PEABODY — Two homeless men, both with lengthy and violent criminal records, have been charged with assaulting and threatening a 72-year-old woman, one of them telling her he wanted to watch her die, after she asked them to leave a Peabody church on Wednesday. 

Joseph Brennan, 61, and Ronald Bruce, who turned 59 on Friday, were arrested Thursday after Peabody police obtained warrants charging both with assault and disorderly conduct. Brennan is also being charged with threats to commit a crime. 

Both pleaded not guilty at their arraignments on Friday in Peabody District Court. 

Police say the pair had been frequenting St. John the Baptist Church, which has an agreement with the city to provide temporary shelter in a designated area of the church during cold weather. However, the two men had also been entering the chapel to drink. 

On Tuesday, police were called to the church, located near Peabody City Hall, because Bruce had vomited and passed out. The two men were again asked not to return. 

But on Wednesday afternoon, police say, both men returned. They were found in the kitchen area of the church, going through the cabinets.  

Two women who work in the church, ages 72 and 64, confronted the men and asked them to leave, they told police. Both men appeared to be drunk, they reported. 

Brennan, police say, began screaming vulgarities at the older woman, then claimed he was a Marine and "respected the elderly," but that he was going to punch her in the face and knock her to the ground. 

"He stepped up into my face as if he was going to hit me," the woman told Peabody Patrolman Richard Heath. He then told her he was going to put her in a wheelchair, roll her off a roof, and that he wanted to "watch her die a slow and painful death," according to Heath's report. 

"It was scary and it put her in fear, but she had to get them out," Heath wrote.

'Still shaking' 

The woman and her co-worker managed to get the men outside. That's when, egged on by Brennan, Bruce began yelling vulgarities and trying to push his way back inside, the officer wrote. 

"While conducting the interview," Heath wrote, "the women stated they were still shaking. The greatest fear was they did not know what they were going to do to them if he (Bruce) got the door open." 

In a follow-up interview, the 72-year-old woman told police she is still in fear of the men returning. 

Both men have extensive records of violence; Brennan's criminal record dates to the mid-1970s and includes multiple assault cases, breaking and entering charges, and other charges of disorderly conduct and trespassing. 

Bruce's history with the courts is somewhat shorter but also includes violence; he completed eight months of pretrial probation last October in an incident in which he threw hot coffee on someone at a Dunkin' Donuts in Beverly in December 2017. 

Judge James Barretto set bail at $800 for each of the men, an amount that neither is expected to post, though if they do, they are under orders to stay away from the church and make no attempt to contact anyone there.

There will be a pre-trial hearing in the case on April 9; the men, who are being held at Middleton Jail, will appear via videoconference. 

The victim, who was back at work on Friday, said she was not able to comment because she was told that there was an ongoing investigation. 

Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, by email at or on Twitter at @SNJulieManganis. 

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