Many of the names and some of the descriptions in this blog have been changed to protect the guilty.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

The Daniel Croteau Murder, Part 1

The Chicopee River under the Governor Robinson Bridge in Chicopee, MA is certainly not the ideal place to take in nature’s beauty. Loud trucks rumble overhead on Interstate 291, the bridge supports are covered with graffiti, the water is murky, and once in a while a breeze brings over the stink of a nearby landfill and the plastic-like odor from a chemicals company. The place is dank, dark, and dreary.

However, in the 1970s, before a guardrail was installed along that section of East Main Street to prevent cars from pulling into the area, this shore was a party spot at night and a good fishing spot during the day. Indeed, on April 15, 1972, a fisherman showed up with a rod and reel at 8:25 a.m. What did he expect to find there on a chilly, overcast Saturday morning? Maybe a few empty beer cans and bottles, or possibly someone else taking advantage of the first day of fishing season. But when he approached the river, he saw a fully clothed boy floating face-down about five feet from the south bank. The water around him was red. There was a lot of blood on the ground as well. This sure didn’t look like an accidental drowning.

Chicopee detectives were soon on the scene, and then State Police investigators. They all looked nervously at the sky. An inch of rain had fallen the during night, and more was forecast for that day. The police had to work meticulously, but quickly, because another April shower could wash away evidence. They examined the riverbank. The victim apparently fought for his life: there were signs of a struggle eighty-five feet from the shore, where a section of blood-splashed sand connected to drag marks that led all the way to a bloody pool at the river’s edge. At the bank, a second, more violent attack took place: blood stains were found spattered on soil fifteen feet away. Chicopee Police Captain Edward Rojowski was no stranger to murder cases, including a brutal double-homicide in a bank robbery the year before, but this murder was especially gruesome. The boy’s skull had been bashed in. The left pocket was torn from his tan suede jacket. In another pocket, police found an exam on yellow lined paper entitled “Daniel Croteau, Grade 7, Our Lady of Sacred Heart School.”

A rock with blood and hair on it was found several yards from the body. Police also discovered a tire track nearby. Back at the station, Chicopee Police Captain Edward Rojowski checked the teletype machine for missing persons in the area and found that 13-year-old Danny Croteau was reported missing by his parents, from the Sixteen Acres neighborhood in Springfield, at 2:11 a.m. With a probable identification of the body, a possible murder weapon, and a partial tread mark, officers thought that their investigation would soon be picking up steam. 

Police Captain Edward Rojowski 

And it did. The next day, Radwanski was at the crime scene when he noticed a priest walking along the riverbank. The lieutenant was curious. He was not familiar with Father Lavigne. Was he there to “bless the scene” or something else of a religious nature? When Lavigne explained that he was a good friend of the Croteau family, Radwanski thought that he might be able to shed some light on the investigation, so he arranged to interview him the next day.

In their conversation on Monday, April 17, Radwanski pondered two strange questions posed by Lavigne. The first: “If a stone was used and thrown in the river, would blood still be on it?” The problem was, police had yet to officially confirm how Croteau was killed. Lavigne also asked, “In such a popular hangout with so many cars and footprints, how can the prints you have be of any help?”

Radwanski studied Lavigne—his blue eyes, his strong jaw and prominent chin. The priest had a receding hairline, but he looked younger than his 31 years because he had a lean and faintly muscular build, as if he lifted weights. He wanted to know more about this guy. Why was he on the riverbank the day before? Radwanski was no rookie. He had been a cop for 20 years and knew that the kind of questions asked by Lavigne are often posed the perpetrator of a crime to monitor the progress of the investigation. Was he an innocent man who simply wanted to see where his friend died and was trying to help investigators? Or was there something else going on?

Radwanski noted Lavigne’s questions in his report and talked to other investigators about his suspicions. Granted, in the previous day’s newspaper, police had theorized that a rock may have been used in the attack because they couldn’t find a blunt instrument on the ground. But still, mulled Radwanski, this priest seemed to be very interested in what clues police had discovered. And why was Lavigne downplaying the significance of tire prints at a murder scene? Yes, the area was fairly well trafficked and strewn with litter—police had found a tire track on a discarded newspaper. But they were really interested in another track: a fresh one near the marks of the original struggle it was obvious a motor vehicle that had driven to the spot, backed around, and then taken off at a high rate of speed. The track was partially obliterated: half a tire tread was all they had to go on.

