Questions Riddle Croteau Case

By Bill Zajac
[Springfield MA] Republican
August 15, 2004

The case had plenty of physical evidence.

A bloodstained jacket with a ripped pocket and missing a large piece of material. There is other clothing - either bloodstained or soiled, or both.

Tire imprints. A piece of newspaper. Blood-splattered rocks.

There was also a plastic straw and some cotton rope, which decades later would become the subject of a multi-year legal battle as law enforcement authorities tried unsuccessfully to tie a local Catholic priest to the 1972 unsolved murder of 13-year-old Springfield altar boy Daniel Croteau.

A closer look at the investigation and the case prosecutors were developing against primary suspect Richard R. Lavigne was made possible two weeks ago when previously impounded documents were released by order of the state's highest court, which upheld Hampden Superior Court Judge Peter A. Velis' decision to terminate the 1996 impoundment order.

Although the 2,035 pages of material answered some questions about the case, it also raised many more in the investigation and the relevance of evidence from the crime scene, according to R.C. Stevens, a former state police officer whom The Republican has hired to review the formerly impounded materials and make some inquiries into the slaying.

More light

"Our hope is that this combination of skilled news reporters and trained criminal investigators will shed more light on an unsolved murder that has haunted the community for many years," said The Republican Publisher Larry A. McDermott this week.

"I want to look at this case from the point of view of not what is possible, but what is probable. Everything is possible, but only some things are probable," Stevens said.

For one thing, Stevens said, it is not clear from the previously impounded materials that the case was completely re-investigated when Hampden County District Attorney William M. Bennett reopened the investigation in 1991 after Lavigne's arrest on child molestation charges.

"It is interesting that they spent the time and man hours on motions for the blood draw. Where was the time and money spent in re-investigating this case?" said Stevens, admitting that he does not know the answer.

The Republican learned last week that the recently released information represents only a fraction of investigatory documents that Bennett's office possesses on the case.

Lavigne's statement to Chicopee police, polygraph results, photographs, and a diagram of the murder scene and a more detailed version of the 1972 Chicopee Police Department investigation are among items listed in a 19-page inventory of documents that Bennett's office submitted this year to court in a proceeding related to clergy sexual abuse suits. Bennett's office claims a variety of privileges in keeping the documents unavailable to the public.

Because these documents were never entered into court proceedings in the state's effort to obtain blood from Lavigne in the 1990s and possibly solve the murder, they were not subject to release when the impoundment order was terminated.

Seeking records

However, Greenfield lawyer John J. Stobierski said he will be seeking these records when he begins litigating a clergy sexual abuse case on behalf of his one client, Francis Babeu, who opted out of the recently mediated $7.5 million settlement with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield.

"What we have seen is just the tip of the iceberg," Stobierski said.

Babeu accuses Lavigne of abusing him when he was a minor and Lavigne was his parish priest. Lavigne, who was taken out of ministry in 1991 and defrocked last year, lives in Chicopee.

Hundreds of pages of the released documents were legal briefs and oral arguments from Judge John Moriarty's chamber as the state attempted to obtain Lavigne's blood and conduct DNA tests on evidence in an effort to place Lavigne at the scene of the crime.

Bennett wanted DNA tests performed on blood found on a piece of rope and drinking straw that were at the crime scene. They were the only pieces of evidence that contained Type B blood - the same type as Lavigne.

Only nine percent of Caucasians have that blood type. The victim had Type O blood.

After legally fighting for months not to give his blood and later to prevent it from being tested, Lavigne entered into an agreement with Bennett's office in 1994 and set conditions under which his blood sample could be used for DNA tests.

After the blood on the straw was tested and it neither cleared nor excluded Lavigne as a suspect, Bennett argued that tests were needed on the rope. Lavigne's lawyers, Max Stern and Patricia Garin of Boston, called foul, saying there was an agreement that would prohibit tests on the rope.

Probable cause

"If it were not for that agreement, there is no question of course you would have a right to test the rope; and then you would have to go to an evidentiary hearing on probable cause in order to get Father Lavigne's blood," Moriarty told Assistant District Attorney Elizabeth Dunphy Farris in chambers.

It was also revealed that the tests on the straw may have exhausted the blood on it, possibly preventing further DNA tests on it. From released documents, it remains unclear whether the rope was ever tested.

In 1995, Bennett announced that the re-investigation would no longer be active, but, like all unsolved homicides, would remain open.

In March 2003, after another wave of alleged Lavigne sexual abuse victims came forward, Bennett announced that the Croteau murder case was being activated and that evidence would be tested using new sophisticated DNA testing methods that could yield results from as little as one skin cell.

Bennett's inventory of documents reveals that evidence in the case is still being tested. A variety of 2002 and 2003 correspondences between Bennett's office and the state's crime laboratory are listed in the inventory.

One line in the inventory states, "Correspondence from Patricia Garin to D.A. Bennett - represent Lavigne re. DNA testing - April 10, 2003 (and fax of same)."

Last month, Bennett said recently completed DNA tests have failed to link Lavigne to the crime scene, but he refused comment when asked what evidence was submitted for tests, whether further testing would be done or if there are any new leads in the investigation.

While Bennett's office has worked for years trying to tie Lavigne to the crime scene through DNA tests, the recently released previously impounded material includes one reference to someone possibly being at the crime scene when Croteau was murdered and seeing Lavigne there.


