Murder Probe Pressed against Ex-Priest
Lavigne House Searched Twice

By Kevin Cullen
Boston Globe
May 19, 2004

In what prosecutors say is proof that they are still building a murder case against a defrocked priest, State Police searched the former priest's home twice last month looking for evidence in the 1972 slaying of a Springfield altar boy, court records show.

Television and newspaper accounts last month noted that police on April 8 searched the Chicopee home of Richard R. Lavigne, a convicted child molester and recently defrocked priest, and removed computer equipment, but it was unclear at the time why the searches had occurred. An affidavit filed last week by the State Police detective leading the investigation into the killing of 13-year-old Daniel Croteau was the first confirmation that police searched Lavigne's home twice within two days, and that both searches were part of the murder probe.

Whether there is still an active investigation of Lavigne for Croteau's slaying is at the heart of a legal tug of war pitting people who say Lavigne abused them and want the homicide files made public, and those who want the records to remain sealed -- Lavigne's lawyer and Hampden District Attorney William M. Bennett. The Supreme Judicial Court is weighing the matter, in which The Republican newspaper of Springfield is also a party, pressing for the records' release.

In a May 12 affidavit filed with the SJC, Detective Lieutenant Peter J. Higgins, commander of the State Police unit assigned to Bennett's office, wrote that police first searched Lavigne's home April 6, looking for "specific evidence believed to be related to the murder of Daniel Croteau."

Higgins wrote that "as a result of evidence acquired" in the first search, police returned to Superior Court Judge Constance M. Sweeney, who approved a second search warrant, during which police seized the computer equipment. Sweeney impounded the application for the search warrants, the affidavits listing the reasons police say they needed them, and the document listing what police seized.

But Lavigne's lawyer, Max D. Stern, said the search was prompted by an anonymous letter sent to Lavigne, in which the writer claimed to know that Lavigne had killed the boy. Stern said police learned of the existence of the letter after seizing church records in their investigation of the former bishop of Springfield, Thomas L. Dupre, who stepped down three months ago after two men accused him of raping them when they were minors. Stern said police believed that Lavigne had written the anonymous letter himself, apparently in an effort to confuse investigators. Stern said Lavigne did not write the letter.

Stern said the police actions show that the grand jury that Bennett convened to investigate Dupre has expanded to include the Croteau slaying. "This is a broad grand jury," Stern said. "It's not just about the bishop."

Stern said police agreed to return the computer equipment they took from Lavigne's home, and to destroy any copies of electronic files taken from the computer, which he said shows that nothing the police took during the searches incriminated Lavigne.

"If they found something, they would hold on to it, to maintain the chain of custody," said Stern, who has insisted for years that Lavigne did not kill Croteau. "There's nothing there."

Bennett did not return a telephone call seeking comment, and a spokeswoman said he would not comment on the case.

Carl Croteau said police have not told him about their latest efforts to build a case against the man he believes murdered his son.

"Unfortunately, we're always the last to know," Croteau said of the twists and turns in the case, which is one of the region's most notorious unsolved killings. But Croteau said he was heartened to learn of the two searches, and that they were related to the unsolved slaying of his son.

"The police have got to keep the pressure on" Lavigne, he said.

Stern said that pressure has worsened the 61-year-old former priest's heart condition.

"What's being done to this man is very unfair," said Stern.

Stern said Lavigne had read the letter and concluded that the anonymous writer "was the real killer." Stern would not release a copy of the letter, but characterized its contents as saying, "I know what you did." He said Lavigne sent a copy of the letter to him, "and told someone in the diocese about it."

A diocesan official made a note of the letter, the existence of which was discovered by police after they searched the Springfield diocesan offices in March. Stern said that when police turned up at Lavigne's home April 6, looking for the letter, Lavigne told them he had sent it to his lawyer in Boston. Stern said Higgins and other detectives remained at Lavigne's home until a State Police officer retrieved the letter from Stern.

"Two days later, they arrive with warrant number two and say they want to look at his computer to see if he wrote the letter," said Stern.

If prosecutors could prove that Lavigne had written a letter, purported to be from "the real killer," it could be used as evidence that he was trying to throw police off his trail. Police have already interviewed a Springfield woman who last year told the Globe that Lavigne had awakened her in the middle of the night, shortly after the killing, and insisted that she meet with him and a man who flashed a badge and told her that Lavigne did not kill the boy.

But Stern insisted his client did not write the anonymous letter.

Lawyers trying to unseal the murder case file said they do not believe the affidavit filed by Higgins is enough to block release of the records.

John J. Stobierski, who represents 20 people with claims against Lavigne, said police "are claiming there is an active investigation, but they give zippo details" in the affidavit.


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