Radwanski had also asked Lavigne when was the last time he saw Danny Croteau. He replied that about two weeks prior to the murder, he received a phone call from Danny, who was at a home in Chicopee and lost. He said he picked the boy up, notified Danny’s parents, and Danny spent the night at the home Lavigne shared with his own parents. 

However, the same day as Radwanski’s interview with Lavigne, a woman recognized Danny from his picture from the newspaper and contacted police. She was sure it was Danny who appeared at her home on the cold and windy night of Friday, April 7, exactly a week before the murder, sometime after 10:30 p.m. He said he was lost and politely asked to use her phone. He declined a ride from her, and then she overheard him ask for Father Lavigne. Shortly after, he was picked up by a man in a red mustang, the kind of car the priest owned. Her account differed with the one told by Lavigne, who claimed it was a week earlier and around 7:00 or 7:30 p.m. Why the discrepancy?

Father Richard Lavigne

Also, when Lavigne spoke of taking Danny anywhere, he always interjected that it was with his brothers or a gang of kids. “Other information reveals Danny and Father Lavigne were often alone,” Radwanski wrote.

On the day of the wake, the Croteaus’ house was full of family and friends. The telephone rang. Nineteen-year-old Carl Croteau Jr., one of Danny’s four brothers, answered. After a long pause, he heard a familiar voice on the line. “We’re very sorry for what happened to Danny,” said the caller. “He saw something behind the circle he shouldn’t have seen. It was an accident.”

“Who is this?” Carl Jr. asked. “Who is this?” The caller hung up. Carl Jr.’s heart started pounding. This was either a cruel crank or someone who knew something about his brother’s murder. His father tried to calm him down. “Take it easy,” he said. “If another call comes in just take it easy and keep them on the phone for as long as you can.” Carl Sr. then phoned the Chicopee Police to report the call. His son went downstairs to get ready for the wake trying to place where he had heard the voice before. The “circle” referred to a circle of benches behind the Sixteen Acres Library that was the hangout of the Circle Gang, a notorious group of neighborhood youths that included Danny’s brothers. Carl Jr. racked his brain as he changed his clothes: “Who was it?” Danny had no known enemies. He wasn’t in the gang—he was too young.

The Circle (above) and the Circle Gang (below)

The police asked the Croteau family to alert them if they saw anyone acting strangely at Danny’s wake. Carl mentioned a Franciscan priest, in brown robe and sandals. “Father Barnabas—nobody in our family had ever met him before—this priest cried a lot at the wake,” he said. “It puzzled us because we didn’t know him at all.” State Trooper Jim Mitchell traced him to the St. Francis of Assisi Center in downtown Springfield. Mitchell met Father Barnabas Keck at his chapel office and noticed the only paper tacked to a bulletin board behind his desk: a newspaper clipping of the story of Danny’s murder.

Father Barnabas Keck

“Why did you go to the wake, Father?” asked Mitchell. “Do you know the family?”

“No,” answered Father Barnabas.

“Do you always go to the wakes of people you don’t know?” Mitchell asked.

No, said the priest. However, he insisted that the murder moved him so deeply he felt compelled to pay his respects.

Mitchell drove back to his office and pulled aside State Police Lieutenant James Fitzgibbon, the lead investigator on the case.

“Fitzy” he said, “there’s something very peculiar over there.”

The investigation continued pretty much around the clock, with Chicopee and State Police interviewing Danny’s family, friends, and acquaintances, and pursuing leads—most of them false. There were several potential suspects—older men who were friendly with Danny, including the leader of the Boy Scout troop to which Danny belonged, and the produce manager at a local supermarket, whose bedroom Danny painted for $10. But their alibis checked out. Lavigne claimed he ran errands and then stayed home the night of the murder, and his parents backed up his story.

On April 18, Lavigne helped conduct the funeral Mass at the Croteaus’ parish, St. Catherine of Siena Church in Sixteen Acres (pictured below), where he was a priest before being transferred to St. Mary’s in 1968. During the services, Radwanski saw ten cars that had a similar pattern of tires at the murder scene, but none of the treads matched. The tire treads on Lavigne’s maroon Mustang didn’t match the pattern, and neither did those on his father’s car.  

