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Ex-priest dies of COVID-19 same day warrant sought to charge him in 1972 murder of altar boy

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Action News Jax
 27 days ago
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SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — Richard Lavigne was dying — though no one knew it.

In the final five weeks of his life, the 80-year-old defrocked Massachusetts priest spent 11 hours talking to Massachusetts State Police investigators about Danny Croteau, a 13-year-old altar boy whose body was pulled from the Chicopee River in 1972.

Lavigne, a close friend of the boy’s family, never admitted to killing Danny but made it clear he was there April 14, 1972, when the teen died, Hampden County District Attorney Anthony Gulluni said Monday.

According to audio of those interviews, Lavigne indicated he’d brought the boy to the riverbank, physically assaulted him and left him there, even after seeing the boy face down in the water.

“I just remember being heartbroken when I saw his body going down the river, knowing I was responsible for giving him a good shove, you know?” Lavigne said in a snippet of the audio, which was played Monday for reporters.

Click here to listen to more of the audio from Lavigne’s interviews with detectives.

Danny’s body was discovered in the water the next morning, about 8 miles from his family’s Springfield home. The Associated Press reported that the boy’s autopsy indicated that he had been beaten to death with a rock.

Lavigne conducted the boy’s funeral Mass and presided over his burial in Springfield’s Hillcrest Park Cemetery.

In mere days, Lavigne would rise to the top of the list of suspects. Court records indicate the priest gave inconsistent statements to police following Danny’s death.

He was also seen walking alone at the river’s bank the afternoon after Danny was found. A few days after the murder, the priest had an odd question for investigators.

“If a stone was used and thrown in the river, would the blood still be on it?” Lavigne asked, according to the AP.

One of Danny’s brothers told police about a phone call made to the Croteau home two days after the teen’s body was found.

“A male voice said, ‘We’re very sorry what happened to Danny. He saw something … he shouldn’t have seen. It was an accident,’” according to a statement of facts in the case.

The caller never identified himself, but Danny’s brother recognized the voice as belonging to Lavigne.

Gulluni said Monday that the evidence, particularly Lavigne’s recent admissions, had led him to instruct his investigators Friday to seek an arrest warrant in the murder of Danny Croteau.

“We were prepared to then prosecute Richard Lavigne and prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt,” Gulluni said.

Watch Gulluni’s full news conference below.

The long-awaited arrest never happened.

Lavigne died Friday evening at Baystate Franklin Medical Center in Greenfield. Authorities said the registered sex offender died of acute hypoxic respiratory failure caused by COVID-19 pneumonia.

He developed pneumonia four days before his death, according to a death certificate obtained by the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

With their longtime suspect now dead, Gulluni said his office is officially closing the cold case of Danny’s murder.

“While formal justice might not have befallen Richard Lavigne here on this Earth, we hope to now provide answers and some measure of closure to Danny’s family and to a generation in western Massachusetts and beyond who mourned and wondered for too long,” Gulluni said.

Lavigne pleaded guilty in June 1992 to molesting multiple boys in his parish, which, at that time, was St. Joseph’s Parish in Shelburne Falls.

“The named victims in these indictments, like Danny, were altar boys at his parish and sons of parishioners with whom he socialized,” the statement of facts says.

Lavigne served no prison time, instead receiving 10 years of probation and mandatory counseling for sex offenders. In 1994, the Diocese of Springfield paid $1.4 million to settle 17 sex abuse claims made against Lavigne, the Gazette reported.

He was expelled from the priesthood in 2003.

Joe Croteau, Danny’s older brother, said it was “bone-chilling” to hear “the voice of a sociopath” speak of his brother’s murder.

“I’m awfully glad that my parents will never hear this,” Joe Croteau said.

Both Carl Croteau Sr. and Bernice “Bunny” Croteau have died, as have two of their seven children besides Danny.

The surviving Croteau family members are disappointed that Lavigne will never go to trial. The AP reported that the Croteau family believes the former priest, who remained listed on the sex offender registry Tuesday morning, sexually abused Danny and then killed the boy to keep him from speaking out. Lavigne appeared to be removed from the registry later in the day.

“There’s a higher power, and (Lavigne) will face that higher power now,” Joe Croteau said.

A trusted family friend

Lavigne’s path first crossed that of the Croteau family in 1967, while he was assigned to the family’s Roman Catholic parish, St. Catherine of Siena in Springfield. Danny, the youngest of Carl and Bunny Croteau’s five sons, served alongside his brothers as an altar boy at St. Catherine’s.

It was a more innocent time, long before sex abuse scandals rocked the Catholic Church. The young priest, then 26, became a close friend of the Croteau family.

