Friday, December 1, 2017
Richard Lavigne with (L-R) Joe, Danny, Michael, and Jackie Croteau
In early January, 2008, Superior Court Judge John Agostini ordered District Attorney William Bennett to release an additional 115 pages of the D.A.’s murder investigation files in the ongoing dispute between the diocese and its insurance carriers. Amazingly, the files contained accounts from at least four witnesses who offered statements in 1991, 1993, and 2000, telling police that they saw Lavigne on the night of the murder “either with Croteau or near the site where Croteau’s body was found.” These witnesses included Attorney John Stobierski’s client who said she had recovered the memory when she underwent hypnotherapy.
When I talked to Carl Croteau on April 1, 2008, it was an overcast, rainy day. We wondered aloud if now there would be a lot more pressure on the D.A. to indict now that people knew about these witnesses. But why did they wait so long to come forward with their stories? “The D.A. is probably afraid Lavigne’s lawyer would rip them apart,” said Carl. Either that, or a deal was made that they wouldn’t have to testify in court if they consented to leave witness statements.
The records also showed that in 1972 Lavigne told some friends, including a priest, that he was a suspect. “He was clearly looking for information about what was being said in Chicopee because we shared neighboring parishes,” said the priest, who fielded a barrage of phone calls from Lavigne in the days following the boy’s funeral. “(Another priest) also told me that he had a lot of communication with Father Lavigne during this whole time and that is what he agreed with me that (Lavigne) could be having a breakdown.” He added, “(We) were confused as to whether or not Father Lavigne was involved in the murder because Father Lavigne had such conflict with members of the Springfield Police Department but we were both very uncertain, unclear and incapable of believing that any priest would be involved in a murder.”
For Carl, the most frustrating part of this latest unsealing of the files was that they contained no smoking gun. There was, however, another interesting account. On April 12, 1972, a woman drove by the Chicopee River when a movement caught her eye. By a bridge pillar she saw a boy with chestnut-colored hair and wearing a knee-length mustard yellow raincoat. “There was a man holding on to the child,” she said in a statement to the State Police. “It looked like the kid had hurt himself and the man was comforting him.”
Later, after she picked up her ill father, she pulled over at the same location so her father could vomit. She looked to see if the man and the boy were still there.
“That’s when I saw the boy lying on the ground,” she said. “He looked like he was asleep. I saw a priest standing over him. I saw a really good profile. He was wearing a black sweater and black pants. I could see the little white collar that priests [wear]. He was thin, maybe 5’10” or 5’11.”
The priest, whose brown hair was short, stood over the boy “with his hand on his back kind of shaking him” she said. “I thought he was trying to wake him up. I remarked to my father that the kid must have fallen asleep and the priest was trying to wake him up. My father commented that if he was tired, the priest should have taken him home.”
She thought no more of the scene until the middle of May, when “there were rumors around Hungry Hill that a priest from Saint Mary’s had been suspected of being involved with the murder.” She “started thinking that maybe we had seen more than we had thought,” she said. “I talked to my father and he told me that we had seen more than we thought.”
The woman, who gave her statement to police in 2004, said that her father was adamant about waiting until her sister’s June 17, 1972 wedding to tell District Attorney Matthew Ryan what she had seen. He felt the commotion caused by their account would have interfered with the wedding plans.
However, that September, a few months after they told Ryan their story, she said that Bishop Christopher Weldon threatened to excommunicate her father because of an earlier divorce, and that the district attorney told them there was no evidence to substantiate their story, and that if she pursued her claim, he could arrest her for filing a false report.
Bishop Christopher Weldon
So she and her father kept what they saw to themselves. Before her father’s death in 1975, he made her promise not to go to the authorities again with their story. “And I kept that promise for 29 years,” she said. “Then about two weeks ago just before the anniversary of my father’s death, he came to me in a dream while I was in bed. He told me it was OK and that he released me from my promise and that it was OK to tell what I know. So here we are now.” She added, “I’ll have to live with the guilt that I didn’t come forward sooner, but I was honoring a promise to my father.”
Her statement revived sentiments by some people that Ryan had backed off from seeking an indictment Lavigne in 1972 because of his friendship with Weldon.
Not surprisingly, diocesan legal counsel immediately pointed out discrepancies in the unnamed woman’s statement “relative to dates and circumstances which call into question its overall reliability,” according to Mark Dupont, diocese spokesman.
First, the murder occurred on in the late- night hours of April 14 or the early morning of April 15, 1972, the diocese pointed out, not between “a little after” 5:00 p.m. and 6:10 p.m. on April 12, which the witness reports as the date and time of her sighting.
The witness also said “the news is reporting” a month after the murder that Lavigne was a suspect “in the exact spot I had seen the boy in April.” However, Lavigne was not publicly identified as a suspect until 1991.
In addition, the location she cited was near the remains of a railroad bridge that once crossed the Chicopee River, about 1,500 feet away from the murder scene. Furthermore, she said Danny was wearing a raincoat, but he was actually wearing a short tan suede jacket when he was killed.
“The witness is completely incredible,” said Lavigne’s attorney Patricia Garin.
Carl Croteau thought otherwise, saying that she remembered the date correctly and the identities of the two people she saw were another boy and another priest involved in the pedophile ring. What the witness saw, said Carl, could have been an encounter between a priest and a possibly intoxicated boy—not necessarily Danny—two days earlier than the murder, at a more secluded area near the murder scene. The two people may have sought a more private place, away from the party spot under the I-291 bridge.
Could the boy with the chestnut-colored hair have been Danny? Carl couldn’t remember his son’s exact whereabouts on Wednesday, April 12, 1972, between 5:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. Although the events of the day that Danny went missing, April 14, are seared into his memory, his recollections of the week leading up to the worst day of his life are less clear.
Memory is an elusive thing, especially when bringing to mind an event after several decades, and when the woman erroneously recalled “the news is reporting” Lavigne a suspect in 1972, she might have been influenced by later memories, said Carl. He noted that rumors of the priest’s involvement quickly spread shortly after the murder, and that she might have gotten her facts confused about the Lavigne’s public emergence as a suspect.
Regardless of what she saw, he said, one of the most significant aspects of this woman’s account is how she said the district attorney handled it. “I think this summarizes what the Croteau family has said from the very beginning,” said Carl, “that there was collusion between the diocese and Matty Ryan.” Because of this revelation, Stobierski said he and Carl and Bunny Croteau would ask Gov. Deval L. Patrick and state Attorney General Martha M. Coakley to launch an independent investigation into the murder.
Moreover, Carl insisted to me in one of our interviews that he was told the alleged murder weapon, a fist-sized rock, was lost and never found. He said he made several requests inquiring about its whereabouts, and was told it couldn’t be located. Stobierski said that the Croteaus had lost faith in the D.A.’s office and the court system in general.
* * * * * * * *
On July 10, 2009, Carl talked to me about all the cranks he and Bunny have put up with: endless hang-up phone calls, the seemingly unstable people who want to meet them and tell them what they “know” about the murder, along with the guy who says, “I’ll tell you about everything that happened that night.” Carl just told them, “Tell the police; don’t tell me.”
“You’ll love this one,” said Carl. “There’s this charismatic Catholic church leader who sends flowers every year on the anniversary of Danny’s death. Once he sent the flowers to Father Scahill by mistake. He says he has ‘visions.’ He used a pseudonym but my sons just found out his real name. We think he is suspicious as hell.”
