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Man shot, killed in Henderson was defrocked New Jersey priest

Updated March 12, 2019 - 7:14 pm

The man shot and killed Saturday morning was a defrocked Catholic priest and retired teacher from New Jersey who faced sexual abuse allegations.

John Capparelli, 70, was found shot to death about 9:30 a.m. Saturday in his Henderson home in the 1400 block of Bonner Springs Drive, near Eastern Avenue and Reunion Drive, according to the Henderson Police Department. Police had not identified his killer and were “following up on developed leads,” a release said.

Capparelli’s name appears on a list, released last month, of clergy who “have been credibly accused of sexual abuse of minors” in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.

Property records indicate that Capparelli bought his Bonner Springs home in 2016. However, Capparelli sold a home in New Jersey about the same time as he purchased the property in Henderson, New Jersey property records show.

He worked as a Catholic priest and later a teacher in Newark before he was defrocked and lost his teaching certificates in 1992 after dozens of sexual abuse allegations were leveled against him dating to the 1970s and 1980s, according to the New Jersey Star-Ledger newspaper.

Two New Jersey men were set to testify against him before the state Board of Examiners, the New Jersey body that regulates teachers, but the board and Capparelli settled before the proceeding, the newspaper reported.

Rich Fitter, 52, a personal trainer and strength coach in New Jersey, was one of the men prepared to testify against him.

In a phone interview Tuesday, Fitter said he knew Capparelli in the early 1980s, when he was ages 15 to 17, through his involvement with the wrestling team at Oratory Preparatory School in Summit, New Jersey. Capparelli, then 33, was a teacher and youth minister as well as the wrestling coach, he said.

Fitter said he wasn’t Catholic and didn’t attend the school but often hung out with friends who were Catholic, and he was introduced to the priest through his involvement with a church youth group.

He said that Capparelli initially acted like an “older brother and mentor” to him but that he later realized the priest was “grooming” him and other teenage boys.

According to Fitter, Capparelli several times took photos of boys’ genital areas as they wrestled, using the excuse that he was “studying their moves.” He also would frequently join in to teach, then would touch their privates, call it a “slip” and apologize, he said.

“We trusted him and what he said and did because he was our coach, and we figured he knew best,” Fitter said.

He said Capparelli’s inappropriate behavior escalated one night when the priest invited him to his home to hang out and he saw a stack of Polaroids of the wrestlers.

“The photos looked like we were in pain and they didn’t look like they’d be helpful to teach us wrestling,” he said. When Fitter got upset over the photos, Capparelli suggested the two “wrestle in the gym and work it out.”

“I thought he was safe, but he brutalized me,” Fitter said of the sexual abuse.

Afterward, Fitter said he ended all ties with Capparelli and stopped attending the youth group. He said it took him nine years to process what had happened and acknowledge that he had been sexually abused.

“I connected all of the dots and admitted to myself what happened,” he said. After this realization, Fitter said he reached out to members of another Catholic Church in the area who assured him that the situation had been “handled” and that Capparelli was no longer a threat to anyone.

But he said he later learned Capparelli was given a promotion and a raise at a different Catholic school.

In 2011, more allegations against Capparelli emerged, he said. Fitter said he also learned that year that Capparelli had created and maintained a “fetish” wrestling website featuring pictures of young athletic men wrestling in tight swimsuits.

Because of New Jersey’s statute of limitations, Fitter and others couldn’t sue Capparelli, so they agreed to the church defrocking him and revoking his teaching certificates.

Capparelli never admitted to any of the dozens of allegations against him.

Last month the New Jersey Catholic Diocese released the names of 188 priests and deacons “credibly accused” of sexual abuse of children, which included Capparelli’s name, the Star-Ledger reported.

Fitter said he believes Capparelli relocated to Las Vegas sometime in 2016 and did so to start fresh with new victims.

“My gut tells me he had been doing this up until his death and what happened to him is karma.”

Contact Jessica Terrones at jterrones@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0256. Follow @JessATerrones on Twitter. Review-Journal staff writer Mike Shoro contributed to this report.

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