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The Twisted Life and Death of a Predator Priest With a Wrestling Fetish

As a priest, John Capparelli used wrestling as a pretext to molest boys. It also played a role in his murder.

Pilar Melendez6.14.19 10:51 PM ET

As a New Jersey priest in the 1970s and 1980s, John Capparelli liked to arrange wrestling matches for parish boys. He gave them skimpy Speedos to wear, took pictures of them grappling, and even joined in—using the rough-housing as an excuse to sadistically grope the kids.

“Capparelli kind of played the role of being that cool adult that you hung out with,” one of his victims, Rich Fitter, told the Daily Beast last week. “I have no doubt in my mind now that he was a sociopath.”

After his sexual abuse came to light in the late 1980s, Capparelli was sent to a rehab for clergy with sexual problems, removed from parish ministry and eventually suspended from performing priestly duties. However, he continued to teach—while secretly running a porn website that featured young wrestlers.

It took two decades and several lawsuits to finally defrock Capparelli and get him ousted from the classroom. By then, he had left New Jersey and moved to a two-bedroom home in a quiet neighborhood in Henderson, Nevada, where neighbors noticed he always had a steady stream of young male visitors.

Then, three months ago, there was a shocking development in the saga of the predator priest: He was found shot dead inside his home by police who were asked to check on the 70-year-old. The motive was initially unclear, raising the obvious question of whether his death could somehow be related to his sordid past.

The answer, it turned out, was no—and yes.

The person police say murdered Capparelli was not one of the teens he molested so many years ago. But the investigation revealed that while Capparelli had left behind New Jersey and his collar, he did not abandon his obsession with wrestling.

According to police, the disgraced clergyman was killed by a young man who answered his online ad seeking out “young and good looking men” willing to wrestle for him.

“It’s karma,” Fitter said.

“The world is a safer place without him,” he added. “Caparelli had a 40-year record of being a serial predator and he was constantly empowered by the fact that he could do no wrong. I have no sorrow for what happened to him.”

Police have identified the alleged gunman as 25-year-old Derrick Mitchell Decoste, who is currently sitting in a jail cell in Michigan.

According to an arrest affidavit, Decoste went to Capparelli’s house “several times” in response to a Craigslist ad. While the suspect claimed it was for a photography “gig,” his girlfriend later told investigators that he intended to rob Capparelli but later claimed he “chickened out.”

On March 9, one of Capparelli’s friends became concerned after not hearing from the former priest for several days, went to the Henderson home and saw a “man’s body through a rear window,” police said.

Cops called to the scene found the ex-priest with a bullet wound to the neck—and “hundreds of homemade DVDs that featured nearly-nude men wrestling inside [his] home, presumably while the victim filmed them,” the  affidavit states.

“Investigators [also] located a printed out Craigslist ad which had been placed by the victim,” the affidavit said, adding that Caparelli’s wallet, cellphone, and house keys were missing. “The ad sought out ‘young and good looking men’ who would be willing to wrestle and or compete in ‘submission matches,’” the affidavit said.

Detectives were led to Decoste through texts sent to Capparelli’s phone three days before his death. By then, Decoste was being held at Oakland County Jail on an unrelated case.

He was charged with murder with a deadly weapon and robbery with a deadly weapon. His girlfriend gave police a box of Decoste’s belongings that included Capparelli’s 9 mm Smith & Wesson handgun and a watch inscribed with “Newark Teachers Union Local 481”—a reference to the New Jersey public school where he taught math in 2011 after leaving the priesthood. The handgun matched the gun casings found at the scene, police said.

An attorney for Decoste could not be located, but he denies the allegations. Decoste is expected to be extradited to Nevada sometime this month, Henderson police said.

“The case is still an open investigation and we cannot comment at this time whether Capparelli’s death is related to previous accusations against him,” a Henderson police spokesperson told The Daily Beast.

For Fitter, the outcome brought mixed emotions.

I am never going to get the explanation and apology I have been waiting for.
Abuse survivor Rich Fitter

“The idea that he is never going to hurt anyone anymore and the world is way better off now that he is dead is comforting,” the 52-year-old said. “But I am never going to get the apology that I wanted. I am never going to get the explanation and apology I have been waiting for.”

Fitter was hardly the only victim. New Jersey police say he groped, photographed and abused at least two dozen young boys during his twisted wrestling matches and other encounters. Following a slew of complaints about his inappropriate behavior, in 1989 Capparelli was sent to a New Mexico center that specialized in treating alcoholic or pedophile clergymen, as the Star-Ledger has reported.  

About a year after he was suspended from ministry, however, Capparelli was back in a classroom, teaching math to ninth-graders at a Newark public school. A 2011 lawsuit filed by a man who said the priest abused him at a Boy Scout camp he directed in the mid-1980s brought new scrutiny to Capparelli, who denied abusing the boys but agreed to give up teaching in a settlement with state officials.

“He had a great career in Newark, and now he has a chance to retire with dignity,” his attorney told the Star-Ledger at the time.

Fitter also filed a lawsuit against the church, alleging that Capparelli raped and repeatedly sexually assaulted him for about two years in the mid-1980s after he met him through a Catholic after-school program in Union County, N.J., where the he ran a wrestling club.

Capparelli sought out young men “with a certain look” before befriending them, Fitter said, taking them to the movies or out for pizza after a match. Once the boys were comfortable, Fitter said, Caparelli made them wrestle in Speedos.

“He would have you wrestle in Speedos because he said that with gym shorts or sweatpants somebody could get a finger tangled up and break a finger,” Fitter said.

Capparelli used the aggressive wrestling for sexual satisfaction, Fitter said, and would often force students into erotic positions.

“Sometimes, Caparrelli would get you in a head scissors so your face would be right in front of his crotch,” Fitter said. Eventually, his lawsuit alleged, Capparelli “got more possessive,” and when Fitter tried to pull away, the former priest raped him. Capparelli was never criminally charged, but the lawsuit was settled.

The world is a safer place without him.
Sex abuse victim Rich Fitter

Capparelli’s name appears on the list as one of 188 priests “credibly accused” of child sexual abuse, according to a list released by five New Jersey Catholic dioceses in February in response to the harrowing Pennsylvania grand jury report that revealed rampant, often unreported clerical abuse within the Catholic Church.

The Newark archdiocese confirmed Capparelli, who was ordained in 1980, served in several parishes and schools for more than a decade before the archdiocese took any action against him in 1992. Church officials declined to comment on why it took so long for him to be defrocked.

“We have no comment concerning John Capparelli’s death or any investigation related to his death,” a spokesperson for the archdiocese told The Daily Beast.