Michael Hands, a former priest who served prison time for sexually abusing a 14-year-old Long Island boy in August 2000, was found dead of an apparent suicide in his jail cell upstate Tuesday while awaiting sentencing on new sex-abuse charges, authorities said.
A spokesman for Saratoga County said that Hands, 51, formerly of Greenwich, Connecticut was found dead in his cell at the county jail in Ballston Spa at 1:45 a.m. during a routine check of inmates and was believed to have killed himself. Saratoga County officials said an autopsy would be performed to determine the cause of death.
Hands was a key witness in a 2002 grand jury investigation, conducted by Suffolk County prosecutors, that led to a 182-page report alleging that priests in the Diocese of Rockville Centre abused children over decades. No indictments resulted from the probe, however, and the statutes of limitations for some of the offenses alleged had expired.
The state Commission of Correction, which looks into all in-custody deaths in the state, confirmed it is investigating Hands’ death at the Saratoga jail.
Hands’ death comes just days before a March 1 court appearance before Saratoga County Court Judge James A. Murphy III, where Hands was to be sentenced to up to 8 years in prison after pleading guilty last month to two counts of third-degree criminal sexual act, said Saratoga District Attorney Karen Heggen.
Hands, whom state evaluators have deemed a Level 3 sex offender — or mostly likely to reoffend — admitted to sexual contact with a child under the age of 17 on two occasions in July in the upstate town of Charlton, according to news reports. They also said that he began a relationship with the youngster online and eventually met the victim in person.
“His plea in January tells the world that he in fact committed these heinous acts and demonstrated his responsibility for his crimes,” Heggen said.
His attorney, James Tyner of Latham, said Hands’ death, despite his misdeeds, is a tragedy.
“Obviously in the course of my representation I got to know Michael very well,” Tyner said. “He certainly understood that he owed a debt to society and pled guilty without the need for a trial, which would have subjected the complainant in this case to public scrutiny that Michael wished to spare him from. And at the end of the day, this is obviously a very tragic event.”
Hands was suspended by the diocese in May, 2001 after he was first arrested. He received a lesser 2-year jail term in Suffolk, in part because of his cooperation with authorities, after pleading guilty in February of 2003 to charges of sodomy and attempted sodomy of a 14-year-old boy whose family he befriended while he was a parish priest
He also was sentenced in March 2003 in Nassau to a 6-month jail term and 5 years probation after pleading guilty to five counts of sodomy and two counts of endangering the welfare of a child, the same young teen. That jail term was served concurrently with his Suffolk sentence.
Hands was released in April 2004.