MassLive.com/The Republican [Springfield MA]
May 24, 2021
By Stephanie Barry
In a dispassionate voice, defrocked Catholic priest Richard Lavigne told a state trooper about Daniel “Danny” Croteau’s final hours before the boy was found dead in the Chicopee River in 1972.
Lavigne was the last person to see Croteau alive — and had long been the prime suspect in his murder — but managed to evade prosecution up until his death on Friday as investigators closed in.
“What did you do after you saw the body in the water?” Massachusetts State Trooper Michael McNally asked Lavigne, who agreed to 11 hours of interviews from a hospital bed in Greenfield over five days in April and early May.
“I don’t remember what I did. I don’t remember telling anyone,” Lavigne responded slowly.
“Did you tell the police?” McNally pressed.
“I don’t believe I did,” Lavigne said.
“I don’t believe you did either,” the trooper said.
“I just remember being … heartbroken. When I saw his body going under and knowing I was responsible for giving him a good shove, you know?” continued Lavigne, defrocked by the Vatican in late 2003 after being charged with child molestation, and as the local diocese was forced to pay $1.4 million to dozens of abuse victims. Nearly all of them were former altar boys in seven parishes where Lavigne served from the 1960s to the early 1990s.
The disgraced cleric stopped short, however, of a full confession. He admitted to “slapping” Croteau and hitting him with an “object” he later tossed into the river. But, his disclosures — combined with refreshed witness interviews and other evidence — were enough to prompt Hampden District Attorney Anthony Gulluni to prepare to seek an arrest warrant for murder. The district attorney met with his staff at 3 p.m. on May 21 to discuss strategy.
But Lavigne died just hours later, taking any remaining secrets to his grave. Gulluni announced the closure of the nearly 50-year-old cold case at a press conference Monday, which included a sampling of audio clips from Lavigne’s interviews with McNally.
Croteau’s older brother, Joe Croteau, spoke briefly at the press conference.
“To hear the voice of a sociopath like that guy is bone-chilling. I’m glad my parents weren’t here to hear it,” he said of the late Carl and Bernice Croteau. “We believe there’s a higher power, and he will face that higher power.”
Danny Croteau and his brothers were altar boys at St. Catherine of Siena Church in Springfield when they met the charismatic parish priest. Lavigne befriended the family and took a special interest in Danny, the youngest of five boys. He disappeared on April 14, 1972, and his body was discovered floating in the river, still clad in his Catholic school uniform, the next day.
Lavigne, of Chicopee, told McNally that Croteau asked to go down to the river so see a waterfall up close, and the two were fishing. He vaguely said Croteau, 13, did something to annoy him, though he couldn’t recall what it was.
“I’d sooner forget the whole thing, frankly,” he told the trooper.
Adding to the trove of evidence Gulluni’s office compiled against Lavigne was a bizarre letter Lavigne claimed was sent to him anonymously from the true killer. He told a friend he found the letter “suspicious” because it had no return address. Gulluni commissioned a linguistics expert to analyze the language and compare it with a sampling of Lavigne’s “known writings.” The expert concluded Lavigne likely drafted the letter himself.
“I wish to express my sympathy for your deep conflict within. You feel things very deeply,” the letter reads. “Oftentimes you could control these drives but there were times when they were so extreme that they were beyond anyone’s control. As a youth when these base compulsions were driving you to do things you deeply felt were nauseating your only means of countering that compelling drive was to reinforce your belief of the shamefulness of it all. When you matured, you sought salvation in the Church but found it to be a hollow shell.”
It continues: “Then you met a boy along the Chicopee River who felt no shame, who felt no guilt, who was not nauseated but rather reveled in such compulsions. Here you were beyond the brink of control seeking your only solace in the shame of others and instead it was shoved back in your face all the more intensely. What human being would not have been driven over the brink in your position? Your torment must be unbearable.”
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield only shared the letter with authorities when they were subpoenaed in a separate criminal matter in 2004, Gulluni said. The prosecutor said Lavigne continued a decades-long pattern of trying to distract and elude investigators until his death.
“In all the interviews, Lavigne refused to affirmatively admit that he killed Danny Croteau,” Gulluni told reporters. “But Danny Croteau died at the hands of Richard Lavigne.”
Among the highlights of the case against Lavigne included a phone call Carl Croteau Jr. received two days after his younger brother’s death. The anonymous caller had a familiar voice, Croteau Jr. told investigators, and a strange message.
“[W]e’re very sorry what happened to Danny. He saw something behind the Circle he shouldn’t have seen. It was an accident,” the caller said, according to the elder Croteau. He believed the voice was Lavigne’s.
Trooper McNally was assigned to the case as part of Gulluni’s “Unresolved Cases Unit,” which also bore fruit in the case of the 1992 kidnapping, rape and murder of teaching assistant Lisa Ziegert. That case was unsolved until troopers with his office arrested her killer, Gary Schara, in 2018. He pleaded guilty to first-degree murder the following year.
Investigators believe Lavigne killed Croteau because the boy threatened to disclose the sexual abuse he endured by Lavigne. One witness who attended a summer camp in Goshen with Lavigne, Croteau and others recalls that Croteau was getting jeered by the other boys, and to an extent, Lavigne, when Croteau blurted: “I’ll tell! I’ll tell!”
The Most Rev. Bishop William Byrne, relatively new to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield, on Monday issued a statement condemning Lavigne.
“Today’s news that Hampden District Attorney Anthony Gulluni was prepared to charge Richard Lavigne in the murder of Danny Croteau in 1972 brings sad closure to a tragic event which I know has hung over our faith community for decades,” Byrne said, adding that he was “angered and sickened” to hear Lavigne’s statements.
“It is incredibly disheartening to learn that a priest, a person ordained to care for God’s people, would have committed such an evil crime and then not taken responsibility for his actions. This is all totally contrary to the teachings that we as Catholics believe in and hold sacred,” Byrne said.
The diocese has been continually roiled by priest abuse scandals, most recently involving the late Bishop Christopher Weldon.
A Chicopee man said Weldon and two other priests repeatedly raped him beginning when he was nine years old in the 1960s. Retired Hampden Superior Court Judge Peter A. Velis was assigned as a special investigator, and found the man’s allegations to be undeniably credible. The man has since filed a lawsuit against the diocese, its attorney, certain staffers and the former chairman of the Diocesan Review Board that looks into allegations of clergy abuse.
Weldon’s name and likeness has been stripped from sites throughout the diocese and from a rehabilitation center on the grounds of Mercy Medical Center. A towering memorial at the Gate of Heaven Cemetery on Tinkham Road was taken down and Weldon’s remains were exhumed and moved to a less prominent, undisclosed location with a simple headstone, according to diocesan officials.
Byrne also made an overture to other victims of clergy abuse who may have never come forward.
“My message to them is that even if your abuser is deceased, you can still report the abuse you suffered to law enforcement and to the diocese. It is important that you be heard and that we acknowledge your suffering and trauma,” he said.