Any justice for Danny Croteau will have to come from a higher power.
Croteau was 13-years-old when he was murdered and left by a Massachusets river bed in 1972. His priest was connected with the killing, likely the top suspect. But, investigators could never make the charges stick and Father Richard R. Lavigne continued leading his flock for decades.
That was until he was kicked out after allegations of sex abuse. Investigators never forgot the Corteau case and spoke to the ex-preacher in 2021. That same year, 49 years after Croteau was killed, authorities finally felt they had enough evidence to arrest Lavigne.
That day never came.
Lavigne died from COVID-19 a short time later, escaping any earthly punishment for his alleged crime.
The victim’s brother, Joe Croteau, called Lavigne a “sociopath” and said that “there’s a higher power, and he will face that higher power now,” The Boston Globe reported
His death allowed prosecutors to announce they consider the case closed and to provide full details of the investigation. At a news conference, Hampden District Attorney Anthony D. Gulluni said Lavigne admitted he was the last person to see Croteau alive on April 14, 1972, on the banks of the Chicopee River, where he physically assaulted the teenager.
Croteau died from blunt-force trauma to the head and was found floating face down in the river. The day after Croteau was found, Lavigne spoke to investigators and asked: "If a stone was used and thrown in the river, would the blood still be on it?”
Early into the investigation, detectives focused on Lavigne, a Catholic priest assigned to St. Catherine of Siena, the Springfield church where Croteau was an altar boy.
Lavigne was also a suspect because of inconsistent and unusual statements, according to the district attorney's office.
The day after Croteau was found in 1974, an anonymous person called Croteau's family and said: "We're very sorry what happened to Danny. He saw something behind the Circle he shouldn't have seen. It was an accident," according to the district attorney's office. The caller then hung up.
One of Croteau's siblings, Carl Croteau Jr., told police the caller sounded similar to Lavigne.
Despite Lavinge being linked to the murder, he was never arrested and the case went cold. In March 2020, detectives again looked at Croteau's murder and went through the decades-old evidence.
Police interviewed Carl Croteau again in January 2021 and he said he remembered Danny returning from weekend trips with Lavigne and his brother was sick from drinking alcohol.
The anonymous phone call wasn't the only strange piece of evidence in the case. In 2004, Lavigne showed a friend a typed letter he received. The letter written to the father had inferences of guilt and remorse.
"Often times you could control these drives but there were times when they were so extreme that they were beyond anyone's control," the letter addressed to Lavigne read.
"Then you met a boy along the Chicopee River who felt no shame, who felt no guilt, who was not nauseated but rather reveled in such compulsions," the letter further read. "Here you were beyond the bringing of control seeking your only solace in the shame of others and instead it was shoved back in your face all the more intensely."
"What human being would have not have been driven over the brink in your position.
"Your torment must be unbearable."
In 2004, police seized the letter and Lavigne explained how he opened the documents with tweezers and placed it in a plastic bag before reading it because "he knew about fingerprints and DNA," according to the district attorney's office. Lavigne called the letter "chilling."
In 2021, an expert reviewed the letter and other writings by Lavigne and determined it was possible the priest wrote the document.
Officers spoke to Lavigne earlier this month, where he talked about the case for 11 hours, including his reaction to seeing the body. He never directly confessed to the murder but made statements that he was the last person to see Croteau alive.
In recordings of interviews with a State Police investigator and provided by the district attorney's office, Lavigne reportedly said, “I just remember being heartbroken when I saw his body."
Lavinge said he shoved the youngster like someone would "probably push their own son." He said he left the child by the river, only to find him later floating in the water.
The district attorney's office said it authorized presenting the case before a judge for an arrest warrant against Lavigne. However, Lavigne died on May 21 at age 80 from respiratory failure as the result of COVID-19, and was never charged for the murder.
“Regrettably, due to Lavigne’s death, there will be no prosecution or trial" 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.”
Lavigne was convicted in the 1990s for sexually abusing children and removed from active ministry. In 2003, he was officially defrocked and the diocese paid over $9 million to scores of Lavigne’s victims.
His punishment for those crimes was clear. Whether he faces any damnation for Croteau's murder will not be of this world.
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