“You mean you think he might have been involved in the murder?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said. “He’s really strange. The cards he sent with the flowers had strange messages—like he feels guilty about something. If you want to do some investigating, take a look at him. I printed out one of his emails. I’ll bring it by tomorrow.”
The following day he gave me a printout of an email that had been sent to Sister Mary Petisce, pastoral associate at St. Catherine. “Do the Croteaus enjoy these flowers I send or does it open up old wounds?” the sender asked. “I have been sending them for several years now and I do not want them to suffer as a result of them. We can discontinue the practice at a word.”
The author of the email seemed harmless enough. However, fast-forward to 2012, when he was arrested on a variety of sexual molestation charges, including kidnapping, in an incident involving a twelve-year-old boy in Albuquerque, NM. But there is nothing to indicate that the man, now 69, was in the Springfield area at the time of the Croteau slaying, although in his email, which detailed his western Massachusetts roots, he wrote that he grew up in the Franklin County town of Bernardston. He also wrote that he was a counselor for Crossroads for Kids camps in eastern Massachusetts from 1967 to 1969 and from June to August in 1972. On his website, he claimed that he applied to be a priest twice, but was rejected because he wore a hearing aid.
* * * * * * * *
On May 20, 2008, I told Carl there was nothing really amiss about the flower sender, although he seemed like an eccentric guy. On his website the man claimed that as a child he was saved from drowning by God—in the form of a school of bluefish, which buoyed him and brought him back to the beach. Carl got a good chuckle out of that one. So we talked about the Red Sox because Jon Lester had thrown a no-hitter the previous night. Indeed, not all of our conversations were bleak talks about the murder. We smilingly discussed the notorious Sixteen Acres cop “Mush” McCarthy, who made himself the scourge of neighborhood teenagers in the 1960s and 1970s by breaking up many parties in the woods.
I asked him, quite candidly, if sometimes he minded talking so much about his son’s murder. I figured he was still on a quest to find his killer, but I didn’t want to constantly make him uncomfortable or emotional during his neighborhood walks.
“No, it helps to talk about it,” he said.
Sometimes I brought up aspects of the investigation that were difficult to discuss. I asked him about the possibility that Danny had been blackmailing his killer. The notion had been made public in a 1993 story in the Boston Herald (below) that quoted one of original investigators: “I thought Danny Croteau was either going to blow the whistle or blackmail him, and he decided to shut the kid up,” said the officer.
“Blackmail?” asked Carl. “A 13-year-old? It doesn’t seem likely.”
And then there was a friend of Danny who said in the 1972 Chicopee Police report that Croteau had a Satanic bible and “would often play at having a black mass” and held séances. Carl dismissed the statement with a wave of his hand.
“He showed no interest in the occult?” I asked.
“One time Lavigne went to Haiti on a trip and he brought back a ‘voodoo letter opener’ with a silver necklace wrapped around it,” said Carl. “He gave it to Danny.” Lavigne used to regale boys with fascinating stories from Haiti—of voodoo dolls and walls that oozed streams of blood. “I told Danny to get that thing out of our house—to give it back to him,” he said.
I asked Carl about the “treasure hunts” that Lavigne took boys on. One of Lavigne’s victims had recalled the priest driving him to supposedly abandoned barns to take antique items, but the boy was chased away by a farmer and soon realized the barns weren’t abandoned. Lavigne also used to go “treasure hunting” with Greg Croteau.
“Yes, once Danny came home with an antique plaque, and I asked him where he got it,” said Carl. “He said Lavigne took him to Vermont and they raided a barn. I said, ‘Danny, you mean this thing is hot?’ How stupid was I? That should have been a bell-clanger right there.”
* * * * * * * *
When the Springfield Diocese reached an $8.5 million settlement with its insurance companies on July 3, 2008, Carl was happy for the 59 victims who would be paid, but this also meant that the prospect of the courts opening more diocesan and D.A. files was unlikely. Because he hadn’t heard anything about the prospect of an independent investigation from Gov. Patrick or Attorney General Coakley, it appeared that he was becoming resigned to the prospect of his son’s murderer going unpunished.
Also, since March 30, 2008, Carl had been waiting for a call back from a priest who is a well-known advocate for sexual abuse victims—the man had contacted him with the news that he had been talking to someone who claimed he was at the murder scene and was contemplating coming forward with information. But the priest never called again.
And Bunny was not doing well. “She’s on 23 different medications, she needs two hip replacements, and she can’t leave the house,” said Carl. “And she cries all the time.”
How, I wondered to Carl, could he handle these trials and tribulations with such grace? His answer: by keeping the faith—literally—by not straying from the church despite the diocese’s actions over the years. He attended Mass daily. And he went to bed every night with a sequence of prayers: “I ask our Lord, ‘Would you please let the case of Danny’s murder be solved? Then I say the names of the priests involved in the [western Massachusetts] abuse scandal and ask Him to forgive them. I also ask Him to help the victims’ families, and then I ask Him to help the Church become whole again.”
Carl didn’t regard his plan as a bona fide bargain with God—he figured that it was the Christian thing to do: praying to pray for the very people who preyed on the most vulnerable people in the Church’s flock: the children. That’s how life goes—a little give-and-take works wonders. He pointed to The Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our Lord, our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespassed against us,” he said. “It’s a two-way street.”
And he wasn’t interested in railroading Lavigne into a murder conviction. “I would be another tragedy to face God after I die and hear Him say, ‘Guess what, he didn’t do it,’” said Carl. “If a jury exonerates Lavigne, we’ll accept that,” he said. “If they find him guilty, we’ll accept that, too.”
Carl said that Danny’s brother Michael, before he died of cancer on May 22, 2009, had finally come back to the church, thanks to the efforts of former St. Catherine Pastor Father Charles Gonet.
“Michael was going back to St. Catherine again, even though he could barely get around,” said Carl. “He told me, ‘Dad, this is my Church, and I know it now.’” But Carl’s son Carl Jr. (pictured in high school below), was finding it difficult to reconcile with his religion, according to his father. “He was a student at Cathedral High School, and after the murder he didn’t want to have anything to do with Cathedral,” said Carl Sr. “He’s been to Danny’s Masses, but it has been tough for him to even walk into St. Catherine. I told him that Danny wouldn’t want it this way, but…”
Carl also wanted his grandchildren to be good Catholics. He was appreciative of then-Bishop Timothy McDonnell, Dupre’s successor, for giving his granddaughter, Danielle a scholarship to Cathedral. “And I hope my grandson Thomas goes to Cathedral,” he said.
After Michael died, he was buried next to Danny.
* * * * * * * *
In 2009, my interviews with Carl were getting to be few and far between. He was now taking six-year-old Thomas on his walks, and the sight of them holding hands and talking was just too moving to describe. Of course, there was no way I was going to talk about the murder in front of a child. I would just exchange pleasantries with Carl and let him and his grandson go on their way.
On September 26, 2009, I ran into Carl and Thomas. Carl was wearing a scally cap of all things. “This,” he said with a grin, pointing to his hat, “represents the Irish side of my family.” Indeed, his mother’s name was Walsh. “This, I have to get a picture of,” I said. I took out my phone and took a photo for a blog I was writing on the murder. He tipped his cap and they walked off, holding hands. It was the last time I saw him.
