Hampden DA: Former priest killed boy, 13, nearly 50 years ago


Staff Writer

Published: 05-24-2021 8:56 PM

SPRINGFIELD — Almost 50 years after police discovered the body of 13-year-old Danny Croteau floating in the Chicopee River, Hampden County’s top prosecutor said his office concluded Croteau’s killer was former Catholic priest Richard Lavigne, a convicted sex offender who died Friday.

District Attorney Anthony Gulluni made the announcement Monday at a press conference. He said his office was preparing to present recently gathered evidence to a judge over the weekend to obtain an arrest warrant for the 80-year-old Lavigne for the murder of Croteau. But, Friday evening, Lavigne died in a Greenfield hospital facility, Gulluni said.

“While formal justice might not have befallen Richard Lavigne here on this earth, we hope to now provide answers and some measure of closure to Danny’s family and to a generation in western Massachusetts and beyond who mourned and wondered for too long,” Gulluni said.

Croteau, an altar boy from Springfield, was found dead in the river in Chicopee Falls in 1972. Somebody had beaten him to death with a blunt object. Since his killing, authorities have acknowledged only one suspect — Lavigne, who in 1992 pleaded guilty to sexually abusing two boys, the Gazette previously reported.

Lavigne avoided jail time in that case, instead receiving 10 years probation. The Diocese of Springfield paid $1.4 million in 1994 to settle 17 sex abuse complaints made against him. It took the diocese another 10 years to defrock Lavigne, during which he continued to receive a stipend.

Lavigne met the Croteau family in 1967, while assigned to St. Catherine of Sienna Parish in Springfield. He was assigned to St. Mary’s Parish in Springfield in 1968, but maintained close relations with the family. The diocese eventually placed Lavigne in St. Joseph’s Parish in Shelburne Falls, where he was pastor when he was arrested in 1991.

At Monday’s press conference, Gulluni played newly recorded audio of interviews Massachusetts State Police Trooper Michael McNally conducted with Lavigne in April and May as he lay in the Greenfield hospital.

Though Lavigne did not admit to killing Croteau, he did make statements suggesting that he was the last one to see the boy alive, that he physically assaulted him after taking him to the riverbank the day before his body was found, that he returned later to see him floating face down in the river, and that he did not alert anybody about Croteau’s condition or whereabouts.

Article continues after...

Yesterday's Most Read Articles

Northampton School Committee takes stand for budget increase during emotional meeting
‘Not over it yet’: At 87, Northampton Holocaust survivor joins with others to share her story
Trial run for Main Street redesign: Easthampton aims for safer, more walkable area
Amherst regional superintendent candidate stresses inclusion, broad expertise
Passing of the baton: After 36 years, Don and Sue Grant turn over reins of popular Tuesday 5K in Northampton
Next 5-story building cleared to rise in downtown Amherst

“I don’t remember hitting him down by the riverbank, but giving him a good shove,” Lavigne said in one of the recordings Gulluni presented. When McNally asked why, he said, “because he was being…” before trailing off.

In another audio recording, he said he saw Croteau’s body floating in the river, recognizing him by the way he was dressed.

“I just remember being heartbroken when I saw his body going down the river, knowing that I was responsible for giving him a good shove,” Lavigne said.

Croteau’s family

Croteau’s brother Joe spoke at the press conference. He said it was bone chilling to “hear the voice of a sociopath like that guy,” and that he was glad his parents were not alive to hear the recordings of Lavigne.

“We’re disappointed that he’s not being brought to justice,” Joe Croteau said. “But just like the district attorney, we believe there’s a higher power. And he will face that higher power now.”

In a statement, Bishop William Byrne of the Springfield Diocese said he was “angered and sickened to hear Lavigne’s unapologetic admissions.” He said it is disheartening that a priest would commit such an evil act and not take responsibility for it — an act contrary to the teachings Catholics believe in.

“It is also another reminder of our past failures as a church and a diocese to protect children and young adults from such terrible predators in our midst,” Byrne said. “Although we have made great strides in improving our child protection efforts, that is little consolation to the victims of Richard Lavigne and the numerous other sexual predator clergy who preyed upon our youth.”

Gulluni explained that Lavigne was close with the Croteau family, and would take Danny and some of his four brothers on outings alone, sometimes inviting them to stay overnight at his parents’ home in Chicopee. Lavigne became an early suspect in Croteau’s killing, Gulluni said, because he lied about the last time he had seen Croteau and was observed by the riverbank the day after Croteau’s body was discovered.

Evidence gathered

A police report from the time reported that Lavigne asked investigators: “If a stone was used and thrown in the river, would blood still be on it?”

Two days after the death, Croteau’s 19-year-old brother Carl answered the family phone and said an anonymous person, whose voice he recognized as Lavigne’s, told him “we’re very sorry what happened to Danny. He saw something behind the Circle he shouldn’t have seen. It was an accident.”

Carl Croteau also noted in a Jan. 27 , 2021, interview that before his murder, his brother would return from being with Lavigne on the weekends and would be sick to his stomach from drinking alcohol.

In a letter given to investigators in 1993, one witness said that Lavigne had sexually abused them during an overnight camping trip in Goshen, according to a statement of facts released by Gulluni’s office. The witness said that the Croteau brothers, including Danny, were present on the trip, and that after growing upset with Lavigne, Danny Croteau at one point threatened Lavigne, saying “I’ll tell...! I’ll tell!.”

Though forensic DNA tests proved inconclusive over the years, in 2004 investigators learned that Lavigne told a diocese employee that he had received a typed, unsigned letter in the mail that purported to be from Croteau’s murderer.

Gulluni said the Springfield Diocese did not notify investigators about the letter. Its existence was only discovered when the diocese was forced to produce emails referencing it because of a grand jury subpoena in a separate criminal investigation into another diocese clergy member.

This March, Gulluni’s office hired a forensic linguistics expert, Robert Leonard, to compare the language used to 10 of Lavigne’s writings. He concluded that Lavigne could not be excluded “as a possible candidate of authorship.” Gulluni said on Monday that he believed Lavigne wrote the letter himself as yet another way to distract investigators.

Leonard presented his conclusions to authorities on Friday, at which point Gulluni said his office prepared to present evidence to a magistrate in Chicopee District Court over the weekend, seeking an arrest warrant for Lavigne. That evening, however, they learned that Lavigne had died. Gulluni declined to say how Lavigne died.

“He was not well for some period of time,” he said. “I don’t know what exactly led up to his death and what caused his death.”

In a statement to reporters, Mitchell Garabedian — a Massachusetts lawyer well-known for representing victims of sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic priests, including Lavigne’s victims — said sexual abuse survivors from across the country have contacted him to express sympathy for the Croteau family.

“Many survivors feel cheated because former Catholic priest Richard R. Lavigne will not spend the rest of his life in jail,” Garabedian said. “The District Attorney’s office should investigate the extent to which the Diocese of Springfield helped former Catholic priest Richard R. Lavigne cover up the murder of Danny Croteau.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.]]>