On a spring night in 2001, an 18-year-old monk-in-training named Mykhaylo "Mike" Kofel, armed with a steak knife and fueled by a deep-seated rage, entered a bedroom inside a convent house in West Miami-Dade County and fatally stabbed Sister Michelle Lewis 91 times. She was 39.
The crime rocked Holy Cross Academy. Parents withdrew their children from the venerable Kendale Lakes Catholic school en masse, and the school was shuttered in 2004.
The criminal case dragged on for four years. Kofel ultimately pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in 2005 and was sentenced to 30 years in prison. He is serving his sentence at Martin Correctional Institution in Indiantown, about 100 miles northwest of Miami.
Nearly two decades later, Miami native Paula Barros, who was a senior at Holy Cross at the time of the murder, is revisiting the story in an effort to shed light on her alma mater's darkest days. She teamed up with her longtime friend Melanie Bartley, a documentary filmmaker now based in Detroit, to produce a podcast, Sacred Scandal, which started production in August and began airing on December 20.
"Paula and I started obsessing over this case, and at one point we had so many questions," Bartley tells New Times. "We were like, 'Well, we need to ask Mykhalo, he's the only person who would be able to answer these questions.' So we started writing to him."
Produced by Exile Content Studio in conjunction with iHeartMedia’s My Cultura Network, the ten-episode series is narratively driven by interviews from those closest to the case and offers insight from Kofel as to what compelled him to take Lewis' life.
As detailed in the podcast, Kofel was recruited from his native Ukraine as a young teenager to come to Holy Cross, which included a convent and monastery, where he was to complete the requirements to become a Byzantine monk. He would later tell investigators that he endured years of sexual abuse at the hands of church leadership and targeted Lewis because the nun belittled him and covered up the abuse.
No criminal charges ever materialized as a result of the allegations, though Kofel stands by the claims. The podcast creators say the abuse formed the basis of the motive for Lewis' murder.
"He was allegedly abused by these priests, and he had so much rage and just took it out in this poor woman," Bartley says.
The two began writing to Kofel in 2006. The correspondence turned to phone calls and then to in-person visits. The women collected hours of audio interviews with the murderer.
"We're trying to tell the story from all angles," Bartley explains. "We're giving everyone a chance on every side to tell their story. But we can't help but feel for Mykhaylo, who was somebody who was recruited from Ukraine when he was 14 years old. His dad was an alcoholic — he was abusive. [Kofel] was brought to Miami under the pretenses of having a better life and getting an amazing education and becoming a priest."
Barros and Bartley say it's important to listen to Sacred Scandal with an open mind and to forget whatever you think you may know about the case and those involved.
"I want the audience to make their own informed opinions based on the information we're going to give them," Barros says. "I'm not here to condemn or crucify anybody, you know? I'm going to give you all the facts, let you listen to all of their voices."