|Court Documents Reveal Altar Boy's Ordeal
By Stephanie Barry
February 21, 2008
SPRINGFIELD - About a week before Daniel Croteau's lifeless body was recovered under a bridge in 1972, he returned home listless and nauseous from an overnight visit with his parish priest.
According to a statement his mother gave to police that year, the 13-year-old had left his house, smartly dressed, one night in April.
"He wore his knit shirt, tie, and herringbone jacket with a fur collar. He said that he was going to go someplace with Father Lavigne," the statement by Bernice Croteau, taken on Aug. 7, 1972, reads. "That was the last we heard of him that evening until we received a call from Father (Richard) Lavigne, it was around 11:30 p.m. ... and the father asked me if (Danny) could stay over that night."
The statement was among 115 pages of documents released by the Hampden County district attorney's office this week after a judge ordered the files unsealed. The documents include an overture to investigators from an astrologer, witness statements recounting dream visions and dying wishes, a jailhouse interview with a convicted priest from California, and wrenching accounts of Daniel Croteau's allegedly volatile relationship with Lavigne.
The ruling by Superior Court Judge John A. Agostini that the files be opened came in a civil dispute between the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield and its insurance carriers, which are resisting paying for settlements with victims of clergy abuse - many of whom say that Lavigne molested them.
The paperwork includes haunting images through witness statements spanning the 30 years since Croteau was killed and as law enforcement officials pursued a thus-far fruitless search for the boy's killer.
The only suspect ever publicly identified was Lavigne, a now-defrocked priest, whom family members and friends said had a close and complicated relationship with Danny Croteau.
Lawyers for Lavigne have vehemently denied that their client was involved, even sending out a press release earlier this year entitled: "Richard Lavigne did not murder Daniel Croteau."
The morning after Danny Croteau's overnight stay with Lavigne in April 1972, Bernice "Bunny" Croteau told police, her son returned home, saying he felt ill.
"He didn't say too much ... he just laid around for a while and complained about his stomach ... Towards evening he told me he had vomited several times," the statement reads.
Several witnesses, including one who said he was Danny Croteau's best friend, told police that Lavigne tried to ply them with liquor. He gave a statement in 1991, when Lavigne was under investigation for molesting boys in Franklin County.
"After the Mass, Father Lavigne would always offer us wine in the chalice ... 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," a witness, whose name was redacted from the statement, told police.
Investigators have said that Croteau's alcohol blood level was .21, twice the legal limit, at the time of his death.
The witness also said that he and Croteau were altar boys for Lavigne at St. Catherine of Siena Church in Sixteen Acres.
"I found it strange that the other two priests never watched us change, but Father Lavigne always did," the witness said. "In fact, he helped us by assisting us pull off the robes. ... 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 the church."
He added that he often spied Lavigne watching their street hockey games from a parked car.
"Danny would say, 'I have to go,' and he would run to the car crying with no further explanation. Danny told me that Father Lavigne was his uncle and that's why I never thought any more about it. This would happen alot (sic) and Danny was with Father Lavigne alot (sic)," the statement reads.
Lavigne pleaded guilty in 1992 to two counts of molesting male parishioners. He was sentenced to 10 years' probation; Lavigne was defrocked in 2005 after abuse accusations against him persisted and the diocese paid out millions to settle claims against him and other clerics.
The newly released documents show that many witnesses who claimed they had information about the Croteau killing came forward in the early 1990s. They included a woman whose recollections were memorialized in a spidery, handwritten statement in 1992.
She claims that Croteau appeared at her door in Chicopee one cold and windy night, shortly before he was killed.
"He was very polite and he asked me if he could use the phone to call father in Williamansette (sic). He refused a ride he said father would be right there," said the witness, whose name also was blacked out in the documents. "I didn't hear the conversation. It wasn't long before he hung up then went outside. I turned the lights off then went to work."