Croteau is believed to have been murdered on the banks of the Chicopee River in Chicopee. His body was discovered on April 15, 1972, floating face-down in the river under the Robinson Bridge, where Interstate 291 spans the river.

Lavigne was living in the rectory of St. Mary's Parish in Springfield, a mile or so from the scene, at the time of the murder.

"In the last week of September 1993, Trooper Thomas Daly received information from a witness who has claimed he was at the crime scene on the night of the victim's murder at the time a car left at a high rate of speed," Bennett wrote in a court brief.

Daly is the Massachusetts State Police officer who wrote the 28-page affidavit that the state used to gain court permission to obtain Lavigne's blood. The documents, parts of which were impounded until two weeks ago, laid out the state's case against Lavigne.

The witness "described the car which left the scene, its driver (the petitioner) and the sounds of what was thought to be an 'animal' moaning," Bennett wrote in the brief.

Lavigne is listed as the petitioner in all the court-released documents.

For private investigator Stevens, the one reference to a murder scene witness "really jumps out at you."

But, like other things revealed in the released documents, the witness statement raises questions, according to Stevens.

He said the one reference leaves one guessing who the witness is, what he was doing there and what else he may have seen.

Raised suspicions

Lavigne first raised police suspicions when he was observed at the crime scene the day after the body was discovered.

Also, after studying the previously impounded documents, Stevens wonders what the physical condition of the evidence is 32 years after it was taken from the scene.

"How well has it been preserved? Can it stand up to lab tests today?" Stevens asks.

The case suffers today from the far less sophisticated investigatory techniques and tools that were used in the original investigation, according to Stevens.

"You didn't have a state police technician coming out to the murder scene, as you would today. There was no evidence van, no forensic people on the scene," said Stevens.

Although Croteau's cause of death was listed as "multiple blunt injuries to the head," Stevens said the autopsy does not address many aspects of what happened to the victim.

"There were severe injuries to Daniel's larynx and throat. But it was like a subparagraph in the report," Stevens said.

"I'm not a pathologist, but I wonder whether there was manual strangulation to begin with ... Someone with a good hold on you, and you will pass out in 10 seconds," Stevens said.

"If you have nothing else, then you re-enact the crime scene to see what else may have occurred. Is the discoloration mentioned in the autopsy from lividity? Are any wounds post mortem?" said Stevens.

Something else

"The petechial hemorrhages about the right eye might mean something else is going on," said Stevens.

Visiting the crime scene last week, Stevens wondered whether the stone work of the bridge abutments close to where the body was found could have been used to cause the blunt-force trauma to Croteau's head.

"Or was it one of the stones that was gathered as evidence. I don't see anything in the materials regarding these things," Stevens said.

"What kind of force would it take to cause the wound over his eye or to break his jawbone?" Stevens said.

"I want to know where the attack is coming from. The way I see it, the attack is coming from the right because of the injuries on his right side - eyebrow, cheek, jaw," Stevens said.

Stevens questioned the exact location of the pool of blood from the crime scene.

"It was quite significant in size - 12 feet by 6 feet. But where exactly was it in proximity to where the body was found?" Stevens said.

Stevens, who worked in the behavioral science unit of the state police, believes that a clinical bio-psych-social report on Croteau based upon family and friends' accounts might help investigators establish some of Croteau's behavior patterns.

Stevens saw no evidence of 1972 witnesses being re-interviewed when the case was reopened in 1991.

"They may have, I just don't know," said Stevens, thumbing through stacks of the released documents.

How much alcohol

Stevens said he would like to know how much alcohol Daniel drank on the night of his murder.

"What would it have taken to bring him to a .18-percent blood alcohol level, given his weight and age?" Stevens said.

The autopsy revealed his alcohol level was more than twice the current legal level for drunken driving.

Stevens said it is unclear from the released materials how far investigators tried to match the tire treads from the crime scene with possible suspects' vehicles.

In the 11-page 1972 Chicopee police report on the murder, state troopers compared tire treads found at the scene with at least 10 vehicles at Croteau's funeral service at St. Catherine of Siena. The license plate numbers of the vehicles are listed in the report.

"I'd like to know what vehicles Lavigne had access to. Today it would be easy to match tire treads with manufacturers. What vehicles were ruled out as possible matches? Which ones were not ruled out? I don't see anything about that," Stevens said.

Bennett's inventory revealed that his office possesses a Federal Bureau of Investigation laboratory report on the tire treads.

Stevens wondered how other suspects, not identified in the released material, were eliminated as suspects in 1972.

"I'm not convinced it was Lavigne. Let's say it isn't. What else was going on here?" Stevens said.

No mention

Stevens wondered why there is no mention of investigators' daily administrative journals.

"These tell us the comings and goings of the office," Stevens said.

Stevens said it is difficult to superimpose today's cultural attitudes onto the 1972 investigation. "There was a lot of morality going on here," said Stevens, referring to the fact that child sexual abuse and homosexuality were key factors in the investigation.

Daly's affidavit states that Croteau was likely a sexual abuse victim of Lavigne and the two had an extremely close relationship of at least six years, often spending Friday and Saturday nights together. The two met when Lavigne was assigned to St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Springfield and Croteau served as an altar boy there.

More than a dozen witnesses told Daly they were abused as minors by Lavigne.

"Homosexuality was considered a mental disorder at the time according to DSM-1 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders). It was very taboo. The homosexuality part of this may have spooked an awful lot of people here," said Stevens.

He said these taboos would have prevented many people from coming forward.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.