“(Lavigne) frequently took some of the Croteau boys, including Danny, without their parents on outings unrelated to church activities,” Trooper Michael McNally wrote in the statement of facts. “Father Lavigne also maintained contact with Danny and his family after he was reassigned to St. Mary’s Parish in late June 1968 and continued the social outings.”

Those outings included overnight visits to Lavigne’s parents’ home in Chicopee. Following his ouster from the priesthood, Lavigne also settled in Chicopee.

Court records obtained decades later by The Republican in Springfield described how Lavigne “groomed” some of the altar boys by plying them with alcohol. Danny’s best friend, now grown, gave a statement to police in 1991, when Lavigne was under investigation for molestation.

“After Mass, Father Lavigne would always offer us wine in the chalice,” said the witness, whose name was withheld. “Father Lavigne would joke around a little and encourage us to drink the wine. I remember this because I didn’t like the wine, but Danny seemed to.”

Lavigne would give the boys gum afterward to mask the smell of the wine before they went home, McNally wrote.

The witness also told detectives Lavigne would watch the altar boys change their clothes before and after Mass, though the other two priests in the parish would not. Lavigne would go so far as to help the boys pull off their robes, he said.

“We thought Father Lavigne was a cool guy,” the man said. “He didn’t act like a priest. He acted like a playboy, very carefree and never serious outside the church.”

Despite that carefree vibe, there were troubling signs. Danny’s friend said the boys would often spot Lavigne watching them from his car as they played street hockey.

“Without warning, Danny would stop playing, begin crying, tell them he had to leave and run toward where Lavigne was parked, getting into the big four-door car and leaving alone with Lavigne,” the statement of facts says. “They knew that Danny was not going home, as the car drove away in the opposite direction.”

Danny’s friend told police that the teen had once told him Lavigne was a relative.

“Danny told me that Father Lavigne was his uncle, and that’s why I never thought any more about it,” the man said, according to the documents obtained by The Republican.

Bunny Croteau told authorities after her son’s slaying that one morning in April 1972, shortly before Danny’s murder, her son had returned home ill following an overnight stay with the priest.

“He didn’t say too much,” Bunny Croteau’s statement read. “He just laid around for a while and complained about his stomach. Towards evening, he told me he had vomited several times.”

Danny’s brother, Carl Croteau Jr., then 19, also told police that in the weeks before Danny’s death, the teen often came home drunk to the point of vomiting after visits to the priest.

When Danny’s bludgeoned body was found the morning of April 15, his blood alcohol concentration was 0.18, more than twice the legal limit.

Miles from home

The statement of facts released Monday details the case from the moment Danny’s body was found. An on-duty Chicopee police officer reported the gruesome discovery at 8:25 a.m. that day.

Danny, a seventh grader at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart School, was found floating a few feet from the bank of the Chicopee River, under what was then known as the Governor Robinson Bridge. The Chicopee is a tributary of the Colorado River, which runs through metro Springfield.

The teen was still wearing his parochial school uniform from the day before. McNally wrote that his pockets held chewing gum, his uniform necktie, an exam and a small box containing a student’s dissecting instruments.

Danny’s name was still visible on the waterlogged exam. The medical examiner found chewed pieces of gum in the boy’s stomach.

Meanwhile, six hours before the discovery, Carl and Bunny Croteau had called the Springfield Police Department and reported their son missing. It did not take long to link the missing person report to the body found a few miles away.

Danny’s autopsy later that day found multiple blows to the head, which caused skull fractures and lacerations of his brain, according to the statement of facts. He also had blunt force trauma to the soft tissue of his neck, including petechial hemorrhages of his larynx.

Petechial hemorrhaging was also found in and around his eyes. Those injuries are often an indication someone was choked.

Investigators who scoured the crime scene at the river found bloodstained sand on the bank of the river, as well as tire tracks left by a vehicle.

More than 20 years later, a witness gave a statement to police alleging they’d seen a black Cadillac driving out from under the bridge early one morning in April 1972. The witness said their own headlights had illuminated the driver’s side of the Cadillac.

“They described the driver as a white male, clean-shaven with dark eyes, in his 30s, who was wearing a priest’s white collar,” McNally wrote. “The driver looked at the witness and accelerated quickly out of the area.”

The witness said it was not until they saw Lavigne’s photo in news reports on his molestation case that “something clicked in (their) mind that the face (they) saw at the underpass looks like Father Lavigne.”

The witness alleged that they’d heard about Danny Croteau’s murder within a week of seeing the priest speed away from the area of the bridge.

The statement of facts also addresses blood evidence in the case.

“From this bloodstained area, marks in the sandy soil indicated that some heavy object had been dragged 83 feet to the edge of the river and ended in a large pool of blood on the river’s bank directly south of the location of the body in the river,” the statement says. “From this pool of blood, bloodstains were found spattered on the rocks and soil for a distance of 15 feet in a westerly direction.

