Wednesday, November 1, 2017
The Daniel Croteau Murder, Part 8
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.”