Monday, May 1, 2017
At the end of Part 1, State Police Lieutenant James Fitzgibbon, the lead investigator on the case, along with State Trooper Jim Mitchell, believed that Father Barnabas Keck was Father Richard 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 the murder—or the molestations—they thought he had committed.
Nonetheless, they were determined to build the case for an indictment, even if all they had was circumstantial evidence, and a possible motive: they theorized Lavigne had been molesting Danny Croteau—possibly for years— and he killed the boy after an argument. They thought the slaying might have been a spontaneous act of rage after the boy threatened to expose him.
On May 2, 1972, Bunny answered the phone. It was Lavigne. “Under the present circumstances, it would be best if I didn’t come around for now,” he said and hung up. Carl and Bunny were confused. He was their friend. What was he talking about?
Soon after, Fitzgibbon interviewed each of Danny’s brothers separately in one of their bedrooms. Then he told Carl and Bunny what they had told him: Lavigne had abused some of their sons. Fitzgibbon had other news: police suspected that the priest had killed Danny. Needless to say, the shock rocked them to the core. He was the first person who they reached out to when they found out Danny had been killed, and he identified the body, sparing Carl the anguish of seeing his bludgeoned boy. They had known Lavigne for five years. At times he provided the cash-strapped family with a roast or steaks from the St. Catherine’s rectory. “You need this more than we do,” he’d say. Carl, who worked two to three jobs to make ends meet, appreciated his generosity. He had babysat the kids, took them swimming at the St. Catherine pool, and was over the Croteau house often for coffee and meals. Not any more. They would never talk again.
Fitzgibbon then asked Carl Croteau Jr. if the voice he heard on the phone on the day of the wake could have been Lavigne’s. It was a moment of revelation for Carl Jr.: he realized that Lavigne was the caller. He did not want to believe it. The priest had been a friend, counselor, and confidant. Carl Jr. and his brothers had been altar boys at St. Catherine when Lavigne was there, and he had taken them camping and fishing. But he had heard Lavigne’s voice on the phone often—at least once a week—and he was sure it was the priest’s.
Carl Croteau Jr. at a 2009 press conference
The family deduced that Lavigne made the call to deviate police interest over to the Circle Gang. Lavigne was very familiar with the Circle Gang—he provided church outreach to its members. Now investigators believed he was using the gang in an attempt to throw police off his scent.
After Fitzgibbon left, Bunny went through her photo albums and tore up every photo she could find of her family with Lavigne. She and Carl now viewed his entire friendship with them as an elaborate con to gain their trust—and access to their boys.
On May 4, with the investigation zeroing in on Lavigne, diocesan attorneys arranged to have him to take a polygraph test in Boston. In the presence of his lawyer, William Flanagan, a member of the state police, two Chicopee detectives, and the man who administered the hour-long test, Lavigne was asked five questions:
Did you strike Danny Croteau’s head to cause his death?
Did you kill Danny Croteau?
Were you present when Danny Croteau was killed?
Did you dump Danny’s body in the Chicopee river?
Do you know who killed Danny Croteau?
Lavigne answered no to each of the questions, but the examiner said, “Due to these erratic and inconsistent responses on this subject's polygraph records, the examiner is unable to render a definite opinion as to the subject's truthfulness.”
Diocesan officials then arranged for Lavigne to take two polygraph exams on May 9. The same questions were asked. He provided the same answer, and this time he passed.
And that was good enough for the Diocese of Springfield. Because no physical evidence or witnesses tied him to the murder, he remained a free man and resumed his parish work.
Although the murder case was stalling, Fitzgibbon and Carl Sr. became good friends during the investigation, and they often shared their frustrations. “Carl, I’m telling you he’s the one,” said Fitzgibbon. “I’m sure of it.” At first, Fitzgibbon assured Carl that justice would be served. “Don’t worry,” he said. “We’ll nail him.” But he found that it was difficult to build a murder case against a priest, something that had never been done in the United States. When police went to the rectory, a priest who answered the door wouldn’t let them in, and prosecutors didn’t seek warrants to search either the rectory or his parents’ home. Police wanted to examine the clothes Lavigne wore the night of Danny’s murder, but the District Attorney’s office insisted there wasn’t enough evidence to establish probable cause.
One day after work Fitzgibbon and Carl Sr. sat a table in the Keg Room in downtown Springfield. As they talked about the case, Fitzgibbon’s disgust quickly turned to anger. He suddenly slammed his fist down, making their beer glasses clatter on the table. “Damn it, Carl, my hands are tied! If Lavigne was an average factory worker, he’d be gone!”
But Lavigne was a priest, and he seemed untouchable. Carl Croteau signed applications for the murder of Danny and the sexual abuse of Joe, but the District Attorney’s office advised him not to pursue the sexual assault complaint for fear of compromising the murder case. So he didn’t.
And the investigation languished. For 19 years.
* * * * * * * *
I was nine years old when Daniel Croteau was killed. My brother and I went to high school with his younger sisters, but we didn’t know Danny, although I used to see him and his brothers wrestling at the YMCA. The Croteaus lived six streets away, which seems like a world away when you’re a kid. But sometimes the world is smaller than you think it is. News travels fast, and so do rumors. His murder had a chilling effect on our neighborhood. And I was fully aware of the rumor that Lavigne killed Danny when I saw him officiate the funeral Mass for my grandmother at St. Mary’s. I watched the man prepare the Eucharist with the same hands I believed he used to kill Danny.
