MassLive.com/The Republican [Springfield MA]
June 20, 2021
By Stephanie Barry
[Photo above: Retired judge Peter A. Velis speaks at a 2020 press conference about his investigation into sexual abuse allegations against former Springfield Bishop Christopher J. Weldon. (Hoang ‘Leon’ Nguyen / The Republican file photo)]
Soon after Hampden Superior Court Judge Peter A. Velis made a pivotal ruling in 2004 to unseal records in the investigation of the 1972 murder of altar boy Daniel “Danny” Croteau, a man he had never met hugged him in the parking garage of the courthouse.
The man had tears in his eyes. Velis quickly learned he was Croteau’s father.
“It was so overwhelming, being such a heartfelt gesture. To this day I have never forgotten it,” Velis said during a recent interview.
Carl E. Croteau, a Housing Court worker, died six years later, followed by his wife, Bernice “Bunny” Croteau, in 2016. Despite the efforts of teams of investigators over the years, they passed away before their son’s killer was truly revealed. The investigation was stunning in its complexity, though there was really only ever one suspect: defrocked Catholic priest and convicted child molester Richard R. Lavigne.
When Velis made the decision to unseal reams of investigative documents related to the case — recently closed after Lavigne offered what fell just short of a deathbed confession — the retired jurist said he actually said a silent “amen” to himself.
“I agonized, but not for long. I said something is wrong here and I owe it to my oath to address it. And I did, and I said hopefully something will break because of this,” the judge said. “This was a tragedy of the highest order.”
But nothing broke. Not just then. Seventeen years later, Lavigne, the prime suspect since Croteau’s body was found floating in the Chicopee River, disclosed to a state trooper that he brought Croteau to the water’s edge and struck him with “an object.”
Lavigne, 80, offered the information for the first time from a hospital bed in Greenfield, adding that he left and returned later to see Croteau facedown in the water but told no one and made no attempt to rescue the 13-year-old boy he was suspected of sexually abusing. Croteau had been bludgeoned in the head before drowning, a medical examiner found. Lavigne also told the trooper he “gave him a good shove.”
Lavigne died of COVID-19, one day before Hampden District Attorney Anthony D. Gulluni intended to seek an arrest warrant for the disgraced priest. Lavigne was laicized after being convicted of child molestation, and was the subject of scores of lawsuits over sexual abuse of his former altar boys. While Gulluni couldn’t charge him, he closed the case, achieving a goal three prosecutors before him could not.
“We decided it was the time to try to get him to talk, given his health, given his age…. It was the time to take that shot — and frankly that shot paid off,” Gulluni said.
Croteau was killed while the late District Attorney Matthew J. Ryan Jr. was in office. In a disturbing coincidence, Lavigne had sexually abused two of Ryan’s nephews. But rumors stilled swirled that Ryan didn’t try hard enough to investigate Lavigne even though the parish priest took almost clumsy steps that made police take a hard look at him early. Those included asking questions about preserving evidence and making an “anonymous” phone call to the Croteaus lamenting the boy’s death.
Ryan’s, his successor, William M. Bennett, district attorney for two decades beginning in 1990, said Ryan pursued the case as zealously as the investigators who followed him.
“Everybody who worked that case back to 1972 was frustrated because we all suspected (Lavigne) but couldn’t physically tie him to the crime,” Bennett said. “That was always the key: can we get some physical evidence?”
DNA evidence didn’t start featuring in criminal cases until the 1980s, and even then it was considered a “miracle of science” rarely used. DNA analysis only became the standard in criminal investigations in the 1990s. But even those scientific advances didn’t help investigators in Croteau’s murder.
Bennett successfully battled with the Supreme Judicial Court and Lavigne’s attorney to retain a blood sample provided by Lavigne. While there was a bloody rock and a straw found at the crime scene, Bennett’s team was unable to recover a DNA profile from the items.
“That was unproductive. The hope was somebody would come forward, somebody would have additional evidence, something new would pop up. Or new scientific techniques would come along,” Bennett said.
Like Velis, Bennett felt like it was a loose end when he left office. He lauded Gulluni’s investigation as well as state trooper Michael McNally, who spent 11 hours over several days gaining Lavigne’s confidence and encouraging him to open up about Croteau’s death. Even as he faced death, the ex-priest was almost cavalier about the boy, labeling him “kind of dumb … but charming, in a way.”
Mark G. Mastroianni, now a federal judge, succeeded Bennett in 2010. His administration spent a full year establishing a database of cold cases and a DNA unit. What initially struck him was how many unsolved murder cases there were in Hampden County, he said.
Mastroianni had some success with cold cases, but, there didn’t seem an opening in the Croteau investigation while he was in office.
“You have to make what are sometimes really hard decisions when it comes to these cold cases. I remember looking at Croteau and every other case. You look at where it was left, and I remember it being obvious that Bill Bennett had done a lot of work on it,” Mastroianni said.
Solving cold cases can often be a hybrid of allocating resources, hard work, ingenuity and timing, he added.
“Keeping the focus, attention and manpower trained on a case that’s not on the top of people’s desks anymore can be a real challenge. And timing is everything. When you see an opportunity and couple that with your investigatory resources, that’s key,” Mastroianni said.
While he planned to stay in office for a few terms, the federal judgeship came up and he left the countywide office in 2014. He was out of time.
Gulluni succeeded Mastroianni and picked up the cold case mantle. He officially reopened the Croteau investigation with his sights trained on Lavigne two years ago. He reviewed the work of his predecessors, built on anything of value, assessed where there may be some investigative holes and forged his own path.
Aside from taking another run at Lavigne, Gulluni also plucked a strange letter Lavigne presented as being anonymously sent to him by “the real killer” and sent it to a forensic linguistic analyst. That expert concluded the letter was likely written by Lavigne.
“As we realized we had more and more evidence, those were really exhilarating moments. You put in this work, and you have a goal so when you get close to that goal it’s very exciting,” Gulluni said. “But ultimately you’re doing this for family, and for justice and for the victim.”