Croteau Papers Chilling, Inconclusive

By Bill Zajac
The Springfield Republican
August 8, 2004

SPRINGFIELD - For investigators probing the 1972 death of 13-year-old altar boy Daniel Croteau, the story told by the Rev. Richard R. Lavigne just didn't add up.

He told investigators he never gave Croteau alcohol, but then a boyhood friend of Croteau's said Lavigne gave the boys wine from the same chalice parishioners drank from at St. Catherine of Siena Church in Springfield.

Lavigne told investigators he was never alone with Croteau. Then he admitted that a week before the boy's body was found April 15 on the banks of the Chicopee River, Croteau had spent the night with the priest at the Chicopee home of Lavigne's parents.

The statements of several boys, now men, who say they were molested by Lavigne were included in a search warrant affidavit filed by State Trooper Thomas Daly after the case was reopened in 1991. It is among 2,035 pages of documents unsealed after a 17-month legal battle waged all the way to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court by The Republican and a Greenfield lawyer who represents clergy abuse plaintiffs.

The papers provide an anatomy of an investigation that pointed police toward a suspect but fell short of the physical evidence needed to prosecute him. When Croteau's bludgeoned body was found less than a mile from St. Mary's rectory, where Lavigne was living at the time, the boy had more than twice the legal level of alcohol in his blood and his stomach was filled with wads of chewing gum.

Signs of a struggle were everywhere: in blood found in the soil, on a piece of rope and on a plastic straw. Croteau's grieving family was baffled as to who could have killed their son. Lavigne, a family friend, identified the body and performed the funeral Mass. He insisted that the family have a closed casket at the wake.

On April 16, 1972, Lieutenant Radwanski observed Father Lavigne alone at the scene of the crime ... On the following day, April 17, 1972, Radwanski interviewed Father Lavigne. In the course of that interview Lavigne asked him, 'If a stone was used and thrown in the river, would the blood still be on it?'

Daly's affidavit portrays a case in which Lavigne quickly drew suspicion from investigators. In 1972 the priest's questions to Chicopee police Lt. Edmund Radwanski immediately raised concern.

The same day Lavigne was sighted at the scene of Croteau's murder, police received a call from a Chicopee woman that the boy had turned up at her door April 7, lost and looking for Father Lavigne. The boy used her phone to make a call, asking for the priest.

The woman recalled that a Ford Mustang picked the boy up. Police learned that Lavigne also owned a Ford Mustang.

While the state's case against Lavigne is documented in Daly's application for a search warrant to obtain Lavigne's blood, Lavigne's lawyers Max D. Stern and Patricia Garin of Boston say the affidavit proves Lavigne is innocent.

Stern and Garin issued a press release Thursday that stated tire tread marks at the murder scene didn't match Lavigne's car or his family's car and blood and DNA tests failed to link Lavigne to the crime scene. They also said Lavigne took a polygraph test in 1972 and passed it and that Lavigne had an alibi that was corroborated by police. Stern and Garin also raised questions about witness statements.

The newly released information contained very little about the 1972 investigation, including only a sketchy 11-page Chicopee Police Department report, the autopsy and some lab tests. It didn't include separate witness statements, just references to them.

Also, noticeably absent was any report from the state's lead investigator, Lt. James Fitzgibbon, who befriended Croteau's parents during the investigation.

Fitzgibbon is dead, along with some of the other 1972 investigators. The released documents also include information The Republican and its predecessor, the Union-News, has reported over the past decade, based on papers released under previous court challenges by the newspaper and interviews with witnesses.

But the statements referenced in Daly's report and elsewhere paint a chilling picture of the priest's relationship with the young Croteau.

We played street hockey a lot. I can remember very clearly that on many occasions, we would be in the middle of a game .... everybody would be having a good time, all of a sudden I would see Danny crying and I would look up to Prouty St, which was about five houses away, and see Father Lavigne parked in the big four-door car.

The statement from Croteau's best friend painted a picture of a manipulative priest and a troubled young boy. Some of the witness statements also presented a picture of a priest with a trigger temper, who once slapped a boy to the floor after the boy had pushed Croteau down during a camping trip in Goshen when the boys were around 10 years old.