In 2010, there was hope for a renewed investigation into the Daniel Croteau murder. In a press conference on September 7, Michael Kogut, a candidate for district attorney, announced that if elected he would conduct an inquest into the murder. But he lost the election on November 1.
Seventy-nine-year-old Carl Croteau Sr. died on Veterans Day, November 11, 2010.
St. Catherine Pastor John Sheaffer, a high school classmate of mine, said in the funeral homily that Carl was a deeply religious man, “but he was not a holier-than-thou type.” He also said he could feel the presence of Carl’s sons Daniel and Michael in the church that day.
“Carl suffered great tragedy in his life, and his faith helped him get through it,” said Father Sheaffer. “His faith couldn’t be taken away.”
Father John Sheaffer
Greg Croteau, who was in a wheelchair at his father’s funeral because of a brain tumor, died in 2015 at age 60.
Carl Jr. is pictured with the Circle Gang on the left,
holding the red MAD magazine, next to Greg.
Bunny died in 2016 without the seeing Danny’s murderer receive justice. She was 80.
The district attorney who succeeded Bennett, Mark Mastroianni, created a new unit in 2012 dedicated to solving cold cases. Unfortunately, for the Croteau family, the investigations only went back to homicides committed after 1990. However, in the years since, new District Attorney Anthony Gulluni “restructured and buttressed” the unit, and now the Croteau murder, along with other older homicides, is listed on the D.A. website. His office recently made headlines with the arrest of a suspect in the 1992 murder of Lisa Ziegert of Agawam (pictured below), giving hope to some that Gulluni takes cold cases very seriously.
If there has indeed been any progress on the Croteau case in the past few years, the D.A.’s office has not made the details public. The website instructs readers to please call the State Police Detective Unit at 413-505-5993 with information on the Croteau murder.
Those with any information who are reluctant to talk to the police can relate tips on a more confidential basis by calling R.C. Stevens’ tip hotline at 1-877-582-0497 or by reaching him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
These days, Stevens is getting a small fraction of the leads that he had received back in 2004, but he would still like to complete an accurate timeline of the final hours of Danny’s life. “If we can do that and create a linkage between Danny being here in his neighborhood and then going to Chicopee, we can establish a relationship between Danny and the attacker,” he said.
Granted, it has been more than 45 years, and some people with information have died, but Stevens is convinced that some are alive. He feels that they may be hesitant to come forward and reveal something embarrassing about themselves. “I understand their reluctance,” he said. “They are also torn by wanting to do the right thing.” He remains hopeful that there are people in the Sixteen Acres neighborhood and beyond who can add information to the timeline.
“I know there is a hero out there—someone who can connect Danny’s whereabouts from here to the Chicopee murder scene,” said Stevens.
Spilling such a secret would be a truly heroic act—one that requires guts. But that’s what being a hero means: following your conscience, no matter what. Author James A. Autry once said, “I believe it is the nature of people to be heroes, given the chance.”
Wednesday, November 1, 2017
Speak No Evil
On May 2, 2005, private investigator R.C. Stevens reported in The Republican that he suspected that in 1972, a pedophile ring of around 10 priests, including Lavigne, operated in rectories and private residences. He noted that one of the residences is near the crime scene. His findings also revealed that Danny might have been in contact with several members of the ring, which also involved non-priests. The ring members “formed their own Internet before any Internet existed,” he said. “It allowed them to exchange information and strategies, share children, and rid themselves of them.”
He had interviewed alleged victims, including some who have already made public accusations of some priests. “Some of the priests have escaped scrutiny,” he said. “Some have been accused.” The members conspired to pass around boys, said Stevens. “As one victim would age out and not be acceptable to an age-specific pedophile, he would pass along the victim to another pedophile who had older age-specific tastes,” he said.
In 1972, the notion of a pedophile ring involving priests—or priests sharing their victims with other priests—was virtually unheard of. But, ever since the clergy sex abuse scandals that erupted nationally in 2002, there have been numerous media stories about such groups operating in the 1970s, along with accounts of priests passing victims to one another, including a ring in Boston. In fact, Paul Babeu, one of Lavigne’s alleged victims, accused him of bringing him to northern Vermont to meet another priest, Father George Paulin, who also allegedly molested him. “When Lavigne dropped me off, and I fought off his advances, he said, ‘Apparently Father Lavigne hasn’t broken you in,’” said Babeu.
The belief that abusive priests in the diocese at times acted in concert gained had some traction with a lawsuit in 2003, when four brothers from Greenfield, MA, alleged that they were sexually abused by five priests between 1967 and 1983. Named as defendants were the Revs. Francis Lavelle, Edward Kennedy, Ronald Wamsher, and the Diocese of Springfield. The Revs. Roy Jenness and Thomas O’Connor, now deceased, were also accused, but were not part of the lawsuit. Former Scoutmaster Bruce Mooney of Greenfield was also named as a defendant, as were the Boy Scouts of America and the Great Trails Council of the Boy Scouts of America. Mooney, while not accused of sex abuse, had “actively aided” in it by providing one plaintiff with alcohol and drugs, according to the suit.
One of the plaintiffs said he was abused by all five priests—and was shared by Jenness and O’Connor on some nights at Jenness’ camp in Huntington.
Additionally, in a 2004 interview with The Republican, Monsignor Sniezyk said that after he was first ordained in 1962 he heard rumors of “cliques of priests” who molested children.
Stevens didn’t name any of the members of the sex ring—or say that the Greenfield group or Paulin were part of it. Attorney John Stobierski, who handled many abuse lawsuits against priests in western Massachusetts, later referred to a group of priests from the Springfield Diocese as the “Unholy Eleven” who were “known to be a part of a ring of pedophiles.” He said, “There was a cabal of abusers here. You have to connect the dots.”
Attorney John Stobierski
Stevens said that he and fellow private investigators had collected photos of some of the ring members and hoped to obtain more. “For victims who may not have known the name of their abuser, we may be able to help them identify the perp,” he said. Stevens was especially looking for a man who was a tattooed teenager at the time of Croteau’s murder. The youth, whose first name was Wayne, visited a home in Chicopee’s Eton Street neighborhood at least once in the days before the homicide, he said, and might have critical information. Eton Street is 2,000 feet from the murder scene.
When Stevens contacted more than a dozen priests, asking for information, he received “quite a bit of resistance”—although several of them had been “candid” with him.
“What we have seen in Danny’s attacker is a unique animal who we can describe as a clinical psychopath—someone who can function in everyday society, and who may be responsible for at least 200 victims in his lifetime, and is very dangerous,” said Stevens. “Although Danny was hit with a rock, the true murder weapon we see is blind rage. The attacker is filled with uncontrollable rage and anger.”
Stevens said based on his examination of crime scene photographs, the second, more violent attack at the edge of the river shows “total blind rage. It appears to be all very impulsive, without forethought or plan—because what happened there was not meant to happen. Someone—the attacker—lost control of his emotions, behavior, and life. The attacker is someone who needs to be in control all the time, and he lost it on the night of the murder. Danny Croteau took control of this very weak person, and his only response to losing control was blind rage. Danny reduced him to nothing.”
