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

Saturday, April 1, 2017

The Daniel Croteau Murder, Part 1

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

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

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

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

Police Captain Edward Rojowski 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Father Richard Lavigne

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

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

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

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

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

Father Barnabas Keck

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

“No,” answered Father Barnabas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read parts 2 and 3.