TOWNER, N.D. - A Minnesota man charged with attacking a rural North Dakota priest last month referred to the victim as a rapist during a court hearing Thursday, Feb. 8.

Facing three felonies, including attempted murder, Chad Legare of Alexandria, Minn., appeared in North Dakota's McHenry County District Court. Legare did not enter a plea, but answered a question about whether he posed a threat to anyone if he were released on bail.

"As long as John Doe didn't rape any other women, he's safe from me," Legare said in court.

Court records say the victim, referred to as "John Doe," was strangled on Jan. 30 but survived.

The Catholic Diocese of Fargo said the victim, the Rev. Robert Wapenski, serves the St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Anamoose, N.D., a town of 250 people about 100 miles northeast of Bismarck.

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The Diocese said in a statement Thursday that it's "cooperating with law enforcement into the investigation of the assault of Father Wapenski and its surrounding circumstances. The Diocese encourages anyone with knowledge of a crime concerning a church worker to report the crime to appropriate authorities."

Further, the Diocese said it received a report from Legare prior to the attack on Wapenski.

"We directed him to report the matter to the police and were informed that he had done so," the statement said. "The Diocese made contact with the alleged victim out of concern, and she denied (Legare's) allegations."

Wapenski did not reply to a request for comment.

On Wednesday, a reporter visited Legare's home in Alexandria, where a woman who answered the door said she's the connection between Legare and Wapenski. The woman, who is not being identified, said she is Legare's girlfriend.

The woman said she met Legare at a Minot, N.D., restaurant in November and they started dating. Court documents do not draw a link between her and Wapenski, also known as "Father Bob." However, the woman said she and the priest knew each other well.

Legare was arrested Monday in Alexandria and is charged with attempted murder, aggravated assault and burglary. He has no ties to McHenry County, and the judge there Thursday set his bail at $250,000 cash and his next appearance for Tuesday, Feb. 27.

Court records do not list an attorney for Legare. An attempt to reach him while in custody Thursday was not successful.

Coming to North Dakota

Before meeting Legare in Minot, his future girlfriend said she lived in the South when she met a different man in an online sustainable living group. The man said she could learn about caring for livestock on his North Dakota farm. Last July, she packed her chickens and her daughter, now 9, into their truck and drove to North Dakota. When she arrived at the man's farm, the woman said she found a dead horse on the ground and the man seemed creepy.

The woman said she and her daughter stayed one night before leaving the next morning.

They stopped in a North Dakota park, where she gave her chickens to some people she met, fearing for the chickens' well-being if they had to endure yet another long drive. It was at that park, she said, that she met Wapenski. After speaking with Wapenski, she decided to stay in the area, she said.

Wapenski, who lives in Anamoose, was ordained as a priest in the Fargo diocese in June 2005, Diocese spokesman Paul Braun said. Wapenski was assaulted in his home before 8 a.m. Jan. 30, according to court records.

About Wapenski

Wapenski attended Cardinal Muench Seminary in Fargo and a seminary in Ohio.

His North Dakota assignments have included being a parochial vicar at St. Michael's Church in Grand Forks, and the same position at Holy Cross Church in West Fargo. He then worked as church administrator for St. Margaret Mary's Church in Drake and St. Francis Xavier's Church until July 2009, when he was named pastor of both churches.

Braun said Wapenski is not currently at the parish, but is recuperating from his injuries.

Last weekend, a substitute priest handled Wapenski's priestly duties, Braun said.

The Diocese statement said daily Masses were cancelled this week at the Anamoose and Drake parishes so Wapenski could recover from his injuries, but weekend Masses will continue under the guidance and direction of another priest.


A surprise

The charges against Legare surprised those who knew him.

"I am just shocked that he would do something like that," said Joni Vee, a friend who lives in Tracy, Minn.

Butch Cole, who owns Lake Country Meats in Alexandria, said Legare worked there for more than a year as a late-night cleaner. Legare also sold ice and distributed water-refilling machines.

"He was fantastic," Cole said. "I'd hire him back in a second. ... He, to me, was a great guy."

Legare has a criminal record in Minnesota, including a felony domestic assault by strangulation charge in Douglas County in July 2015 that was dismissed after he pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor.

Billi Jo Eriksmoen of the Mouse River Journal, Helmut Schmidt of The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead and Al Edenloff of the Alexandria Echo Press contributed to this report.