But Stevens didn’t say who he thought killed Croteau. “In the initial investigation, everything pointed to Richard Lavigne,” he said. “Meanwhile, we have ten arrows, seven of which point to Lavigne, but three that don’t.”
* * * * * * * *
On May 24, 2005, the CBS show 60 Minutes aired a long-awaited segment on the Croteau murder. Dan Rather had been in the Springfield area in June of 2004 for interviews with victims, Danny’s parents, Father Scahill, and Warren Mason, among others.
Rather interviewed State Police Detective Ed Harrington, one of the original investigators, at the murder scene. The segment also included an interview with one of Lavigne’s victims, Tom Martin, who was a friend of Danny. Martin (pictured below) tearfully stated Danny “told me he hated Father Lavigne and he hurt him. I knew exactly what that meant.” With the quote, Martin became the first person to reveal to the media that Danny Croteau was perhaps beginning to shed some light on a dark secret.
Carl and Bunny Croteau had hoped that the publicity from the show would prompt any unknown witness to come forward, but the years 2005 and 2006 came and went without any major development.
R.C. Stevens reported that progress on his investigation had been steady but slow. However, help from the state and Chicopee Police made him optimistic that maybe there would be a break in the case. “Hopefully, we will stimulate development of a quasi-task power force that will bring Danny's murderer to justice,” he said.
The Springfield Diocese, which paid out 46 claims against priests for $7.7 million in 2004, ended up filing suit in 2005 against its several insurance carriers who had refused to pay, including Travelers Property Casualty Company, Centennial Insurance Company, Lloyds of London, and others. In a filing on January 18, 2007, the companies in turn accused the diocese of “negligent supervision” of abusive clerics and destroying records of sexual abuse claims.
The insurers insisted that the diocese showed a pattern of document destruction that began under Bishop Weldon (1950-1977) and continued in the 1980s.
Bishop Christopher J. Weldon
They cited a letter from the diocese’s keeper of records, Father Daniel Liston, to Bishop Thomas Dupre. On July 27, 2003, Liston wrote, “As we have long suspected, Bishop Weldon’s files were all destroyed by Monsignor David Welch since Bishop Weldon unwisely kept those files apart from the vault in the Chancery.” In 2003, Welch, Weldon’s executor, was accused by a 65-year-old former Northampton resident of sexually abusing him as a child.
* * * * * * * *
In February of 2007 I moved with my family from the Boston area to Wilbraham. Talk about déjà vu. This homecoming was disorienting and at the same time strangely comforting: many of my friends were still in the area, so I got together with them often after I returned.
Did the specter of Danny Croteau’s murder really still lurk in the neighborhood? Yes and no. The decades went by, and life went on, but I remembered visiting friends in 2004 and seeing R.C. Stevens’ posters stapled to telephone poles along Wilbraham Road. It was an incredibly strange feeling—as if the homicide had happened yesterday—as if it was only a matter of time before someone dialed the phone number on the bottom of the poster, and the killer would be taken into custody.
Then, in the summer of 2007, Carl Croteau Sr. and I became reacquainted four years we had first met. When I interviewed the Croteaus back in 2003, it really did seem like an indictment was imminent. At the time, Lavigne’s blood was being tested at a lab. Carl and Bunny were big fans of TV shows about forensics technology, including CSI and Cold Case Files, which always ended in arrests. But that was Hollywood. In real life, however, the unrefrigerated and degraded blood samples from the drinking straw and the rope failed to link the main suspect to the crime, and the cold case had grown colder in recent years.
The Daniel Croteau pendant worn by his mother, Bunny
I ran into Carl Croteau more than a dozen times over the following two years and interviewed him about the murder. There were some new developments. He said that an investigator found carpet fibers from a home where one of the alleged pedophile ring members had once lived—fibers that looked similar to material found on Danny’s socks, and he was anxiously waiting for the strands to be tested. Somehow, 40 years later the carpet was still in the house. But there was no miracle development in the investigation—the information never panned out.
Carl talked a lot about his frustrations with the case and the toll it had taken on his family: sometimes lost his temper and snapped at Bunny, and then he would quickly apologize. The month of April is a particularly tough time for the Croteaus. “We have Danny’s Mass every year at St. Catherine, and Bunny feels really down around then,” he said. “The Mass is important to us. During the Eucharist, the priest uses the same chalice that Danny’s classmates bought our family as a gift back in 1972.” Former Bishop Joseph Maguire held Carl and Bunny’s hands during those Masses, and Carl said the man had tears in his eyes throughout the services. Carl felt close to Danny at these Masses, but Bunny’s nightmares, in which Danny was calling for help, but she couldn’t find him, came back with a vengeance every April.
A bas relief on the wall of St. Catherine parish center
Carl also confided that his sons sometimes blamed themselves for Danny’s death. “They say, ‘We should have come to you. Danny would still be alive,’” said Carl. “When Joe talks about it, he starts getting angry. You can see the veins in his neck. But I’ve gotten over blaming myself. I don’t ask myself, ‘Why didn’t I see it?’ anymore.”
He had other interesting bits of information: in 1972, police investigated a family friend who they noticed had scratch marks on his face at Danny’s funeral. Carl had worked at American Bosch with the man, who died in 1988. “He was close to us. He used to go on vacations with us. It didn’t amount to anything, but he didn’t come over our house for quite a while after that. I guess he didn’t appreciate the police knocking on his door, but they had to follow every lead,” he said with a shrug.
As for the mysterious “behind the circle” phone call on the day of Danny’s wake—a call in which his son Carl swore was made by Lavigne—the other Croteau boys knew exactly where the priest was around the time when the call came in: the Eastfield Mall. “Lavigne had taken Joe, Mike, and Greg to the mall, but he wasn’t with them the whole time. He was gone for about half an hour,” said Carl. This, he said, provided Lavigne with the opportunity to make the call and later have an alibi of sorts if suspicious were raised.
The Circle tree in Sixteen Acres
I told Carl that in 2003 I interviewed James Coleman, author of The Circle, and the professor had agreed that the caller was probably Lavigne. Coleman said the caller was obviously “trying to deviate police interest over to the Circle Gang.” Carl reminded me of what he himself said to me later in the summer of 2003—that Lavigne had warned him to “watch out” for Coleman because he “liked wrestling with boys a little too much,” he said. “I didn’t know Coleman, and I asked Lavigne about him, and he said, Oh, no. Keep Danny away from him.” But Carl didn’t believe him.
This talk of the Circle Gang reminded Carl of even more frustration about the case. He said that for decades, two former members of the gang acted strangely when the murder was brought up. He was certain they know something about the homicide that police don’t.
Actually, in the case of one of the men, there is no hope that he’ll ever talk, because he died in 2000 of alcohol- and drug-induced liver failure. He was one of the best friends of Danny’s brother Michael, who died of cancer in 2009.
“I used to hear Steve [name omitted] and Michael get into really violent arguments—I mean to the point where I thought they were going to actually fight,” said Carl. “I asked Michael a few times, ‘What were you two yelling about?’ But he wouldn’t say anything.” Carl is convinced Steve [name omitted] had information that could have been of some use to police, and Michael was trying to pry it from him.
Did Steve take this knowledge to his grave? Not exactly, said Carl, who used to visit Steve’s elderly father at his home in a town near Greenfield, MA. For years, he asked the man, time and time again, what secret his son was hiding—imploring him to shed some light on the murder.