Shortly after the murder, for us kids, the old bothersome “come home when the streetlights come on” rule was strictly enforced by parents for a while. But, after two newspaper stories that week appealing for the public’s help in solving the crime, there was no arrest, and most people went on with their lives. The murder fell off the radar screen. Soon the topic of the day was Snowball, the polar bear at the Forest Park Zoo, getting shot by police after biting a girl’s arm.
In the spring of 1972, Fridays for us usually meant a game of Wiffle Ball, followed by The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family. But Fridays for the Croteau family meant the start of another weekend that their son wasn’t coming home.
With the murder case at a standstill, on June 7, 1972, James Coleman, a Sixteen Acres resident, offered a $100 reward for information leading to an arrest. “This was an especially brutal murder,” he told the Springfield Union newspaper. “We in the neighborhood are all very much concerned about the safety of our children and we want the apprehension of the person or persons responsible.” He added that anyone who did not wish to talk with police could contact him at his home. But no one came forward.
Coleman, a physics professor at American International College, was a wrestling teacher and a YMCA volunteer and he knew Danny well—the boy used to go to the Y often. So did members of the Circle Gang. Coleman had befriended them, and they confided in him. In 1970, he wrote The Circle, a nonfiction book chronicling the wild exploits of the gang, and it created quite the sensation in Sixteen Acres because of its language and violence.
In the book, Coleman wrote about a character named Father Ravine, a pseudonym for Lavigne, who is admired by the youths because he “sparks things up” by introducing “guitars and beat music” to Mass and proposing that the parish serve as a teen recreation center when it wasn’t being used for religious services. But he is disliked by Father Miffin, a pseudonym for St. Catherine’s pastor Thomas Griffin.
The book sold well in Springfield. My friends and I had copies. And we talked about one passage in particular. In it, the narrator, a member of the gang, says that Ravine is transferred to another parish because church officials “figger he got no business thinking about anything but religious stuff. They figger if he likes the kids so much, there must be something wrong with him.”
“Did the priest do it?” we asked. “Well, if he did it,” one of my friends reasoned, “they would have arrested him.” Lavigne’s involvement was something we overheard from our parents’ conversations, not something we discussed with them. As time passed, the newspapers forgot about Danny Croteau and the talk faded, but reemerged every once in a while in awkward conversations. For 45 years the murder has been buzzing in the background, looming over the neighborhood like the giant flashing orange neon House of Television sign in the Sixteen Acres shopping center. Unlike that long-demolished sign, however, the talk about Danny’s murder lingers to this day.
In 1986, I left Springfield after college to take a newspaper editor job in the Boston area, but I will always be a Sixteen Acres kid at heart, and the unsolved murder nagged at me. I had refused to make my Confirmation in the Catholic Church when I was a ninth-grader. I became a self-professed agnostic (I guess the more accurate term is “lapsed Catholic.”) Did the murder factor into my ebbing faith? It’s hard to say. Young people like me were drifting away from Catholicism for a variety of reasons. I wasn’t in the St. Catherine parish. I had attended Mass at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, a parish with its own kiddie diddler, Father Alfred Graves, who molested my friend’s older brother. I was amazed when I read in a newspaper story that Carl and Bunny Croteau had remained steadfast Catholics. How, I wondered, was this possible? They followed their pastor’s advice: “Don’t let any man come between you and God.” I was intrigued.
Then I became quite obsessed with the murder, reading Springfield newspaper accounts in the Boston Public Library in the early 1990s, when the case was reopened. In the summer of 2003, I visited the Croteau home to interview Carl and Bunny for what I was planning to be magazine article. But that project was shelved.
In 2007, however, my career brought me back to Sixteen Acres. With all the familiar surroundings of my childhood, that haunting feeling about the murder came back stronger than ever. And then once in a while I ran into Carl Croteau Sr. So I began interviewing him for a writing project that I vowed to resurrect because I was convinced that fate led me to write this.
I know. It sounds a bit dramatic. But here we are. I interviewed Carl 14 times between the fall of 2007 and the fall of 2009. He died in the fall of 2010.
When I moved back here, Carl and I would typically engage in a little small talk—about the Red Sox, the “old” neighborhood, the “new” neighborhood, and the time Bunny first introduced my aunt to my uncle at the American Bosch factory, where both couples worked. (After my aunt and uncle got married, they moved across the street from Carl’s family in Springfield’s North End in the 1950s.) We also discussed more personal matters, such as Bunny’s health and his family’s struggles. He had lost his brother in 2007 and another one of his sons in 2009 to cancer. But the conversations inevitably turned to the murder investigation, because the cold case had gotten hot again, especially in 2008, when 115 pages of documents on the investigation were released to the public by the district attorney’s office after a judge ordered the files unsealed. Unfortunately, not much new information came from it.
I took this photo of Carl on July 10, 2009 on Maebeth Street, where I grew up.
This was a period in which sometimes Carl received encouraging news about the case, only to have his hopes dashed when the leads turned into dead ends. For example, in March of 2008 a priest who is an advocate of sexual abuse victims called him and said he was in touch with a man who claimed he was at the murder scene and had vital information. The priest told Carl that he might go to the FBI with the account, but then he stopped calling, and Carl was crushed. I was beginning to think that Carl, who was in his late seventies, and Bunny, in her early seventies, might go to their graves without ever receiving justice for his murdered son.
That, I thought, would be a travesty, because the couple had been through hell. They deserved closure. I found it incredible that so far they had kept their hope and faith intact through this entire ordeal. Indeed, it takes extraordinary strength, patience, and resolve to overcome this kind of adversity. But, as I discovered in 2003, when I first met them, the Croteaus are a remarkable family.
Coming in Part 3: my 2003 interview with Carl and Bunny Croteau.