On the same trip, Croteau twice told Lavigne, "I'll tell," according to a letter from a man who says he was molested as a boy on the trip. The man said Croteau was upset because the priest joined in when other boys were teasing him.

The newly released documents provide whole new stories of alleged abuse as well as small details of previously reported stories.

For instance, a small wooden box containing a student's dissecting instruments were found on Croteau's body when it was discovered, according to police reports.

The released documents include:

A 28-page, 1993 search warrant affidavit.

Chicopee Police 1972 investigation files.

Numerous witness statements, including Croteau family members and the alleged sexual abuse victims whose complaints led to charges against Lavigne in 1991.

Autopsy results.

Lab test results.

Hundreds of pages of written and oral legal arguments, most of which focused on either the impoundment order or the effort to obtain Lavigne blood samples for DNA testing, are also included.

However, neither former Hampden County District Attorney Matthew Ryan nor his successor and current District Attorney William M. Bennett ever believed they had enough hard evidence against Lavigne to convict him. DNA testing comparing the blood of Lavigne was subject to a lengthy court battle that went to the state's highest court.

Only a small sample of evidence was tested at the time. Recently more extensive tests were done that also didn't link Lavigne to the crime, although Bennett will not say what evidence was tested.

Ryan has told The Republican the fact the suspect was a priest did not make him reluctant to press charges. On Friday, Ryan told The Associated Press that he believes Lavigne was responsible but didn't have enough evidence to prove it.

"I was upset about it," Ryan said. "But I did what I had to do."

The investigation remains active and Bennett still identifies Lavigne as the primary suspect today - 32 years after Croteau's body was discovered.

To investigators in 1972, the priest was a primary suspect. But it would take almost two decades before his name would come up again.

When Lavigne was arrested on molestation charges in 1991 and was told who was making allegations against him, Lavigne told officers in the cruiser, ".... his father is a chauvinist and a biggot."

Ultimately Lavigne would plead guilty to molesting the man's two sons.

A call seeking comment from Bennett's office was not returned. Bennett, who fought with Lavigne to keep the records sealed, was on vacation last week.

There is no mention in the unsealed files of what information the police may have shared with church officials during the investigation. The released materials contain no information about a lie detector test. However, The Republican has previously reported that the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield ordered a lie detector test for Lavigne within weeks of the murder.

A lie detector test administered to Lavigne on May 4, 1972, showed "erratic and inconsistent responses" by Lavigne to a series of questions regarding Croteau's murder, according to previously impounded Franklin Superior Court records that were released two years ago based on another court challenge by the newspaper.

Because "the examiner is unable to render a definite opinion as to the subject's truthfulness in his answers to the above listed questions," another test was ordered by the diocese. The test five days later concluded Lavigne was telling the truth.

Many of the witness statements against Lavigne emerged only after the priest was charged in Franklin County with molesting two boys in 1991. They speak of a serial predator who molested many boys over his career as a priest, which ended just last year when he was defrocked.

"Father Lavigne gave me a bath twice at the rectory. Both times (it) was because we went fishing. Father washed my privates front and back with his hands. He didn't do it the way I wash myself, he was pushing and rubbing hard...".

The statement by a 9-year-old alleged sexual abuse victim of Lavigne echoed others through the years. After Lavigne admitted in 1992 to molesting the two Franklin County boys, he was ordered to serve 10 years probation.

He has been accused by more than 30 others of abusing them but has never been charged.

Despite his initial denials to police that he was never alone with Croteau or others, police found that Lavigne was often alone with boys.

"Whenever Father Lavigne spoke of taking Danny anywhere, he always interjected that it was with his brothers or a gang of kids. Other information reveals Danny and Father Lavigne were often alone," a police report by Fitzgibbon states.

"That night when I went to bed, I couldn't sleep, I was sleeping very lightly because of the back rub. He (Lavigne) first shined a dim pen light on me to see if I was sleeping. Although I appeared to be, I wasn't. He did this two or three more times during a two-hour period. Finally getting too tired to stay up any longer, I went into a light slumber instantly waking up when I felt something rubbing up my leg..."

The statement by another 11-year-old unidentified alleged victim spoke of a pattern police say Lavigne fit: a pedophile who targeted pre-pubescent boys.

Daniel Croteau's parents detailed for police the close relationship between their son and Lavigne, saying Danny often stayed overnight at the rectory.