Then the detectives received other interesting information. Danny’s mother Bernice, who her friends call Bunny, told police that on the morning of April 8—the day after Danny last spent the night at Lavigne’s house—Danny said he felt sick and threw up several times. Police asked Lavigne if he gave the boy alcohol the night before, and he said no. But he mentioned that his parents had a well-stocked liquor cabinet in the basement, where Danny slept, and he might have snuck a few drinks.

The autopsy report showed that he was drunk when he was murdered—with a blood-alcohol level of .18 percent, about twice the limit of legal definition of intoxication.

After Carl Croteau told Radwanski that Lavigne used to pick Danny up on a Friday or Saturday evening two or three times a month, and they were always alone, Radwanski took note of the pattern of overnight stays on weekends, as well as Lavigne’s alibi, and wondered just how much the priest’s elderly parents knew what was going on in their house when their son was home—especially considering they were unaware of underage drinking apparently taking place. They also wondered if his family could, in fact, be sure of Lavigne’s comings and goings, especially late at night.

Then, about a week later, a high school student gave State Police a statement. He said several times he stayed overnight in the rectory at St. Mary’s, where Lavigne provided him with alcohol and fondled him. The teen told Mitchell that the morning after one of the sleepovers, Lavigne took him to the St. Francis Center, insisting that they must go to confession.

Fitzgibbon and Mitchell believed that Father Barnabas was Lavigne’s confessor, but because priest-penitent confidentiality is sacrosanct in the Catholic Church and protected by Massachusetts law, they couldn’t interview him about the molestations or the murder.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Haunted Springfield

Things do go bump in the night in Springfield—and I’m not talking about cars going over potholes. Yes, there are supposed hauntings in this city, and below are four of them. Are you easily scared? Don’t worry. Count Floyd will guide you.

The George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum

A mummy isn’t the only dead body in the George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum in the Quadrangle: so are George, the museum’s namesake, and his wife, Belle (pictured below). Their ashes are sealed in a wall. Do their ghosts roam the building at night? This might explain the many bizarre occurrences there.

Last Halloween, WGGB-TV 40 aired several features on the museum, which a reporter and camera person visited with the team from Agawam Paranormal. “We’ve definitely had a lot of reports from the staff here of noises,” said Matt Longhi, director of publications and marketing at the Springfield Museums. Specifically, in the wee hours there are creaking floors as if someone is walking around. Security guard Tom Scorbett has heard weird sounds. “I’ve been here round the clock by myself in this building,” he said. “I think sometimes there are footfall that you hear when there’s nobody in the building.”

Scorbett has also heard toilets flushing and elevators that move on their own, as well as seeing a phantom shadow going across the sculpture hall and into a closet.

The TV segment shows an unattended flashlight blinking on:

There are also pictures of floating orbs, like this one:

They also have a FLIR thermal imaging camera showing two paranormal investigators in the foreground to the right and a tall image, appearing in the doorway behind them, moving to the left:

One of the Agawam Paranormal team members asks if a spirit is present, and the recorder picks up an answer: a whispered “yes” says the voice.

Theodore’s and Smith’s Billiards

Keith Makarowski, co-owner of Theodore’s Booze Blues & BBQ, along with Smith’s Billiards upstairs, was in the basement of Theodore’s one summer night when he heard footsteps above him. When he looked up and saw the floorboards move, he knew someone was in the bar despite the fact that he had locked up.

He ran upstairs with a broken pool stick, but no one was there. Besides, how do you hurt a ghost with a piece of wood?

There had been rumors of a ghost there for years, so in 2009, when Stephen Goncalves, one of the co-stars of the SciFi Channel TV series Ghost Hunters, called Makarowski about doing a show there, how could he refuse? Goncalves’ former band Po’ Boy and the Red Hats used to play at Theodore’s and he heard the old stories: mystery voices whispering, a chill in one part of the basement, the ghost of a small boy sitting on a pool table, the sound of pool balls falling into pockets, objects falling off walls and shelves, and perhaps the most bizarre of all: the sound of bowling balls rolling on the vacant fourth and fifth floors.

Actually, if you believe in that sort of thing, the bowling ghosts (the first I’ve heard of such a phenomenon) may not be that farfetched: there was a candlepin bowling alley in the upper floors of the building from 1905 until the late 1940s:

The eight lanes were removed and relocated to an alley in Connecticut:

Unfortunately, I don’t have any video link to that Ghost Hunters episode. To see it for yourself (on season four), you can order it on Amazon.com. I did read that the Ghost Hunters team claimed to see a “short, shadowy figure” run past the pool tables, and a thermal imaging camera recorded the shape of “an entity.” They also heard “unexplained sounds” in the pool hall and recorded a “garbled voice” in the basement. 


