SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (WWLP) – Hampden District Attorney Anthony Gulluni announced Monday that the investigation into the 1972 murder of a 13-year-old altar boy has been closed.

Gulluni held a news conference Monday alongside members of the family of Danny Croteau. He announced that former priest Richard Lavigne, a suspect in the murder, had died Friday in Greenfield. Lavigne, the family’s parish priest, was the only person to ever be publicly named as a suspect in the case, though he was never charged with Croteau’s killing.

According to Hampden District Attorney’s Office spokesman Jim Leydon, on Friday, the Massachusetts State Police Detective Unit assigned to the Hampden District Attorney’s Office was authorized by Gulluni to present the case against Richard Lavigne to a magistrate in order to obtain an arrest warrant for the murder of Danny Croteau. However, Lavigne died that night in a hospital facility in Greenfield.

According to the statement of facts sent to 22News from the Hampden DA’s Office, On April 15, 1972, Croteau’s body was found in the Chicopee River still dressed in his clothes from his previous school day at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart School. According to an autopsy report filed in the case, Danny’s cause of death was ruled to be “as the result of multiple blunt injuries of the head with fractures of the skull and lacerations of the brain.”

Lavigne met the Croteau family in 1967, while he was assigned to the Croteaus’ parish, Saint Catherine of Sienna in Springfield. Croteau and his four brothers had served as altar boys at Saint Catherine’s and assisted Lavigne at Mass. The statement of facts state’s that Lavigne also socialized with the Croteau family and frequently took some of the Croteau boys including Danny on outings without their parents. 

Lavigne also maintained contact with Danny and his family after he was reassigned to St. Mary’s Parish in late June 1968. Lavigne continued to take the Croteau boys on trips and also invited the boys, either together or alone, to stay overnight at his parents’ home in Chicopee.

After Danny’s murder, Lavigne became a person of interest in the early stages of the investigation because of the inconsistent and unusual statements he had made to investigators days after the murder.

The statement of facts said that investigators also determined that Lavigne initially lied about the last time he had seen Croteau and witnesses disputed Lavigne’s claim that he was never alone with Croteau. Lavigne was reported to have been with Danny one week before during the evening hours of Friday, April 7, 1972, when a witness reported that Lavigne picked up Danny from a home on Granby Road in Chicopee. Lavigne was also seen alone at the river’s bank at approximately 4:30 p.m. on April 16, 1972, the day after Croteau’s murder.

Video: Joe Croteau thanks everyone for the efforts to bring this case to a conclusion

Timeline: Danny Croteau murder case

Danny Croteau
Danny Croteau (Hampden DA)

On April 17, 1972, a police report of Lavigne’s interview with investigators noted a question asked by Lavigne saying “If a stone was used and thrown in the river, would blood still be on it?”

According to Leydon, on that same day, Carl Croteau, Jr., then 19 years old, answered a phone call made to the family’s home where a man said “we’re very sorry what happened to Danny. He saw something behind the Circle he shouldn’t have seen. It was an accident.” The caller would not identify himself and hung up. 

Carl, Jr. told investigators that he recognized the caller’s voice and said it belonged to Father Lavigne. When Carl Jr. was then interviewed on January 27, 2021, he stated that within a month to a month and a half before Danny’s murder, he remembered that Danny would return from being with Lavigne, and Danny would be sick to his stomach from drinking alcohol. Carl also stated that his brother Danny usually was with Lavigne on the weekends, specifically Friday nights.

Investigators photographed and documented the area of the riverbank in which Danny’s body was found and saw blood-stained soil and blood-spattered rocks. A piece of cotton rope, plastic straw, and the left pocket of Danny’s jacket were also recovered on the river’s bank, in the vicinity of where his remains were found. These materials and various items were secured and preserved. Forensic testing was then done on some of these items.

It was determined that the application of modern forensic testing might provide answers but it was also understood that because of the many years that passed, significant degradation of the evidence was likely and testing might prove unsuccessful.

Earlier this year, the Hampden District Attorney’s contracted with DNA Labs International, a forensic lab in Florida, worked together with the Massachusetts State Police Lab to conduct dozens of forensic tests over several rounds of testing. This process confirmed that Danny’s blood was present on stones but the resulting information failed to provide any significant additional evidence to investigators.