“A piece of cotton rope, plastic straw, and the left pocket of Danny’s jacket were recovered on the river’s bank.”

Those items were collected, as were rocks and soil samples from the scene of the killing. They were submitted to the Massachusetts State Police Crime Lab.

Last month, a Florida-based forensic lab tested the physical evidence, which had been maintained for 49 years. Danny could not be excluded as the source of the partial DNA profile found on the rocks and the sand.

Lavigne’s blood was taken in 1993 and, following some legal wrangling, tested in 1995, the early days of DNA testing. Unfortunately, any genetic material remaining on a rope and a drinking straw recovered from the scene where Danny’s body was found was too degraded to be compared to the former priest’s profile.

‘Wherever you went, you had to sleep with him’

This past February, cold case detectives reinterviewed a witness who had come forward in 1991 with accusations of sexual molestation against Lavigne. The witness said the molestation took place on an overnight camping trip with the priest in the summer of 1968.

Danny and his brothers were along on that trip, according to court records.

“On the afternoon preceding their sexual molestation, Danny, as the youngest of the group of boys present, was teased by name calling and mild ridicule,” McNally wrote. “They said that Richard Lavigne was present and joined in the taunting, which frustrated and upset Danny. More than once, they said, Danny threatened Lavigne with the words ‘I’ll tell! I’ll tell!’”

Read the statement of facts in the case below.

Statement of Facts Richard ... by National Content Desk

Danny’s threat had an “obvious effect” on the priest, who began to pay more attention to the younger boy and stopped the others from teasing him. The witness said at one point, as he and Danny were vying for Lavigne’s attention, he pushed Danny to the ground.

“Lavigne reacted violently by slapping me across the face so hard it knocked me down to the floor,” the witness wrote in his statement. “I think the change in Lavigne’s behavior on that summer weekend 25 years ago was a direct result of Danny Croteau threatening to tell. At the time, I thought, ‘I wonder what he has on Lavigne.’”

Another of Lavigne’s alleged victims told police that he’d long ago overheard a conversation related to suspicions regarding Lavigne’s involvement in Danny’s murder. A couple of months later, the boy, angry about his own sexual abuse, asked Lavigne “why he had to kill the kid.”

“That’s when Father Lavigne said it was simply an accident, and he told me to leave it alone,” the witness told police. “That’s when he started to say that things could happen to me, too. I took that as he could kill me just as well.”

A third victim who had come forward in the 1990s was reinterviewed last month. The witness, who had been an altar boy at St. Mary’s Parish, recalled Lavigne offering him a drink of water during a visit to Lavigne’s parents’ home.

Much to Lavigne’s amusement, the priest had not given him water but a martini.

The witness spoke of Lavigne’s temper and said the boys under his tutelage were frightened of the priest.

“They also remembered when Lavigne drove them by the scene of the murder and said something to the effect of ‘that’s where Danny Croteau was murdered,’” the statement of facts reads. “They recalled the police cars still being there when they drove by the scene.”

A ‘strange, interesting kid’

McNally’s statement of facts also delves into statements Lavigne made during the five interviews he granted cold case detectives in his final weeks. In all the interviews, the former priest maintained his innocence of murder.

He did admit that he was the last person to see Danny alive, however, and that he’d brought him to the river the night he died. The audio of his interviews indicates Lavigne claimed he took Danny to the river because the boy wanted to see a waterfall.

Lavigne also admitted to assaulting Danny, saying he didn’t remember hitting the teen but recalled “giving him a good shove.”

“Why did you give him a shove?” McNally asks him in the audio.

“Because he was being … how should I say … well, for the same reason you would probably … but your own son,” Lavigne says.

The former priest later contradicted himself, saying he’d pulled Danny away from the river because he was too close to the water. Danny was “not a very intelligent kid,” Lavigne said, and “did things on his own, reaction, you know, that sort of thing.”

He also admitted that he told no one he’d seen Danny lying face down in the water, the trooper wrote.

“(Lavigne) said that he watched the body from his car and turned around on the road and went home,” according to the statement. “He stated that he was ‘heavy-hearted’ when he got home.”

The former priest described Danny in one interview as a “strange, interesting kid.”

“Not too bright,” Lavigne said. “Always trying to make jokes about things, and if you didn’t answer, he’d increase his voice. You’d turn around and feel like saying, ‘Would you shut up?’”

He said Danny was “kind of dumb but charming in a way.” When asked why he’d never told anyone about seeing the teen’s dead body, Lavigne made a cryptic statement.

“Why tell it?” he said, according to McNally. “There is truth in a lot of things that is never revealed.”

Lavigne did speak about the effect Danny’s death must have had on his former friends, the Croteaus.

“I just think about his mother,” he said. “She must have been a mess of tears afterwards, but the father, I didn’t give a damn about. He was a jackass, and the older brother, too.”

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