The Rev. John Canning delivered the eulogy after Leo and Hazel Gleese were slain, telling mourners that he had been so close to the couple that he could call them Mom and Dad.
On Friday, six weeks later, Canning was led off to jail in handcuffs, charged with beating and strangling the 90-year-old couple.
Police say the Gleeses were killed in their home Jan. 2 after they discovered Canning had abused the power of attorney they gave him and was stealing their savings.
“It’s the most despicable thing I’ve ever heard of,” said Phil Ramer, a Florida Department of Law Enforcement agent. “Of all people in the world you should be able to trust, it’s your pastor. They couldn’t do it in this case, and he wound up killing them.”
Canning, the 58-year-old pastor of the multidenominational Fountain of Life Church, was a suspect from the start because he had waited a day to report finding the couple dead in their home.
The minister passed the time before reporting the deaths by spending a day at the beach and dining out with friends, Police Chief Robert Glick said.
“When it takes somebody a day to report two dead bodies, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to say who the suspect is,” Ramer said.
Investigators searched a trash pile near the construction site for the church’s new sanctuary and found several items that a lab analysis linked to the crime scene. One item was a piece of foam material from Gleese’s easy chair.
“The discovery of the dump site for the church, I believe more than anything else, has expedited the case,” the police chief said.
Canning probably stole tens of thousands of dollars from the couple, Glick said.
Investigators are reviewing documents that show the Gleeses and other parishioners who had become increasingly housebound gave him authority over their finances. They want to know whether Canning has victimized other church members.
Canning was held without bail on two charges of murder. Prosecutors would not say whether they will seek the death penalty.
“I’m absolutely shocked,” said Maria Seitz, who knew the couple and sometimes accompanied them to church in this retirement community dotted with orange groves about 80 miles from Tampa. Canning “was one of the few people who looked after them.”
Two weeks after the bodies were found, Canning delivered a half-hour eulogy over their ashes at Pinecrest Cemetery.
“I’m proud they asked me to be their son,” the minister said, clutching a Bible. “I’m proud I could call them Mom and Dad.”
Canning explained to two dozen mourners how he had officiated at the couple’s wedding seven years ago. Shortly after the wedding, he said, the childless couple asked to “adopt” the pastor and his wife.
“Some of you today have been longtime friends of Mom and Dad for many months or many years,” Canning said at the service. “But I doubt if any one of you has been any closer than my wife and I have.”
Hazel Gleese was a retired hairstylist who moved to Sebring in 1974 from Tolley, N.D. Gleese was a retired draftsman who moved from Warren, Pa., in 1969.
The couple were founding members of the 8-year-old Fountain of Life Church, which had a congregation of about 50 mostly elderly people.