Springfield, MA: State Releases More Than 2,000 Pages from Altar Boy Murder Investigation

By Trudy Tynan
Associated Press, carried in The Herald News
August 4, 2004

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (AP) -- Danny Croteau and his friends thought the parish priest was "cool." He drove a convertible and let them thumb through at the Playboy magazines he kept under the driver's seat. And he always made sure there was enough leftover Communion wine for them to share.

But Croteau's friends also told police investigating Danny's murder that the priest had his dark side and could become violent when crossed.

Their statements were among more than 2,000 pages of investigative and court records released Wednesday in the unsolved 1972 murder of the 13-year-old altar boy.

The state's highest court last week ordered the records made public, saying that after more than 30 years there was no longer a good reason to keep the documents under seal.

Defrocked pedophile priest Richard Lavigne, who pleaded guilty to molesting two other altar boys in 1992, remains the only publicly identified suspect in the case.

Among the 2,035 pages released by the Superior Court clerk's office was a 1993 search warrant authorizing a blood test of Lavigne to compare his DNA with blood found along the river bank where Danny's body was found. Several investigators' reports and summaries of witness statements were also released, although the names of many of the witnesses were removed from the documents.

Danny Croteau's parents, Carl and Bernice Croteau, hope the release will result in new leads or prompt someone to come forward. They had not yet seen the released documents as of Wednesday night but were aware of the contents.

"It's frustrating, it's difficult, but we realize in order to get this thing moving we've got to have the publicity, too. We can't let it lie in a back room somewhere and expect it to generate an active investigation," Carl Croteau said. "The more actively it's put out there, the better chances of this being solved, no question about it."

Most of the information had leaked out over the years as the unsolved murder continued to grab headlines. But some details were new, including the revelation that police had checked the tires on Lavigne's car against tire tracks at the murder scene and found they did not match.

In a statement included with the police affidavit for the search warrant for Lavigne's blood, Stephen Burnett, a former parochial school classmate of the slain seventh-grader, said he had been Danny's best friend and had served Mass for Lavigne with Danny for about a year until his family moved away.

When they served funeral masses, Lavigne would take them out of school and afterward, Burnett said, "Danny and I would share one chalice of wine."

"We thought Father Lavigne was a cool guy. He didn't act like a priest. He acted like a playboy, very carefree and never serious outside of church," Burnett told police. "We would cruise with him in a car which was a convertible ... I do remember that there were Playboy magazines in the convertible, under the driver's seat. Father Lavigne gave them to us to look at and in fact encouraged it."

Yet, Burnett said there were also many occasions when the youngsters were in the middle of a happy game of street hockey and "all of a sudden I would see Danny crying." And then, he recalled, he would look up the street to see Lavigne waiting for Danny in a car parked a discreet distance away.

A call to Lavigne's attorney, Max Stern, was not immediately returned late Wednesday afternoon. Lavigne, of Chicopee, has steadfastly maintained his innocence in Croteau's death.

Following last week's ruling by the Supreme Judicial Court, the district attorney's office released an autopsy report showing Croteau had a blood alcohol level of .18 - more than twice the legal limit for driving - when he died from a blow to the head on April 15, 1972. His body was found on the bank of the Chicopee River.

However, the autopsy report listed no physical evidence of sexual abuse.

Documents in the case were impounded in 1996 after DNA tests, sought by Bennett after Lavigne pleaded guilty to child molestation, failed to conclusively link Lavigne to the crime. Bennett reopened the case last year to pursue more sophisticated DNA testing, but revealed last week that no tests had connected Lavigne to the crime scene.

Lavigne was not publicly identified as a suspect until the 1990s. But the former priest, who came to the morgue with Danny's father to identify his body, had become an early suspect in Danny's killing, according to the released documents.

Danny's brother, Carl Croteau Jr., told police he believed he recognized Lavigne's voice in an anonymous call made to the family's home two days after the body was discovered. The caller said "We're very sorry what happened to Danny. He saw something ... he shouldn't have seen. It was an accident."

Shortly after the killing Lavigne asked investigators "If a stone was used and thrown in the river, would the blood still be on it? In such a popular hangout with so many cars and footprints, how can the prints you have be of any help?"

Still, investigators said they failed to find enough to charge Lavigne.

The Republican newspaper in Springfield and John Stobierski, an attorney 24 people who said they were molested by Lavigne, had sued for the release of the documents.

Hampden District Attorney William Bennett argued against the release, saying the case was still an active investigation.

Lavigne, who was defrocked by the Vatican in November, served 10 years probation in the 1992 case.


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