Are there more spirits—aside from the bottled kind—at Theodore’s? By all means, go over there, bend an elbow, look and listen. I’m not sure of their policy on bringing in Ouija boards.

The Tanguay Home

In 2005 the Ghost Hunters TV crew visited the home of Joesph and Denise Tanguay on Redfern Drive in the city’s Pine Point neighborhood. Yes, you usually associate haunted houses being large Victorian mansions, not small houses, but the Tanguays reported that their young son, Zachary, was being yanked by his legs and poked in his feet and head while he was trying to sleep. He also sometimes saw a face on the ceiling.

Denise (pictured below) had a problem as well: she often got nauseous in the basement.

But this visit turned out to be much ado about nothing. The team thought that Zachary’s experiences was due to the fact that he was a restless sleeper because he played video games before he went to bed. They also thought the heat kicking on and off was waking him up. Because the team got some high EMF (electromagnetic field) readings in the basement, they explain that Denise might be sensitive to this, and not some apparition.

Okay, the verdict on the Tanguay home?

Nope, not scary at all.

Van Horn Park

There is a legend that in the 1920s, two boys died in the pond in Van Horn Park and that park visitors can still hear them laughing and splashing—and see the water ripple—even though there is no one in the pond. Curiously, there isn’t much of an online presence or details of this haunting, and there are no reported drownings in the park in the 1920s, according to a newspaper archive search.

That is not to say, however, that there weren’t drownings in Van Horn Park: there were nine that I’m aware of. Two drowned in the 1990s: Keith Robinson, 31, on July 4, 1991, and 28-year-old Gerald O’Keefe on July 13, 1990. 

Prior to those tragedies, one has to go back to the 1970s and further: on June 11, 1973, 11-year-old Edwin Garcia of 18 Massasoit Street drowned in 15 feet of water. On May 12, 1970, Israel Rodriguez, 22, of 415 Franklin Street, died in the pond during a family picnic and fishing trip. On July 26, 1939, Ira J. Croteau, who was 11 and lived at 19 Cumberland Street, drowned in the park. On July 18, 1938, 14-year-old Henry Korets, shared the same fate. The pond was the scene of the presumed drowning suicide of Winifred Dillon, 25, on October 2, 1936.

The only double drowning fatality to occur at Van Horn Park were two young girls on March 19, 1932, when six-year-old Louise Musante and four-year-old Shirley Hannon fell through the ice (pictured below). Perhaps that is the source of the legend, although they were girls playing on the ice, not boys in the water. But you know how legends get twisted.

Anyone hear of the Van Horn park haunting or any other ghosts in Springfield? Leave a comment! These guys will look into it!

Seriously, leave a comment. I'm sure Springfield has many more ghosts than these!

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The South End-Forest Park Gang Wars of the 1970s

Who knows how the South End-Forest Park gang wars of the 1970s started? Does it matter more than 40 years later? At the time, however, emotions were high as gang beatings fanned the flames of hatred between teenagers of the neighborhoods.

Both sections of the city were known for their gangs. The South End Gang had been there for years. Forest Park gangs popped up in the 1960s and 1970s: the X Gang, the Dairy Mart Gang (corner of Dickinson and Belmont), the Center Gang (Holy Name Social Center), the Circle Gang (Florentine Gardens), the Terrace Gang(s) (Trinity/Longfellow Terraces) the Johnny Appleseed Gang (Johnny Appleseed Park), and the Brown House Gang (the Rustic Pavilion and the green pavilion in Forest Park).

But the South End Gang gained a reputation for its viciousness when members attacked several youths from Enfield who pulled onto Main Street on May 11, 1968. Neighborhood teens (although one was from East Forest Park) exchanged words with the Connecticut boys, who jumped out of the car and chased the gang down the street. Paul M. Plath, 17, of Thompsonville, continued the pursuit into an alley and ran into a trap, getting hit in the head with a board. He died at Wesson Memorial Hospital:

The South Enders were also blamed as being some of the “outsiders” who helped instigate racial brawling outside Tech High School in September of 1971.

