October 26, 2021

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‘Tragedy of the highest order’: Danny Croteau murder haunted law enforcement until eventually its conclusion

SPRINGFIELD — Shortly soon after Hampden Exceptional Courtroom Decide Peter A. Velis produced a pivotal ruling in 2004 to unseal information in the investigation of the 1972 murder of altar boy Daniel “Danny” Croteau, a male he experienced under no circumstances satisfied hugged him in the parking garage of the courthouse.

The person experienced tears in his eyes. Velis rapidly realized he was Croteau’s father.

“It was so mind-boggling, getting these a heartfelt gesture. To this working day I have by no means forgotten it,” Velis stated during a the latest interview.

Carl E. Croteau, a Housing Courtroom worker, died 6 a long time later on, followed by his wife, Bernice “Bunny” Croteau, in 2016. Regardless of the initiatives of teams of investigators in excess of the a long time, they handed absent just before their son’s killer was really revealed. The investigation was stunning in its complexity, though there was seriously only at any time a single suspect: defrocked Catholic priest and convicted boy or girl molester Richard R. Lavigne.

When Velis designed the final decision to unseal reams of investigative documents similar to the scenario — just lately closed just after Lavigne made available what fell just shorter of a deathbed confession — the retired jurist explained he really stated a silent “amen” to himself.

“I agonized, but not for extended. I said one thing is completely wrong right here and I owe it to my oath to handle it. And I did, and I mentioned ideally one thing will crack since of this,” the decide reported. “This was a tragedy of the optimum order.”

Retired choose Peter A. Velis speaks at a 2020 press conference about his investigation into sexual abuse allegations from former Springfield Bishop Christopher J. Weldon. (Hoang ‘Leon’ Nguyen / The Republican file photograph)

But very little broke. Not just then. Seventeen many years later on, Lavigne, the key suspect since Croteau’s entire body was observed floating in the Chicopee River, disclosed to a condition trooper that he brought Croteau to the water’s edge and struck him with “an object.”

Lavigne, 80, supplied the facts for the to start with time from a clinic mattress in Greenfield, adding that he still left and returned afterwards to see Croteau facedown in the h2o but informed no one and manufactured no endeavor to rescue the 13-year-aged boy he was suspected of sexually abusing. Croteau experienced been bludgeoned in the head just before drowning, a health-related examiner uncovered. Lavigne also explained to the trooper he “gave him a good shove.”

Lavigne died of COVID-19, a single working day right before Hampden District Lawyer Anthony D. Gulluni supposed to find an arrest warrant for the disgraced priest. Lavigne was laicized immediately after currently being convicted of little one molestation, and was the topic of scores of lawsuits more than sexual abuse of his former altar boys. Even though Gulluni couldn’t charge him, he shut the scenario, accomplishing a target a few prosecutors right before him could not.

“We resolved it was the time to check out to get him to converse, specified his health and fitness, provided his age…. It was the time to get that shot — and frankly that shot paid out off,” Gulluni stated.

Matthew Ryan

Previous Hampden District Lawyer Matthew Ryan, pictured in 1985. (The Republican file photograph)

Croteau was killed while the late District Legal professional Matthew J. Ryan Jr. was in business office. In a disturbing coincidence, Lavigne experienced sexually abused two of Ryan’s nephews. But rumors stilled swirled that Ryan didn’t consider hard ample to examine Lavigne even nevertheless the parish priest took nearly clumsy steps that designed police take a tricky glimpse at him early. Individuals integrated inquiring issues about preserving evidence and building an “anonymous” telephone simply call to the Croteaus lamenting the boy’s demise.

Ryan’s, his successor, William M. Bennett, district legal professional for two many years beginning in 1990, mentioned Ryan pursued the scenario as zealously as the investigators who followed him.

“Everybody who labored that circumstance again to 1972 was annoyed due to the fact we all suspected (Lavigne) but couldn’t physically tie him to the criminal offense,” Bennett mentioned. “That was always the key: can we get some actual physical evidence?”

DNA proof did not begin featuring in prison conditions right until the 1980s, and even then it was deemed a “miracle of science” almost never used. DNA evaluation only grew to become the standard in felony investigations in the 1990s. But even these scientific developments did not aid investigators in Croteau’s murder.

Bennett efficiently battled with the Supreme Judicial Court and Lavigne’s legal professional to retain a blood sample presented by Lavigne. Whilst there was a bloody rock and a straw found at the crime scene, Bennett’s team was not able to recuperate a DNA profile from the merchandise.

William Bennett holds press conference to defend Bennett Walsh, former superintendent of Soldier's Home in Holyoke

Former Hampden District Lawyer William Bennett speaks at a news convention in 2020. (Don Treeger / The Republican file picture)

“That was unproductive. The hope was any person would occur forward, any individual would have additional proof, anything new would pop up. Or new scientific tactics would come alongside,” Bennett said.

Like Velis, Bennett felt like it was a unfastened finish when he left business office. He lauded Gulluni’s investigation as perfectly as point out trooper Michael McNally, who expended 11 several hours in excess of various times attaining Lavigne’s self-confidence and encouraging him to open up about Croteau’s dying. Even as he confronted loss of life, 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 decide, succeeded Bennett in 2010. His administration spent a complete calendar year creating a database of cold situations and a DNA unit. What in the beginning struck him was how many unsolved murder instances there had been in Hampden County, he stated.

Mastroianni experienced some good results with chilly situations, but, there did not look an opening in the Croteau investigation though he was in office.

“You have to make what are often truly tricky choices when it arrives to these cold circumstances. I keep in mind on the lookout at Croteau and each individual other circumstance. You seem at in which it was left, and I don’t forget it staying evident that Invoice Bennett had carried out a lot of perform on it,” Mastroianni claimed.

Mark Mastroianni

Hampden District Legal professional Mark Mastroianni speaks in courtroom in 2013. (Don Treeger / The Republican file photo)

Fixing chilly instances can often be a hybrid of allocating resources, really hard get the job done, ingenuity and timing, he extra.

“Keeping the concentrate, awareness and manpower properly trained on a situation that is not on the top rated of people’s desks any longer can be a authentic obstacle. And timing is everything. When you see an possibility and few that with your investigatory resources, that’s critical,” Mastroianni stated.

Whilst he prepared to continue to be in place of work for a several phrases, the federal judgeship arrived up and he still left the countywide office in 2014. He was out of time.

Gulluni succeeded Mastroianni and picked up the chilly case mantle. He formally reopened the Croteau investigation with his sights educated on Lavigne two decades in the past. He reviewed the function of his predecessors, constructed on just about anything of worth, assessed wherever there may well be some investigative holes and cast his have route.

Apart from using another operate at Lavigne, Gulluni also plucked a peculiar letter Lavigne presented as staying anonymously despatched to him by “the real killer” and sent it to a forensic linguistic analyst. That expert concluded the letter was possible prepared by Lavigne.

“As we recognized we experienced extra and much more proof, these have been really exhilarating moments. You put in this get the job done, and you have a target so when you get close to that aim it’s quite enjoyable,” Gulluni reported. “But in the long run you’re doing this for family members, and for justice and for the sufferer.”

Danny Croteau murder case

Hampden District Legal professional Anthony Gulluni speaks at a press meeting Could 24 to say he had concluded the late previous priest Richard Lavigne killed altar boy Daniel Croteau in 1972. A image of Croteau is projected on the screen powering him. (Don Treeger / The Republican file picture)

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