“What were they always arguing about?” asked Carl. “I think it was about Danny’s murder. What did he tell you? Can you tell me anything about it?”
“Carl—no,” he replied to Carl’s request.
“Herb come on. Please. Can you help me out?” Carl would plead.
That is why Carl thought Steve knew something, and that he had confided in his father—because Herb didn’t say, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He just said “no.” End of conversation.
“I don’t want to bring it up again, because I don’t want to start fighting with him,” said Carl. “He’s not going to say anything.”
And then Steve’s father presumably took this secret to his grave in 2013.
The other member of the Circle Gang whom Carl talked about lives in neighboring Wilbraham now. He used to see Carl every so often, and he always offered his sympathies—profusely—decades after the murder. Carl wondered why he conveyed such profound grief—enough to make him ponder what weighed so heavily on the man’s conscience.
I told Carl that these excessive condolences weren’t necessarily a reason to be suspicious. After all, the man he was talking about knows what it’s like to lose a young family member: in the early 1970s, his younger teenaged brother was killed in an accident in Sixteen Acres. But Carl wasn’t buying it. He had a gut feeling. “The man has expressed his sorrow to me too many times,” he said. “He knows something.”
To be sure, because James Colemean saw Danny at The Circle a week before, it is not inconceivable that the boy was heading there the night he was murdered. After all, he was walking in that direction that Friday afternoon. The Circle was party central in Sixteen Acres at the time. Did anyone from The Circle see him get into a car?
There also a couple of Danny’s friends, including the boy Carl met up with at Doc Foster’s house, as well as a neighbor—the paperboy who was the last to see him alive. He was the younger brother of the main character in the book The Circle. In 2007, after Carl attended the funeral of the man’s father, the former paperboy—Danny’s childhood friend—walked up to him at Hillcrest Park Cemetery (pictured below). Now living on the west coast, the man approached Carl in the same cemetery where Danny was buried, opened his wallet, showed Carl a photo of Danny, and the man began to weep uncontrollably.
“I don’t know,” said Carl. “I was in the Korean War. Good friends of mine were killed right in front of me, but I didn’t carry photos of them in my wallet years later.”
Again, I played devil’s advocate. I told Carl that having a 13-year-old friend murdered might be a whole different trip than suffering a traumatic war experience, but he just shook his head. “We think he knows something about Danny’s murder, and back then the police thought he knew something. Fitzy thought that that his father shut him up,” said Carl.
Who am I to doubt his intuition? It was Friday afternoon, but there was supposedly no talk of nighttime or weekend plans between two 13-year-old friends before they parted? “We think the [name omitted] boy knew who picked up Danny that day,” said Carl.
He could have been right: one or more of Danny’s friends—or his brothers’ friends—may know something. It’s unlikely they are eyewitnesses to the crime, but it’s possible that a couple of them could steer investigators in the right direction. “Danny didn’t just vaporize,” said R.C. Stevens. “There is somebody out there that can tell us the last time was seen.”
Sunday, October 1, 2017
What the Church Knew
The year began with the another lawsuit against Richard Lavigne—this one from Lawrence Opitz, who said he was sexually assaulted in an incident in 1969 or 1970 when he was about fifteen years old and a parishioner at St. Mary’s.
During a press conference on March 6, 2003, two women filed molestation suits against Lavigne, joining more than 30 men who already had claims against him. Victims, their families, and countless others kept asking why he hadn’t been laicized.
Bishop Thomas Dupre (pictured above), reacting to much public pressure, had finally began taking steps to defrock Lavigne with the help of the Vatican’s recent approval of the U.S. bishops’ policy on sex abuse, which allowed for a more streamlined laicization process. St. Michael’s parishioner Warren Mason said Bishop Dupre’s actions were long overdue. “Until Lavigne is removed from the diocesan payroll, he will be the responsibility of the diocese and the lay people of the diocese,” he said.
But all of this soon took a back seat in the news with D.A. Bennett’s confirmation on March 25 that the murder of Daniel Croteau was once again not only open, but also active, with new DNA testing being done on evidence. Bennett said that advancements in DNA technology in the new millennium made testing methods far superior to those in the 1990s. “Tests can yield more results with less biology,” he said.
“Maybe finally luck will be on our side,” said Carl Croteau Sr. (pictured below), who had gone to Bennett’s office in 2002 to request further DNA testing. “We asked him to go the last mile, and they have been very good to us,” he added. “There are other things in this case, but I think the D.A. would like to have some DNA test results to go along with those things to make a hell of a case.”
* * * * * * * *
Many of the developments in the case during 2002 and 2003 concerned attorney John Stobierski’s attempts to obtain diocesan documents related to Lavigne as the lawyer was preparing ten civil lawsuits against the diocese. “What we are trying to determine is what the diocese knew and when they knew it,” said Stobierski.
Photo: John Stobierski
There was precedent: in 2002, Judge Constance M. Sweeney had ordered the public release of about 11,000 internal Archdiocese of Boston documents related to sixty-five priests accused of abusing children over 30 years. That case, which did not involve files related to the Springfield diocese, revealed an elaborate cover-up and led to the resignation of Cardinal Law—although Massachusetts Attorney General Thomas Reilly ultimately declined to file criminal charges against Law or any other official in the Archdiocese of Boston. Unlike Boston, however, there had yet to be a similar paper trail uncovered in Springfield.
Then Father Scahill revealed a jaw-dropper that offered a possible reason for the lack of documentation. On September 16, 2003, he said Bishop Dupre told him and other priests that Springfield diocese documents that might have involved details on clergy sex abuse were destroyed by the late Bishop Christopher Weldon in the mid-1970s.
Bishop Dupre denied making the statement, which Father Scahill said was uttered at a meeting of the Presbyteral Council, an advisory board to the bishop, several months after the national clergy sex abuse crisis began snowballing in early 2002.
“He (Bishop Dupre) announced that fortunately for the church of Springfield, upon his (Weldon’s) retirement, he destroyed many personal and personnel files,” said Scahill. “He said it with glee in his voice and glee in his eye, almost gloating about it.”
Photo: the late Bishop Christopher J. Weldon
None of the church officials attending the council backed Father Scahill’s version of what Bishop Dupre said. However, they were bound by an oath to keep meeting business in confidence. Father Scahill said he broke the oath of confidence because the following week Judge Sweeney was scheduled to hear a motion by the diocese to dismiss five clergy abuse lawsuits. “I have to break my silence in light of the diocese’s statement that it had no knowledge until 1986 in regards to the proclivity of a multiple offending pedophile who had already been a priest for twenty years by 1986,” said Father Scahill.
Bishop Dupre replied that he had merely made a comment about Weldon’s executor destroying some personal items, such as prayer books and records, not priests’ personnel records. Diocese spokesman Mark Dupont described Scahill’s account as an “oversimplification” of a complicated conversation. “Father Scahill has exaggerated many facts in Springfield,” said Dupont. “He is prone to wild speculation.” He added that Bishop Weldon would have never destroyed personnel records. “That would be against Church policy,” he said.
Before the Union-News contacted Bishop Dupre, the Rev. Monsignor Richard S. Sniezyk, vicar general of the diocese, said Bishop Dupre spoke about “personal” files, not “personnel” files. He later amended his statement to say Bishop Dupre’s comment was about Weldon’s executor destroying “personal effects.”