Again, it’s not clear what touched off the fighting between the South End and Forest Park, but the violence reached the newspapers in the fall of 1973:

In May of 1974 the brawling was the subject of a meeting between city officials and a lengthy article in the Springfield Union:

These battles were not the classic rumbles in which gangs agreed on a time and location and fought it out. Rather, they were ambushes:

A commenter on this blog from Forest Park, Classical ’75 Guy, agrees with the assessment that the problem was the South End Gang. A self-described “Purple Heart vet” of those wars says the South Enders were cowardly. “What I hated about those guys is they didn't fight fair,” he writes. “It was always 10 of them on one of you. Like fuckin’ ants they’d be all over someone before they even knew it, and they didn't mind kicking in the head and face either until you were near death. They loved it when they knocked someone’s nose to the other side of their face, that was the goal I think.”

However, South Enders at the time insisted that “Forest Park always starts it.”:

The hostilities between the groups went back years, according to the article:

The multi-generational beefs in the article fit Classical ’75 Guy’s description of older and younger versions of the gangs. For the X Gang, there was the “Big X” and the “Little X,” and the same was true for the South End.

The assaults got particularly nasty when girls were beaten as well. One attack took place in the Cathedral High School parking lot, and the other at the old Friendly’s in East Forest Park:

These were the typical South End beatings: savage and always outnumbering their targets, according to Classical ’75 X Guy: 
“They only did it when the victim was relatively defenseless, when it was just him and one or two other guys. They used to drive around in their cars with an ITALIA sticker in the center of the rear window. They’d wear Italia flags on their shirts, and a gold chain with a gold horn and gold fingers around their necks. You’d never see just one of them. They’d lean way over so it looked like they were driving from the middle of the front bench seat—the ‘gangster lean.’ We hated those SOBs, but we simply couldn’t exert the same level of brutality that they could. We did our best in one-on-one, well really 10-on-10, but mano y mano when the odds were relatively even. They were a bit pussyish when they didn’t have their friends behind them. And God forbid, you could never go down into their hood. If you did, the fathers, grandfathers, uncles, mothers, sisters, nieces and nephews would all be in the fracas.”

The subject dominated a City Council meeting, and Mayor William Sullivan scheduled a conference on the gang wars.

Although boys will be boys, it gets dangerous when things escalate:

There were no deaths from the South End-Forest Park gang wars, but in the coming years, there was some tragic fallout from this kind of hooliganism. In 1975, the South End guy from Marble Street who involved in the Friendly’s beating described in the article above became embroiled in a violent feud with a group from East Springfield. This continuous bar fighting between the South End and East Springfield gangs resulted with him losing an eye in a gang fracas in the Viking Lounge. While he was in the hospital, his friends tried to ambush one of the East Springfield assailants at his job at a package store, but the East Side guy pulled a gun and shot two of them, killing one.

Then, in 1976, as more Hispanic families were moving into the South End, there was unrest in the summer as Italian and Puerto Rican gangs fought. As a result, 20 Hispanic families moved out of the neighborhood to escape the violence. On July 3, 22-year-old Gary Galland from Locust Street was shot in the back as he walked out of a doorway on Saratoga Street. They never found the shooter. For all we know, he had not been part of the violence until then—but he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and police believed the murder was related to the area’s race problems.

That same summer, when the South End Gang invaded one of the many keg parties thrown at Camp Seco in Forest Park, a Forest Park teenager suffered brain damage from a beating he took. “I haven’t seen him in years,” wrote the Classical ’75 X Guy. “But the last time I did, he had slurred speech and wasn’t quite all there, kind of like a stroke victim.”

Okay, folks, who were the true “bad guys” in this lengthy neighborhood conflict? I realize that I only have a Forest Parker’s point of view in this post, so there is a risk of bias. Indeed, South Enders insisted in the original Springfield Union article that Forest Park was the instigator. I know that there were accounts of South End outnumbering their victims, but I also know that Forest Park kids also had a habit of ganging up on people back in the day. If anyone growing up in these neighborhoods has something to add, by all means, LEAVE A COMMENT!

Granted, I know I don’t have any firsthand knowledge of this feud, and I have been accused of screwing up the facts in the Brown House-Johnny Appleseed conflict (as well in as the Sixteen Acres Gangs of the 1990s post), so please feel free to chime in.