Croteau: 'I'll Tell!'

By Bill Zajac
The Republican [Springfield MA]
August 5, 2004

When police reopened the investigation into the 1972 unsolved murder of Springfield altar boy Daniel Croteau, witness after witness pointed them toward one suspect: parish priest Richard R. Lavigne.

Lavigne, a convicted child molester who was defrocked last year as a Roman Catholic priest, was described as a sexually abusive, devious man prone to fits of violence in witness statements unsealed for the first time yesterday under a Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling. But Lavigne's lawyer said the documents also show police had other suspects and found no link between his client and the crime scene, including from tire tracks and blood.

Among the witness statements was one that gave a chilling account of a possible motive for the crime.

Four or five years before his 1972 murder, Croteau threatened to expose Lavigne as his sexual abuser, repeatedly saying to him, "I'll tell ... ! I'll tell ... !," according to a letter contained in the files.

Croteau made the threat when Lavigne joined some other children in name-calling and taunting of Croteau during a camping trip to Goshen in 1967 or 1968, according to the letter.

Croteau's threats "had an obvious effect on Lavigne. He began to pay more attention to Danny and ordered us to stop the name calling," the letter stated.

Lavigne later slapped the letter-writer across the face, knocking him to the floor, after the boy pushed Croteau when the two boys were vying for Lavigne's attention.

"At the time I thought, 'I wonder what he has on Lavigne.' That night I was molested by Lavigne and then I figured Lavigne must have molested Danny too," the letter stated.

The letter writer asks: "If Danny Croteau had begun threatening Lavigne with exposure as early as 1967 or 1968, who knows how serious these threats became by the time he was murdered in 1972?"

The letter writer's name was purged to protect the person's anonymity per order of the court decision that ended the 1996 impoundment order.

However, in 1993, at a gathering of men who were suing the diocese saying they were abused as minors by Lavigne, Michael A. McMahon stated in a letter that he was struck in the face and knocked to the floor by Lavigne on a camping trip to Goshen. McMahon is a nephew of former Hampden County District Attorney Matthew J. Ryan, whose office originally investigated the Croteau murder.

The redacted letter, dated May 3, 1993, was among the 2,035 pages of documents released yesterday by the Hampden County Clerk of Courts after the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled last week that the files must be opened.

The letter was sent to State Trooper Thomas J. Daly, whose 28-page application for a search warrant to obtain a sample of Lavigne's blood was also among the documents. Daly's application lays out how law enforcement came to the conclusion that Lavigne was the prime suspect in the murder. Lavigne is the only person ever identified publicly as a suspect.

Lavigne's lawyer Max Stern of Boston yesterday repeated previous statements that the documents show a weak case against his client.

"Look at the documents and you will see there were other suspects, and as far as we can tell, they were never investigated," Stern said.

The names of others questioned in the case were redacted from the court papers.

He pointed to DNA tests, tire tracks and lie detector tests as evidence that failed to tie his client with the murder.

The documents also include some information previously reported by The Republican, including that Lavigne was observed at the crime scene after the 13-year-old boy's body was found bludgeoned to death on the banks of the Chicopee River April 15, 1972.

Lavigne's comments at the scene immediately drew police suspicions.

"If a stone was used (to kill Croteau) and thrown in the river, would the blood still be on it?" Lavigne asked one of the investigators at the scene.

He also asked, "In such a popular hangout, with so many cars and footprints, how can the prints you have be of any help?"

Lavigne fought the release of the files along with Hampden County District Attorney William M. Bennett. The Republican and Greenfield lawyer John Stobierski, who represents more than 40 clergy sexual abuse plaintiffs, appealed the case to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

The Republican reported on Lavigne's questions at the crime scene in 1996 after waging a battle for release of the documents to the state Appeals Court, which released some documents then but kept the majority sealed.

Daly's application states that Lavigne at first told investigators that others were always present when Croteau and Lavigne spent time together. Subsequent findings contradicted that.

Statements also indicated that Lavigne often gave Croteau and others alcohol.

Autopsy and lab test results released by Bennett last week showed the boy had more than two times the current legal limit for alcohol in his blood when his body was discovered and that no sign of trauma consistent with a sexual assault was found.

Witness statements referred to in Daly's application provide a pattern that "reflects Lavigne's lifelong attraction to prepubescent boys."

He was mostly involved with altar boys under his supervision, the document states.

"Lavigne manipulated these boys, developing the relationship slowly and cautiously. ... at times, he was warm and inviting, but other times he could become enraged and display a violent temper," the application states.

In one statement, a 9-year-old boy describes being in the kitchen where Lavigne was cutting carrots for soup.

"Fr. Lavigne turned to me and said, 'If you tell anybody,' and he had the knife in his hand and he started waving the knife at me, and then he said, 'I'm going to hurt you."

One witness told of a trip with Lavigne to Arizona where Lavigne repeatedly tried to fondle him and allowed him to drive his car although he was underage.

On another occasion, "When Father Lavigne was returning with me to the rectory, he discovered that Father (Robert) Thrasher was there. He forced me to get on his back and ride piggyback upstairs so that Father Thrasher would not hear two sets of footsteps," the witness stated.

Thrasher, in a statement to investigators, stated that he occasionally witnessed altar boys sleeping over with Lavigne.

"Fr. Thrasher wanted to add that in his opinion, the allegations are contrary to Fr. Lavigne's character and that it is inconceivable Fr. Lavigne is involved in something like this (sexual abuse)," the statement read.

When the witness who traveled with Lavigne to Arizona graduated from high school, Lavigne sent him a card that stated, "I thought you would like to know that David Hanham (a boy whose name Father Lavigne had mentioned in the past during our conversations of being troubled) committed suicide," the statement read.

The witness stated the suicide was mentioned "to warn me not to reveal anything," according to the statement.

The files are being released as a result of a 17-month legal battle that ended last week when the state's highest court upheld Hampden Superior Court Judge Peter A. Velis' decision to end the impoundment order.

Lavigne was banned from serving as a priest after he pleaded guilty in 1992 to molesting two boys and was ordered to serve 10 years' probation.

A day after the state's highest court ruled that the state can post information on the Internet about the most dangerous convicted sex offenders, Lavigne, a Level 3 offender, was listed yesterday on the site. It states he lives and works in Chicopee.


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