Scahill scoffed at this notion. “He was clearly talking about records,” he said. “Why would he be talking about the bishop’s personal belongings and bric-a-brac twenty years later?” Scahill offered to be deposed and suggested the bishop be questioned under oath as well. “If he denies it, then other members of the council should be asked about it under oath,” said Scahill.
Photo: Father John Scahill
Scahill and Bishop Dupre stuck to their stories when they were deposed two weeks later. “Today, I spoke the truth, and truth always conquers deceit,” said Scahill. He explained that he took no pleasure in making the allegations. “The whole thing is making me ill,” he said. “It is draining my life. I’m not trying to take the church down. I have spent my life in the church and have no intention of leaving ministry, but I can't change the way I was raised by my parents. Telling the truth is the only way I can live with myself peaceably.”
Bishop Dupre, in his testimony, said he never would have made a statement about Weldon destroying personnel records because he never heard about such an occurrence. “I never heard that from Bishop Weldon” or the executor of Weldon’s, estate or the former Bishop Joseph Maguire, who succeeded Bishop Weldon, he said, adding, “I don’t have any knowledge that any church records were destroyed.”
When Bishop Dupre was asked whether he was willing to release the eighteen members of the Presbyteral Council from their oath of privacy, he replied that he would have to discuss it with diocesan legal counsel.
Photo: Bishop Thomas Dupre
Stobierski asked him about assigning Rev. Richard Meehan—a priest who had been previously removed from parish ministry for sexual misconduct— to organize diocesan archives, which included personnel records. Bishop Dupre said Father Meehan wasn’t supposed to have access to the diocese’s “secret” files on sexual abuse that were kept “under lock and key,” but admitted he wasn’t sure how tight security was for the two keys that existed.
Stobierski was following up on an earlier deposition of Rev. Daniel Liston, keeper of records for the diocese, who said that most bishops kept secret files in addition to the files in the diocesan archives. Liston had said that Meehan had destroyed some records, but he didn’t know which ones. He also confirmed that the late executor of Bishop Weldon’s estate, Monsignor David Welch, had thrown out some of Bishop Weldon’s personal papers. Welch, who died in 1986, allegedly abused a Northampton youth in the early 1950s.
Scahill pointed out that the abuse claim against Welch should raise questions about what type of files he was interested in destroying.
In the national clergy abuse scandal, courts had been forcing dioceses across the country, including those in Manchester, NH, Los Angeles, and Bridgeport, CT, to release their “secret” records after having found that they had kept two sets of personnel records: one for the public, and a confidential archive detailing molestations.
What the Springfield diocese knew about clergy sex abuse—and when—was at the heart of an affidavit filed by Maurice DeMontigny on August 15, 2003.
DeMontigny, a longtime lay religious education director at St. Catherine and a confidant of Bishop Weldon, is the uncle of Raymond and Joseph Gouin, two of the 17 Lavigne victims who settled a lawsuit with the diocese in 1994. “I believe, based upon my familiarity with the workings of my parish and of the Diocese of Springfield, that diocesan officials knew, as of the late 1960s, that Lavigne was a child molester,” wrote DeMontigny, who was appointed by Bishop Weldon to religious education boards for the diocese. His affidavit detailed his conversations with priests in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
“I specifically recall one Sunday when Richard Lavigne was a curate at our parish,” he wrote. “Father Griffin called to me and asked to speak with me outside. Although I often spoke with Father Griffin, this time was unusual in that I noted urgency in his manner. He told me he needed my help for a serious and grave matter and asked that our conversation be held in the strictest confidence. He told me that ‘someone in the parish had come to him with a complaint on Father Lavigne that involved their sons and they could not press charges with the police.’ He inquired as to whether one of my young nephews who also attended St. Catherine’s was also having a ‘problem.’ He further told me that the family did not want to go to the police and that he wanted to know ‘how widespread the problem was and who and how many of the boys in the parish were involved.’ Father Griffin was very upset and breathing hard. He was being careful with his words. I understood him to be confiding in me that the family had accused Richard Lavigne of molesting their child and he suspected that other boys may have been molested as well.”
DeMontigny also recalled a specific incident in the early 1970s when Lavigne told him that his pastor at St. Mary’s, John Harrington, had admonished him concerning boys being in his bedroom. “Lavigne was contemptuous of the pastor’s attempt to exert his authority over him,” he wrote. “He said something to the effect that ‘they can't do anything to me’ and laughed about it.”
The affidavit also states that in the 1990s, one of the 17 men involved in the 1994 settlement told DeMontigny that he was participating in a sexual act with Lavigne in the St. Catherine rectory kitchen when Father Griffin walked in on them. “I am sure that Father Griffin would have admonished Lavigne and reported this to Bishop Weldon,” he wrote.
During a settlement meeting in the early 1990s, DeMontigny wrote that then-Bishop John Marshall misleadingly stated that neither the priests nor the bishops had any idea of Lavigne’s conduct. “Bishop Marshall’s statement then was less than truthful as the diocese has now publicly admitted they knew in 1986 that Lavigne had molested children,” he wrote. “We were never told at that meeting that the diocese knew in 1986 that Father Lavigne had molested at least one child, and had been sent for an evaluation.”
Photo: the late Bishop John Marshall
* * * * * * * *
In the fall of 2003, I knew I had to make a call to Stobierski: not about the lawsuits, investigation files, or the diocesan documents. I asked him about a statement Carl Croteau had made during my initial interview at the Croteau home that summer. It nagged at me. Carl had said that Stobierski was in contact with an alleged witness to the murder—a woman who had been a sexual abuse victim of Lavigne. She supposedly had claimed to recover the memory of the priest killing Daniel under hypnosis after she had repressed it for years because of the trauma.
“Mr. Stobierski, I’m not sure Carl was even supposed to tell me about this,” I stammered. I proceeded to tell him what I had heard. “Are you aware of this woman?” I asked.
He confirmed that she was a client of his, and that she had indeed undergone hypnotherapy. But for obvious reasons he was unlikely to use her testimony in court. Her statement described the murder and disposal of Croteau’s body. According to legal documents, her account in some respects was corroborated by another witness at the scene: her sister’s childhood friend.
Then I asked Stobierski his opinion on the likelihood of the D.A. bringing an indictment in the murder, even if the new DNA tests ended up amounting to nothing. I thought the chances were pretty remote, unless a new witness came forward. However, he seemed fairly confident that it was still possible, especially considering several abuse victims’ recent statements, in which Lavigne implied that what happened to Danny could happen to them if they thought of telling someone.
Stobierski, who was seeking to unseal more investigation files from the Croteau murder on behalf of his client, “John Doe,” took my contact information because I was living in Boston at the time and he expected petition hearings to come up at the state Supreme Judicial Court in the city. Hampden Superior Court Judge Peter A. Velis had ordered the case files opened, but State Appeals Court Judge John H. Mason had overturned the order, so Stobierski, along lawyers from The Republican newspaper in Springfield were asking the Supreme Judicial Court to overturn the decision.
The hearings would be open to the public and he thought I would be interested in attending, especially since unimpounded records might shed more light on the murder. Stobiersski was right: I was certainly interested!
