work July 1 as pastor of two churches in the Julesburg area.

The accuser was Keegan Callahan, now 25, who made his allegations from prison, where he is serving a 14-year sentence for raping a 16-year-old girl off McClain Flats Road. Callahan’s attorney, Steve Eldredge in Denver, told The Aspen Times this week that the associated civil case is in continuance and will not be heard this summer.

The case was unique in ways that catapulted it into national headlines.

Sensitive to Colorado’s history concerning priests accused of sexual assault crimes in the past, investigators knew they needed to be very thorough.

Aspen detectives were first alerted to the accusations against O’Brien by an urgent phone call in September 2021 from Christi Sullivan, who heads the Archdiocese of Denver’s Office of Minor and At Risk Adult Protection.

She told detectives that she had just received a letter from a Denver law firm representing Callahan. He accused O’Brien of 200 to 300 instances of sexual abuse. Callahan said the abuse began when he was a 7-year-old altar boy for St. Mary’s, where O’Brien and other priests worked and lived.

O’Brien had never been accused of wrongdoing by anyone before.

A 2019 Colorado Attorney General’s Office’s special master’s report found that from 1950 to 2019, 166 children had been abused and documented the flaws in how the Colorado’s three dioceses reacted to sexual abuse accusations during this timeframe. The special master had called Father Robert Harold White, who served in Aspen’s St. Mary’s from 1978 to 1981, Colorado’s “most prolific” clergy sexual abuser.

In 2019, Callahan negotiated a plea bargain after being arrested on accusations of sexually assaulting two teenage girls. In his plea bargain, he was convicted of sexual exploitation of a child, second-degree assault, and two misdemeanors of unlawful sexual contact. Prosecutor Don Nottingham dropped the other counts against Callahan as part of the plea agreement.

According to the Aspen Police report released this week, Eldredge blamed Callahan’s violent acts on abuse by a priest. In his letter to the archdiocese, Eldredge wrote that Callahan, imprisoned in  Arkansas Valley Correctional Facility and not eligible for parole until 2024, “would not be where he was at today had it not been for the years of sexual and physical abuse he endured at the hands of O’Brien.” Callahan claimed he was molested and beaten from 2004 to 2008.

Starting at the source

The lead detective on the investigation, Aspen Police Detective Jeremy Johnson, decided to start with Callahan. Interviewing him in prison meant an obstacle course of security measures. And as Aspen Police Detective Sgt. Rick Magnuson, who oversaw Johnson’s reports, noted, this was at the height of COVID.

“There was never one dramatic bolt from the sky revelation when the whole truth was revealed,” Johnson said last week. “It was more the incremental accumulation of facts … the totality that ultimately led to the conclusion there wasn’t evidence to support criminal charges.”

Throughout the ordeal, O’Brien denied the allegations and volunteered to take a polygraph, which he passed. Johnson said the archdiocese cooperated fully and gave him a list St. Mary’s employees in 2004-08 as he tackled a task akin to assembling an urgent puzzle with hundreds of pieces.

“My first step was to interview Keegan at length, build a timeline, get every detail I could in about six hours …. We could always go back, but it was difficult because of prison security, and all the lawyers needed to coordinate schedules; attorneys then need paralegals,” Johnson said.

The police report has a long list of the staff and volunteers who were interviewed. Many could not remember O’Brien. The biggest negative comment was a female staffer who thought he was “grumpy” and whose feelings were hurt by his “kidding around.”

One thread that ran through the interviews, Johnson recalled, was that O’Brien had little interest in interacting with kids, much less being alone with them. The adult churchgoers felt the personality of the priest who had a prior career as an engineer was unlikely for a predator.

“They saw him as reticent …. He didn’t seem to enjoy being around children,” Johnson said. “Activities that involved interacting with children, he delegated to others.”

Johnson wanted to walk through St. Mary’s Church and the rectory, where the priests lived in O’Brien’s time there, and see the locations where Callahan said the abuse occurred. St. Mary’s has been remodeled since 2008, with some interior walls demolished. But Johnson said the archdiocese provided him blueprints of the older layout and introduced him to a “property manager who had been there forever and knew every bolt, every door, and all the changes the building went through.”

Some of the locales Callahan mentioned didn’t jibe with how the building was structured then. But Johnson and his team didn’t view a few memory glitches of a grown man trying to remember what happened when he was 7 to 10 years old as alarming.

Callahan had said some of the abuse took place on Sundays after Mass and on Wednesday nights. But Johnson learned that those nights, a children’s after-school program conducted by church volunteers was held in St. Mary’s. He tracked down former altar boys who served with Callahan and volunteers who taught at the after-school program. Many were living all over America now, so he had to make dozens of wrong calls when the witness had a last name like “Smith.”

Johnson interviewed the Callahan family. He empathized with the distraught parents who believed their son and were searching for reasons he had made catastrophic life choices.

O’Brien was taken from St. Mary’s at one point in this period for health reasons. Johnson learned that a carbon-monoxide leak in the rectory injured O’Brien so severely that he was hospitalized in Denver, and a neurologist treated him.

O’Brien’s attorney, Kevin McGreevy, said no one other than Callahan ever made an allegation of wrongdoing against the priest. He observed that many of the times and places Callahan claimed he was abused, other people would have been present.

“Damage has been done to Father O’Brien,” McGreevy said, sounding weary. He added that he wasn’t sure the damage could be undone.

The investigation lasted a good 18 months, demanding 500 hours, 86 interviews, FBI assistance and reviews, plus piecing together hundreds of bits of evidence from witnesses scattered across the country. 

Although the archdiocese and the police invited the public to present any corroborating evidence of the abuse, Johnson said no one ever offered any.