March 23, 2004

Lavigne showed an acquaintance and employee of the Diocese of Springfield that he received a typed, unsigned letter in the mail and said that it must have been written by the murderer himself because of the guilt it described. The acquaintance documented these conversations with Lavigne in emails to his superiors at the Diocese.

The Diocese did not notify investigators of the letter’s existence until they were forced to produce the emails referencing the letter while answering a grand jury subpoena in a separate criminal investigation of another clergy member of the Springfield Diocese.

April 6, 2004

Investigators obtained and executed a search warrant on Lavigne’s home in Chicopee to obtain the letter. While executing the search warrant, investigators spoke with Lavigne after he was advised of his rights. Lavigne told investigators that he received the letter sometime in January 2004 and was “very suspicious of it because it had no return address.” He then described an elaborate process of opening the letter with tweezers, and placing it in a plastic bag before reading it because “he knew about fingerprints and DNA.” Lavigne described his own reaction to reading the letter as “chilling.”

March 5, 2021

Gulluni contacted Dr. Robert Leonard, an expert in forensic linguistics, to conduct an authorship analysis of the letter seized from Lavigne by investigators in 2004 and compare it to known writings of Lavigne gathered during the investigation. Dr. Leonard was provided copies of the letter seized by investigators from Lavigne in 2004, and ten writings known to be written by Lavigne.

May 21, 2021

Dr. Leonard informed the Hampden DA’s Office that based upon a review of the materials that had been provided to him, in his opinion, “language patterns in the questioned document are consistent with language patterns in the known Lavigne documents to the point that Richard R. Lavigne cannot be excluded as a possible candidate of authorship.”

Richard Lavigne interviews

Richard Lavigne (Hampden DA)

Based on the course of the investigation, Gulluni directed investigators to attempt to speak with Lavigne. Over a series of five days, on April 14, 15, 16, 17, and May 4, 2021, a Massachusetts State Police Trooper from the Hampden District Attorney’s Office conducted a series of interviews with Lavigne, totaling conversations of approximately 11 hours.

All interviews were audio-recorded with Lavigne’s consent and were conducted at a local medical facility where Lavigne was a patient. Lavigne was also told that the investigator was a Massachusetts State Police Trooper investigating Daniel Croteau’s death. Before speaking with Lavigne on each date, Lavigne was oriented to time and place and was not under the influence of any medications adversely affecting his decision-making or ability to communicate. He was also provided Miranda warnings on several occasions and he voluntarily agreed to speak with the investigator on each day. He was also advised that he could stop questioning or request that the investigator leave his room at any time. 

Video: Interview of Richard Lavigne in Danny Croteau case

The statement of facts states that during all of the interviews, Lavigne refused to specifically admit that he killed Danny Croteau, and at times, was “cagey and evasive,” continuing to mislead and distract investigators. However, he did make several statements to indicate that he was the last person to see Danny Croteau alive and that he brought him to the riverbank on April 14, 1972, physically assaulted him there, and after leaving Danny there and returning a short time later, he saw Danny floating face down in the river.

He stated further that he neither attempted to rescue him nor alert Danny’s parents or police of Danny’s whereabouts or condition. Police then discovered Danny’s remains the following day on April 15, 1972.

In an unrelated case, Lavigne served 10 years probation after pleading guilty to two counts of molesting male parishioners. He was defrocked by the Catholic Church in 2005.

Bishop Byrne’s Statement on Richard 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. I was angered and sickened to hear Lavigne’s unapologetic admissions in the heinous murder of this innocent child.

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.

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. 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.

I want to extend my personal and sincerest apology to the Croteau family and know that they will be in my prayers; especially Danny’s loving parents who sadly did not live to see this tragic matter resolved.

I wish to thank Hampden District Attorney Anthony Gulluni and his staff for their tireless pursuit of the truth in this horrific case.

I am also mindful that while today’s announcement resolves this case, there may still be many other victims of clergy sexual abuse who have not yet 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. You can reach out to the diocese via our toll free abuse reporting phone line (800)842-9055 or via email at reportabuse@diospringfield.org.”

Bishop Byrne, The Diocese of Springfield