May 25, 2021
By Travis Andersen
Hampden District Attorney Anthony D. Gulluni on Monday announced he was about to charge former Catholic priest Richard R. Lavigne with the 1972 murder of 13-year-old Danny Croteau in Chicopee when Lavigne died last week at the age of 80.
Croteau, a former altar boy at St. Mary’s in Springfield when Lavigne was assigned there, died from multiple blunt force injuries to his head, records show.
And Lavigne, though he never confessed to killing the boy, told an investigator in the weeks before his death that he gave Croteau “a good shove” by the river and then left, before returning to the scene to find him floating in the water.
Here are key revelations from a 15-page statement of facts prepared by State Police Trooper Michael T. McNally to obtain an arrest warrant charging Lavigne, who died of COVID-19 related complications, with the slaying of Croteau, a Springfield resident whose body was found floating in the Chicopee River on the morning of Saturday, April 15, 1972.
1. Croteau’s funeral
After allegedly killing Croteau, Lavigne, who was later defrocked for sexually abusing other boys, said his victim’s funeral Mass.
“Witnesses reported that Lavigne also presided at Danny’s funeral Mass and cemetery commitment service,” McNally wrote. “Official records indicate that Lavigne was a person of interest for investigators because of the inconsistent and unusual statements he had made to investigators in the days after the murder, and an investigator’s observation of him alone at the river’s bank at approximately 4:30 p.m. on April 16, 1972.”
2. A 1991 tip
One tip came in 1991, when Lavigne was being prosecuted in a separate abuse case.
In October of that year, McNally wrote, a witness came forward and said he and Croteau had been altar boys together. The witness reported that sometimes Lavigne would appear on the street when the boys were playing hockey.
“Without warning, Danny would stop playing, begin crying, tell [them] he had to leave, and run toward where Lavigne was parked, getting into the big four-door car, and leaving alone with Lavigne,” McNally wrote. “They knew that Danny was not going home as the car drove away in the opposite direction.”
3. A 1993 tip
Another witness came forward two years later, according to McNally.
The witness, he wrote, described seeing a black Cadillac driving from the area where Croteau was killed on a weekend night in April of 1972, around 12:30 a.m. or 1 a.m.
The prior witness from 1991 had said Lavigne normally drove one of two cars: a convertible or “a funeral–like car, either dark blue or black” with four doors.
The 1993 witness said they saw the Cadillac leaving the area and described the driver as “a white male, clean-shaven with dark eyes, in his thirties, who was wearing a priest’s white collar,” McNally wrote. “The driver looked at the witness and accelerated quickly out of the area.”
The witness said it wasn’t until after seeing Lavigne’s photo in press reports that “something clicked in [their] mind that the face [they] saw at the underpass looks like Father Lavigne,” McNally wrote. “He had that white priest collar on.”
In addition, the 1993 witness remembered hearing about the murder within days of seeing “the priest coming out of the underpass,” McNally wrote.
4. A third witness and a camping trip
A third witness, McNally wrote, in February of 2021 provided information about a camping trip in the summer of 1968, in which Lavigne had joined a group of boys in taunting Croteau.
The witness, who’d previously provided investigators a written statement in 1993, said that when Croteau was being teased, he threatened to expose Lavigne in some manner.
“More than once, they said, ‘Danny threatened Lavigne with the words ‘I’ll tell…! I’ll tell!’” McNally wrote. “They reported that these words had an obvious effect on Lavigne. They said that Lavigne began to pay more attention to Danny and ‘ordered us to stop the name calling.’”
The witness, who also told authorities they’d been molested by Lavigne, wrote that “I think the change in Lavigne’s behavior on that summer weekend 25 years ago was a direct result of Danny Croteau threatening to tell,” the document said. “At the time I thought ‘I wonder what he has on Lavigne.’”
5. A fourth witness reports an alleged threat by Lavigne
A fourth witness spoke to investigators in February 2021, after previously providing an interview and written statement in 1994, according to McNally.
The witness said Lavigne molested them over a two- to three-year period at St. Mary’s, and the tipster also reported hearing Lavigne discuss the Croteau case once with another parishioner.
“They heard Lavigne deny ‘everything’ to the parishioner, ‘saying in essence taht (sic) he [Lavigne] wondered why he was being accused by the police,’” McNally wrote.
Two months later, the witness told police, they asked Lavigne “why he had to kill the kid,” and Lavigne replied that “it was simply an accident and he told me to leave it alone. That’s when he started to say that things could happen to me to. I took that as he could kill me just as well. He was very forceful about it.”
Lavigne, the witness told authorities, “had threatened me before one time when I told him I wanted to get out of the situation meaning the sexual abuse and I told him I would go to the police. He had told me more or less that if I did that, I would live to regret it. I never told anyone about the abuse at that time. I wanted to but I was afraid.”
6. A fifth witness describes Lavigne’s violent temper
A fifth witness told authorities on April 30, 2021, they had also served as an altar boy at St. Mary’s and been molested by Lavigne.
The witness recounted one instance when Lavigne “smacked” his brother during a car ride after the sibling said something, McNally wrote. The witness had previously talked to investigators in March of 1993.
McNally said the witness told investigators last month, “this man has a temper and you did not want to cross him.” The witness, McNally wrote, also “remembered when Lavigne drove them by the scene of the murder and said something to the effect of ‘that’s where Danny Croteau was murdered.’ They recalled the police cars still being… there when they drove by the scene.”
7. Lavigne’s interviews in the weeks before his death
McNally wrote that Lavigne voluntarily agreed to speak with him on five occasions in April and on May 4 at the Greenfield medical facility where he was a patient.
Lavigne, McNally said, admitted to bringing Croteau to the river on the night of his death.
“Danny wandered off, and after waiting there for twenty to thirty minutes, when Danny did not return, Lavigne said he left him there and went home,” McNally wrote, relaying Lavigne’s account. “He stated that he did not report this to the police, nor did he tell Danny’s parents. Lavigne told this officer that he returned to the river’s bank ‘about an hour later’ and saw Danny floating ‘face down’ in the river. He could not recall why he returned to the river’s bank.”
He also couldn’t say, McNally wrote, whether leaving a child floating face down in the water at night was the worst transgression of his life.
“Lavigne also expressed regret in leaving Danny alone,” McNally said. “He followed that it was hard to say if that was the greatest regret of his life. He said that he was alone when he found Danny floating in the river. He said that he watched the body from his car and turned around on the road and went home. He stated that he was ‘heavy hearted’ when he got home.”
Lavigne also said, “Why tell it?” when asked why he never informed anyone about what he saw at the time.
“He then said that, ‘there is truth in a lot of things that is never revealed,’” McNally wrote. “He also said: ‘I just think about his mother, she must have been a mess of tears, afterwards, but the father, I didn’t give a damn about, he was a jackass, and the older brother too.’”
Material from prior Globe stories was used in this report.