* * * * * * * *
On January 20, 2004 the Springfield diocese announced a development that many had thought would come years earlier—but some cynics thought would never happen. Richard Lavigne was defrocked 13 years after sex abuse allegations were first brought to the attention of the courts and the media. The Vatican’s decision was actually made on November 20, 2013, but the diocese didn’t receive the information until January 9.
“Finally, 30 years after clerical and criminal misbehavior, the church has seen fit to laicize Richard Lavigne,” said Scahill. He maintained that his parish would continue to withhold six percent of its weekly collections until a legal arrangement was put into place guaranteeing that he would not receive any contributions from the church.
Lavigne’s monthly stipend and health insurance, totaling more than $20,000 a year, would end on May 31, but under canon law he could still seek charity from the diocese. If he did, a lay panel of legal and financial professionals would determine the extent of his indigency. If he were found truly indigent, he could tap into a newly created $100,000 fund recently established by a half-dozen lay people.
“He still maintains his innocence of all allegations, except the two to which he pled guilty,” said Monsignor Richard Sniezyk.
Bunny Croteau (pictured below) expressed some relief—albeit long-delayed. “Thank God for this,” she said. “I think it is great. And it’s about time—maybe about 31 years too late.”
* * * * * * * *
On January 27, I received a fax from Stobierski announcing that a hearing on the D.A.’s impounded Croteau files was scheduled at the Supreme Judicial Court in Boston the following day. So I took a “long lunch” from work and headed downtown to check it out. There, in the courtroom, were the people I had been reading about for so long: Lavigne’s lawyer Max Stern and Stobierski, as well as attorneys for The Republican Jonathan Albano and Joseph Pessolano.
Justice Robert Cordy questioned whether Appeals Court Judge John Mason had properly applied “change in circumstance” standard when ruling in the fall that the 1996 impoundment order should remain intact. The documents had been ordered sealed in 1996 because it was felt that their release may interfere with the investigation. But Superior Court Judge Peter Velis had ruled on October 30 that the documents should be released because the public had “a right and a compelling interest in accessing the impounded materials,” he wrote. “I find that, in this current climate, disclosure of the records would not detrimentally affect investigators’ ability to obtain any new sources of information…but that it would more likely lend impetus to the investigation by encouraging remaining witnesses to come forward.”
In court that day Stobierski pointed out that the files contained a record of Lavigne being fired from a Chicopee Parks Department job as a teenager for fondling a six-year-old boy. “We would argue that it could be a critical piece of evidence in building a case against the diocese, which should have been aware of his behavior if they had done a background check of him,” said Stobierski.
Stern argued that Stobierski was trying to “stampede the D.A.’s office into an intemperate indictment” against Lavigne.
With his questions, Judge Cordy seemed to put pressure on the attorneys who wanted to keep the gag order intact, especially Assistant Hampden County D.A. Jane Montori, who argued that the release of the files would compromise an active murder investigation. He questioned how “active” it indeed was after 32 years.
At the conclusion of the hearing, I approached Stobierski and introduced myself. How do you think it went?” I asked.
“I think it went well,” he answered with a smile. “What do you think?”
“I think so too.”
* * * * * * * *
Bishop Quits After Abuse Query—
Dupre Abruptly Resigns, Enters Hospital
Most area Catholics thought that the clergy abuse crisis in western Massachusetts couldn’t get any stranger, with new DNA tests being performed on a priest suspected of murder.
But then they woke to the above headline on February 12, 2004.
On February 10, The Republican reporter Bill Zajac, after failed attempts to speak to the bishop regarding allegations that he had sexually abused two boys, emailed a list of questions to diocesan spokesman Mark Dupont. Within hours Dupre checked himself into an undisclosed medical facility for an undisclosed ailment.
At a press conference, the diocese said cited health reasons for Dupre’s departure—that he had requested permission from the Vatican to resign the previous November and hadn’t received the Pope’s decision until February 11.
Helen Deshaies, the mother of alleged victim Thomas Deshaies, had written to Dupre about the allegations in 2003, weeks before he told The Republican that he might take an early retirement because of a heart condition and other health problems. The mother had met with Scahill, who advised her to speak to the diocese’s Misconduct Commission. Instead, she tried, without success, to persuade her son, in his early forties in 2003, to publicly press charges.
Dupre allegedly began abusing the two minors, who were altar boys and best friends in high school, in the 1970s, when he began taking them camping and swimming at lakes in the area. He assured them he had been tested for AIDS. “He showed them pictures of men dying with AIDS to scare them so they wouldn’t have sex with whoever,” said Helen Deshaies. “He would say, ‘This is what could happen to you. Therefore you come to me.’” Deshaies was abused from the age of 15 until he was about 20.
The other alleged victim, 42-year-old Tuan Tran, had been a Vietnamese refugee who came with his family to the United States in 1975. Bishop Dupre, who was at St. Louis de France parish in West Springfield, befriended him and offered to teach him English. “Our client was twelve years old,” said his lawyer, Roderick MacLeish Jr. “The abuse started when Bishop Dupre took our client’s hand and proceeded to masturbate himself with our client’s hand.” The acts progressed to sodomy, which continued until the boy started dating a girl in when he was about 16.
The bishop allegedly gave the victims alcohol before the abuse, and he showed them pornography he had stashed in his briefcase.
Deshaies and Tran said that Dupre, just before he was named auxiliary bishop in 1990, called them and told them he would decline the appointment unless they remained silent about their relationship. Both reassured him that they would not talk.
But they were talking now, and Bennett was listening. He said he planned to bring the case before a grand jury.
* * * * * * * *
After Dupre resigned in disgrace, Bunny Croteau said, “It’s getting to the point where nothing surprises us any more.”
But there were more surprises to come.
For a short time, Dupre had supplanted Lavigne as the “poster priest” of the western Massachusetts clergy abuse crisis. In retrospect, his actions, as well as his inaction, explained a lot: he had been accused of dragging his feet on the Lavigne defrocking process and of appointing predator priests to oversee files that may have included allegations of priest abuse. In trying to cover all his bases, however, his hypocrisy had backfired: he railed against gay marriage in sermons but he had told his victims that their sexual relationship “was a logical expression of love and that God teaches love.” Tran said the bishop’s very public stance on gay marriage motivated him to come forward with his accusation.
The news spotlight, however, suddenly moved back to Lavigne, and things got downright surreal. On April 8, 2004, police knocked on Lavigne’s door. It was Holy Thursday, a day in which the Catholic church celebrates the priesthood. They told Lavigne they had a search warrant. This was the second raid in his home on three days, and this time it was reported in the news. The search was prompted by what Lavigne claimed was an anonymous letter that had been sent to him. According Lavigne’s lawyer, the author of the letter claimed to know that Lavigne killed Daniel Croteau.
Photo: Richard Lavigne
Police had learned about the existence of the letter during their investigation of sexual abuse claims against Thomas Dupre.
Lavigne told someone in the diocese about the letter, and a diocesan official made a note of the document. This notation was discovered by police in March, when had been going through documents obtained at the Springfield diocesan offices looking for evidence against Dupre.
When State Police Detective Lt. Peter Higgins and other detectives originally showed up at Lavigne’s door on April 6 looking for the letter, the former priest told them that he had sent it to his lawyer in Boston. Higgins and his team stayed put at Lavigne’s home until a State Police officer obtained the letter from Max Stern.
