Armed Robbery During Mass in Ray - KXNet.com - Bismarck/Minot/Williston/Dickinson-KXNEWS,ND

Armed Robbery During Mass in Ray

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An Illinois man charged with two murders in his home state is back in Illinois tonight after being arrested following an armed robbery at a church in Ray on Saturday.

Williams County Sheriff's investigators say

54-year-old Billy Varner was picked up near the 13 mile corner, north of Williston on Highway Two after the sheriff's department received reports from people who had been robbed at St. Michael's Catholic Church in Ray.

It turns out Varner is wanted for allegedly killing his wife and mother in the northern Illinois town of Antioch on October 28th.

As Jim Olson reports, Varner's arrest was made possible by some amateur detective work by people from the congregation where the robbery happened.

There was an unusual turn in Saturday night's mass at St. Michael's Catholic Church in Ray.

(Nathan Schell, Witness) "Father was in the middle of his homily and all of a sudden someone busted in through the back door and told Father to stop preaching and had a gun."

The service had been interrupted by a man holding a shotgun, pointing it at Father Benny Putharayil.

(Nathan Schell, Witness) "Father Benny was probably the bravest one because he was right at gunpoint while everyone else was kind of hiding."

He ordered Father Benny to gather money from parishioners as they hid among the pews.

(Nathan Schell, Witness) "He kept saying, 'desperate times call for desperate measured.' He kept saying he didn't want to hurt anybody but when somebody has a shotgun, you don't know."

That's when Nathan Schell and his father shared a glance - a look that said, we're hiding now, but we're going after this man when he leaves.

(Nathan Schell, Witness) "Soon as he turned his back my dad went one way and I went another."

Nathan caught a glimpse of the silver or gold van that the robber had hopped into, and Nathan got into a vehicle with his friend Tom Whelen to try to find the van.

(Nathan Schell, Witness) "Something told me to head west, I guessed west. We took the street right by the church and I was looking left parallel to us on Highway Two and all of a sudden we saw a vehicle turn its lights on and it was a guess and we kept following."

So they gave chase - in the darkness of a North Dakota autumn night - heading west on Highway Two - in a low speed chase through the construction zone that stretched 20 miles ahead of them.

(Nathan Schell, Witness) "We were behind a semi and a pickup and there was no passing because it was two lanes and there was cones and after a while I told Tom we gotta go and finally we passed him and clarified it was the van."

(Jim Olson, KX News) "The chase by the parishioners ended here, 13 miles north of Williston at 13 Mile Corner. This is where they gave up their chase and turned things over to law enforcement."

(Nathan Schell, Witness) "He went around the corner and started heading straight towards Williston and then cops came from the other direction and it seemed like in no time there was five, six cop cars there."

And with that man who had brandished a shotgun in their church less than an hour before, was in handcuffs.

(Nathan Schell, Witness) "I didn't expect that going to church!"

Jim Olson, KX News.

Williams County Sheriff Scott Bushing says the robbery suspect, Billy Varner, has already been transferred from North Dakota to Illinois to face the murder charges against him.

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