Court Opens Croteau Murder Files

By Bill Zajac
Springfield [MA] Republican
July 27, 2004

A Springfield altar boy found murdered 32 years ago had a blood alcohol level of more than twice the current legal limit, according to autopsy and lab results released today under a Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling.

Justices of the state's highest court ruled today that the investigative files in the 1972 murder of 13-year-old altar boy Daniel Croteau of Springfield must be opened to the public.

The unanimous decision of the five Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court justices who heard the case concludes a 17-month court battle in which The Republican and a Greenfield lawyer representing more than 46 alleged clergy sexual abuse victims fought Hampden County District Attorney William M. Bennett's office and the murder's only suspect to end a 1996 impoundment order.

Bennett's office released some of the documents to The Republican hours after the ruling. Tests conducted on the dead boy at the time showed his blood alcohol level was .18.

Richard R. Lavigne of Chicopee, a defrocked priest, is the only publicly identified suspect in the killing. Other alleged victims have told The Republican he plied boys with liquor before molesting them.

Lavigne admitted in 1992 to sexually assaulting two boys and was given 10 years probation. He has been accused by more than 30 others of sexually assaulting them.

The Springfield Diocese recently agreed to pay $7 million to settle the claims of more than 40 people who say they were sexually abused by clergy.

The results of blood tests on Lavigne that were disclosed under another legal challenge by The Republican nearly 10 years ago showed he could not be conclusively linked to the crime, but Bennett recently said the case remained open for more sophisticated DNA testing methods.

Larry A. McDermott, publisher of The Republican, said the high court ruling was a victory for the public's right to know.

Bennett said he will work with the court to redact names and addresses from witness statements per order of the ruling.

He wouldn't put a time frame on releasing the rest of the records.

Bennett said the ruling clarifies several issues regarding the disclosure of investigative materials.

"It will provide further guidance for me and other district attorneys in the state regarding future cases," Bennett said.

The newspaper was represented by Jonathan M. Albano, a Boston lawyer.

The Republican's fight to have the files released was in keeping with the newspaper's history of using its resources to shed light on important cases, McDermott said.

"We consider this one of the most vital roles we play in the community,'' said McDermott. "It is unfortunate that some public officials lose sight of the fact that they are there to serve the public, but we're elated that the SJC justices were there to shine a light into this corner of darkness."

The newspaper has been working to unseal records in the Croteau case for nearly a decade.

Over the years the newspaper, which joined Greenfield lawyer John J. Stobierski in arguing before the state's high court to have the files released, has interviewed many of those associated with the case, including investigators. It won the release of more than a hundred pages of documents related to the investigation under the 1996 Appeals Court decision.

The ruling upholds an October 2003 order by Hampden Superior Court Judge Peter A. Velis to open the case files, except for the names and addresses of witnesses. Bennett's office successfully appealed that ruling to a single justice of the Appeals Court, and the newspaper and the lawyer for the alleged victims appealed to the high court.

Wayne E. Phaneuf, executive editor of The Republican, said he was gratified the justices upheld the foresight of Velis.

Supreme Court justices Roderick L. Ireland, who is from Springfield, and John M. Greaney, who lives in Westfield and serves on the court's Judiciary-Media Committee with McDermott, did not participate in the ruling.


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