In the statement, dated Dec. 1, 1992, the witness said she told police of the encounter 30 years earlier, when she saw Croteau's picture on the news after his body was found.
The teen was found face-down on the banks of the Chicopee River on April 15, 1972. He had been bludgeoned to death.
The records unsealed after Agostini's order show Lavigne told certain people he was a suspect in the case, including a fellow priest who gave a statement to police in 1993.
"He was clearly looking for information about what was being said in Chicopee because we shared neighboring parishes," the unnamed priest said of a flurry of telephone calls from Lavigne in the days following Croteau's funeral. "(Another priest) also told me that he had a lot of communication with Father Lavigne during this whole time and that is what he agreed with me that (Lavigne) could be having a breakdown."
Later in the same statement, the priest said, "(We) were confused as to whether or not Father Lavigne was involved in the murder because Father Lavigne had such conflict with members of the Springfield Police Department but we were both very uncertain, unclear and incapable of believing that any priest would be involved in a murder."
Lawyers for Lavigne have repeatedly maintained that Lavigne passed the second of two lie detector tests administered by police; tire tracks at the scene did not match the tread on the tires of Lavigne's Ford Mustang; DNA evidence found at the scene did not conclusively link Lavigne; and called into question the credibility and timing of certain witness statements.
Indeed, these records show overtures from the public included offers of help from an astrologer and statements from a woman who told police she resurrected images of Lavigne at the murder scene through hypnosis.
One individual told police in 2004 that she had spotted a boy in a yellow raincoat lying beneath the bridge where Croteau's body was found.
"He was laying on his stomach with both arms bent over his head on the side. I could only see a left leg, which was bent. He looked like he was asleep. I saw a priest standing over him," the woman told police of her reported sighting on April 12, 1972. "I remarked to my father that the kid must have fallen asleep and the priest was trying to wake him up. My father commented that if he was tired, the priest should have taken him home. I thought no more of it."
The four-page statement recounts the witness's encounters with the then-bishop, the Most Rev. Christopher J. Weldon, who is now dead, and then-District Attorney Matthew J. Ryan Jr.
She told police that Weldon threatened to excommunicate her father from the church. Ryan said there was no evidence to support her claim, according to her statement, and told her that he could arrest her for filing a false report if she pursued her claims.
The statement says it was her father's dying wish that she remain quiet on what she has reported seeing. The final paragraph reads:
"That's it. I'll have to live with the guilt that I didn't come forward sooner, but I was honoring a promise to my father."
Hampden District Attorney William M. Bennett, who fought the release of these files and others related to the Croteau case, was unavailable to discuss the documents today. However, a spokeswoman for him said he would answer questions during a press conference tomorrow.
Before the insurance companies sought the release of these records, The Republican fought a year-long court battle to open 2,000 pages of files related to the Croteau case.
Bernice Croteau's statement to Chicopee police also details conversations she and her husband had with Lavigne on the night her son disappeared.
"At about 10:30 p.m. I spoke to Father Lavigne on the telephone. I don't remember if I called him or if he had called me. I told him that (Danny) hadn't arrived home, and asked if he had heard or had seen him and he said that he didn't see him," she told police on Aug. 7, 1972.
She also went to the home of her son's scoutmaster to see if Danny was there, she said.
"I went home and when I arrived home, my husband told me that he received a call from Father Lavigne, that Father Lavigne asked if (Danny) had been found yet, and when my husband answered no, there was silence at the other end of the line."
Croteau's body was recovered the next morning, with a bloody stone, the apparent murder weapon, lying a few feet away.
Greenfield lawyer John J. Stobierski, who represents clergy abuse victims as well as Bernice and Carl E. Croteau, Danny's parents, said the documents raise new questions about the altar boy's death.
"There is a significant amount of circumstantial evidence in these statements, though I have yet to see a smoking gun," Stobierski said. "I'm sure the question for the district attorney is: is there enough circumstantial evidence to gain a conviction."
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