"There were times we didn't know that Danny was with Father Lavigne until Father would call us and tell us he was with him and wanted to keep him overnight," stated Bernice and Carl Croteau Sr.

Two days after the body was found, a telephone call was made to the Croteau residence at 106 Ferncliff Ave., Springfield. "We're sorry for what happened to Danny. He saw something behind the circle he shouldn't have seen. It was an accident," the caller said to the victim's brother, then 19-year-old Carl Croteau Jr.

In 1972, Carl Croteau Jr. told Chicopee Police that "the voice could have been Lavigne's voice in disguise," according to the affidavit.

In 1993, Croteau stated with certainty that it was Lavigne's voice.

Croteau stated that Lavigne had just presided over Danny's funeral and graveside service when the call came in 1972.

"I really didn't want to believe it. He was a trusted friend, someone you could go to as a counselor and confidant, someone you could talk to," Croteau stated.

"The circle" refers to an area located behind Sixteen Acres Library where a group of neighborhood children hung out. They became known as "the circle gang."

A self-published 1970s book written by American International College professor James A. Coleman detailed the challenges of adolescence through "the circle gang."

"Father Ravine," a character in the book who becomes closely associated with the circle gang, was based upon Lavigne, the author told investigators.

At least one witness statement tied Lavigne to interactions with the circle gang.

Another indicated that Lavigne's strange behavior went back many years.

"I had occasion to know Father Richard Lavigne when he was studying to become a priest.... Dickie Lavigne brought me to his house, I believe it was somewhere in Chicopee... I recall Dickie trying to hypnotize me, he asked me to take my clothes off, ..."

The statement by the unidentified acquaintance of Lavigne was not the earliest alleged incident involving the then-priest. The behavior went back even before Lavigne was studying to be a priest. Included in the impounded documents were papers showing Lavigne was fired from the Chicopee parks and recreation department when he was 17 for being "an undesirable person to be around children."

Daly states Lavigne lost his job because he molested a 6-year-old boy he was supervising at a park. The Republican reported the story a decade ago based on interviews with the alleged victim and others.

Lavigne was revealed as a sexual abuser in the original investigation, according to Croteau family members.

"Lavigne manipulated these boys, developing the relationship slowly and cautiously. He was generous, affectionate and attentive to their needs," the 1993 affidavit states.

"He has been described in statements as "dynamic, exciting, and fun to be around. He seemed unlike other priests in the way he related to us altar boys," the affidavit stated.

"At other times he could become enraged and display a violent temper. Because of this, he was often unpredictable. Many incidents describe how he could be intimidating and threatening," the affidavit states.

Daly wrote many pages on how Lavigne fit the established profile of a pedophile and concluded that "this officer feels there is enough probable cause to believe that Daniel Croteau was being molested by Father Lavigne at the time of his murder."

Police also established Lavigne had familiarity with the crime scene.

About a year before the murder, Joseph Croteau, an older brother of Danny, was taken by Lavigne to the murder scene on what was described as a fishing trip, according to the affidavit.

Six pages of Daly's report was devoted to DNA testing methods and crime scene evidence that Daly wanted tested as he requested a legal order to obtain Lavigne's blood.

After a legal battle that spanned several years to obtain Lavigne's blood, a California laboratory found that it didn't completely match blood found on a drinking straw at the scene. Lavigne's blood and the blood on the straw were both type-B.

It is unclear why blood-stained rope found at the scene was not tested against Lavigne's blood, although Bennett sought to have it tested.

In 1995 when Bennett announced that DNA tests failed to link Lavigne to the scene, Croteau's father said there was not enough blood on the rope to be tested. However, testimony by an assistant district attorney before Hampden County Judge John Moriarty in 1995 stated there was "lots of blood" on the rope.

Bennett announced last month that new, more sophisticated DNA testing methods recently failed to yield any positive results.

Lavigne was defrocked last year, though he had been taken out of ministry in 1992 - the same year he pleaded guilty to the two molestation charges. He was given a suspended sentence and 10 years probation. Two months ago, the diocese stopped paying Lavigne a monthly stipend of $1,030.

Today he is listed on a state registry as a level 3 sex offender, a category established by law enforcement for people most likely to commit their crimes again.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.