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

Friday, December 1, 2017

The Daniel Croteau Murder, Part 9


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: 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.

Michael Kogut

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.

Greg Croteau

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.

Bunny Croteau

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 psiiinc@cs.com.

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.”