ABC TV-40 reported that the letter contained an alleged “alibi” for the defrocked priest.
Lavigne claimed he had read the letter and concluded that its anonymous author “was the real killer,” said Stern.
Police thought otherwise. They believed that Lavigne had written the letter himself, apparently in a bizarre effort to throw police off his trail.
Two days later, on Holy Thursday, police were back at Lavigne’s house with another search warrant, this time removing computer equipment to see if electronic files contained any remnants of the letter. However, Stern said nothing on the equipment was incriminating, and then police agreed to return it to Lavigne and destroy any copies of files they made. “There’s nothing there,” said Stern.
For police, a potential bombshell in their investigation turned out to be a dud. Nonetheless, the lack of an electronic trail from the letter merely meant that the document wasn’t written on Lavigne’s home computer.
Investigators thought that if they could prove Lavigne authored the letter, such a deceptive deed would fit the profile they had been building of a man who had tried to mislead police and victims’ families from the start of the Croteau murder investigation—starting with him saying that he and Danny were never alone on overnight stays and continuing with the “circle” phone call the day of Danny’s wake, along with his friend flashing a police badge to Sandra Tessier saying he had nothing to do with the homicide.
If the “I know what you did” letter (which is how Stern characterized it) wasn’t authored by Lavigne, why did he merely send the letter to his lawyer—without it undergoing any scientific analysis? Didn’t it occur to him that the DNA of “the real killer” could possibly be on the letter and envelope? After all, in 2002, scientists were able to construct a partial genetic profile of the person who they believed to be the infamous Zodiac serial killer in California by taking dry saliva samples from the stamps and envelope adhesive from his mailings to police. By 2003 DNA testing could yield results from as little as a single skin cell. It’s certainly safe to say that Lavigne would have known full well how far DNA technology had advanced, especially after his blood tests.
Was the letter a foolish caper by a man who thought he was too smart to get caught? The risk-taking behavior pattern was certainly there. He had a history of it: in spite of the sheer number of his crimes (of which we’ll never know), he was always bent on committing more, racking up nearly fifty accusations. His overconfidence had emboldened him to compile victim after victim, becoming ever more brash when the boys kept their incidents secret—and more determined when the church simply transferred him from parish to parish when word got out about his activities.
A perfect example of his audacity was his “warning” Carl Croteau Sr. about the dangers of pedophilia in the neighborhood. In my original interview with Carl in 2003, he said that James Coleman, author of The Circle, gave Danny, along with members of the Circle Gang, wrestling lessons, but Lavigne told Carl to be careful of Coleman and his real motives with “all this wrestling stuff”—that there was something wrong with the professor. “He had no kind words for Coleman,” said Carl. “Not in this house. Here he was, planting the bad seed in people’s minds about Coleman, and he was the real molester.”
* * * * * * * *
In late July, 2004, it was revealed that the more sophisticated DNA testing that Bennett had ordered in March of 2003 had failed to link Lavigne to the crime scene. Stobierski still called the testing “inconclusive.” Patricia Garin, one of Lavigne’s lawyers, argued that it was only inconclusive in theory. “The only way, according to the (Hampden County D.A.’s) office, they could be inconclusive is if there were two contributors, neither of them Danny, to this spot of blood and it was mixed together,” she said.
Now one of the Croteau family’s last hopes that the murder would be solved relied on the potential release of 2,035 pages of investigation documents, which on July 27 the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled must be unimpounded. This ended The Republican’s and Stobeirski’s 17-month legal battle with the D.A.’s office.
Much of what was in the files had already been made public, but not the autopsy and lab results, which showed Daniel was legally drunk at the time of his death (below).
Although no physical evidence sexual assault was found, the medical examiner did find several pieces of chewing gum in his stomach and police had found Certs gum wrappers at the scene. According to a statement from fellow altar boy Stephen Burnett, Daniel’s best friend, when Lavigne gave him and Danny wine to drink, “after we finished Father Lavigne would always tell us to chew gum,” he said.
The autopsy revealed that six lacerations to the right side of Danny’s head, including two deep cuts on the side of his right eyebrow. Also, his jaw was fractured a little to the right his chin. The wounds on the right side led police to believe that he had been killed by a left-handed attacker. Lavigne is left-handed.
Stern said there was nothing explosive in the released files. “Look at the documents and you will see there were other suspects, and as far as we can tell, they were never investigated,” he said.
On August 6, in a story on the released files, Matthew Ryan (pictured below) told the Associated Press that he believed Lavigne committed the murder, but there wasn’t enough evidence to prove it in court. “I was upset about it,” he said. “But I did what I had to do.”
Photo: former District Attorney Matty Ryan
Much of the talk in the weeks following the release of the records was a reference to a witness to the murder in the files. Bennett had written about him in a court brief when his office was trying to obtain a sample of Lavigne’s blood. “In the last week of September 1993, Trooper Thomas Daly received information from a witness who has claimed he was at the crime scene on the night of the victim’s murder at the time a car left at a high rate of speed,” wrote the district attorney. The witness “described the car which left the scene, its driver (the petitioner) and the sounds of what was thought to be an ‘animal’ moaning,” wrote Bennett. Lavigne is listed as the “petitioner” in some of the documents because he had made a motion for the return of his blood.
R.C. Stevens, a former State Police officer whom The Republican hired to review the formerly impounded materials and investigate the murder, said the reference to the witness “really jumps out at you.” He also pointed to the autopsy’s listing of severe injuries to Croteau’s larynx and throat. (below). “But it was like a subparagraph in the report,” he said. “I’m not a pathologist, but I wonder whether there was manual strangulation to begin with…Someone with a good hold on you, and you will pass out in ten seconds.”
Stevens also wondered about other people of interest mentioned in the Chicopee Police Department’s sketchy, eleven-page 1972 report (below). How were they eliminated as suspects? he wondered. “I’m not convinced it was Lavigne,” he said. “Let’s say it isn’t. What else was going on here?” The released documents were just a fraction of the documents the D.A.’s Office possesses on the case. Adding to the public’s curiosity was the revelation that a more detailed version of the 1972 Chicopee Police Department investigation was not released.
Stevens, who operates his own private detective agency, was planning to used some retired police officers as independent contractors to make inquiries into the case. He also planned to interview original 1972 investigators who were still living.
After establishing a tip hotline and placing posters in the neighborhood (pictured below), he learned that Daniel was planning to go to a party in Sixteen Acres on the night he disappeared. “I haven’t established whether or not he made it to the party, but something caused his plans to be interrupted and he ended up in Chicopee,” he said. He said the hotline was providing “plenty of leads and useful information.”
* * * * * * * *
On September 27, 2004, former Bishop Dupre was indicted by a grand jury on child sexual assault charges. But a few hours after the indictments were entered into court records, Bennett announced that Dupre would escape a state criminal trial because the statute of limitations had run out on the crimes.
Warren Mason, the St. Michael’s parishioner who encouraged Father Scahill to withhold from the diocese his church’s traditional six percent cut of the weekly collection, was disappointed in the news. “However, it’s fitting that Thomas Dupre should be the first bishop in this country indicted for the heinous sexual abuse of children,” he said. “This diocese is a rat’s nest of abusers, many of whom have yet to face the music, thanks in great measure to Dupre’s efforts to protect his fellow abusers.”