Standing at 5 foot 6 inches and weighing 135 pounds, Danny Croteau was big for a 13-year-old. His parents, Carl and Bernice Croteau, would describe him as a daydreamer. He often spoke about wanting to go on safari and loved making his siblings laugh. He had blue eyes, dirty blond hair and freckles sprinkled over the bridge of his nose.
According to The Republican newspaper, he prayed for snow in the winter so that he could shovel the drives of his neighbours to earn a little bit of extra cash for Christmas gifts. One year, he bought his grandmother a ceramic owl because he looked at her as the wise one of the family. He loved his bike but his family said that there was nothing he loved more than fishing. As his mother fondly recalled: “The only way I can describe Danny is: he was a boy, a real boy.”
On the 14th of April, 1972, Danny came home from school, threw his backpack on the floor and rushed back outside to play kickball in a neighbour’s yard. His parents had no issues with Danny playing out on the street; this was a safe neighbourhood where everybody knew one another. However, unbeknownst to Carl and Bernice at the time, this was the last time they would ever see Danny alive.1
The following morning, Danny was found floating under the Interstate 291 bridge in the murky waters of Chicopee River. He had been bludgeoned over the head and face with a heavy object, presumably a rock. The autopsy concluded that he had died of fractures of the skull and lacerations of the brain.
The family’s former parish priest, Richard Lavigne, has long been considered a suspect in the slaying.
Danny and his brothers had all been altar boys which is how they met Lavigne. The priest was said to have immediately took to the Croteau boys. According to Carl: “He was always coming over for coffee, for dinner, to play with the kids, to take them places. He played kind of rough with the kids, but he was a physical man. I know he liked weight lifting.” Carl and Bernie were hardworking; with seven children, they had to be. They said that Lavigne often bring them roast dinners and would take the children to the local swimming pool and initially, they found his interest in the boys to be innocent.
When Lavigne was transferred to St. Mary’s in East Springfield in 1968, he stayed in contact with the family. He still came over to visit the brothers and the brothers would sometimes go to St. Mary’s Rectory to spend the night. However, just days after Danny was murdered, Lavigne called the family and said that under the circumstances, he didn’t think he should see the family any longer. “We didn’t know what he was talking about,” said Carl.
Ten days later, Carl and Bernie were informed that Lavigne was a suspect in their son’s murder. A witness claimed that on the night of the murder, she had spotted Lavigne near the crime scene but was threatened by the then-bishop and district attorney from coming forward. It was never disclosed what the woman supposedly saw but the report alleges a grave abuse of authority and raises many questions. Carl was told by former Hampden County District Attorney, Matthew Ryan Jr. that “he didn’t think he could get 12 jurors to convict a priest.”
In 2008, thousands of pages of investigative records were ordered to be released by Superior Court Associate Justice John Agostini. The records once again detailed the testimony of the earlier witness but additionally detailed that there were several other witnesses who reported seeing Lavigne on the night of the murder at the murder scene or where the body was discovered. These witnesses waited many years to come forward because they had been dissuaded by others from making statements.
“This statement alleges a grave abuse of authority by the district attorney in 1972, and raises concerns about law enforcement authorities relationship with the Diocese and their handling of evidence incriminating Lavigne,” wrote the judge.2
There had also been statements from a friend who recalled a 1968 camping trip with Danny, Lavigne and six other boys in the wilderness of Goshen. While camping, the boys started to tease Danny and Lavigne joined in. Danny threatened Lavigne with the words: “I’ll tell! I’ll tell!” According to the statement, the threat had a drastic affect on Lavigne who immediately ordered the boys to stop teasing Danny.3
While Lavigne had been considered a suspect in the murder from the very beginning of the case, he was publicly named as a suspect in the 1990s after he was convicted of molesting two altar boys. He served just ten years of probation and then in 2004, he was removed from the priesthood by the Vatican.
Following his molestation conviction, Danny’s brother, Joseph, filed a suit against Lavigne, charging that he had molested him when he was 13-years-old. He said that the priest had fondled him and masturbated in his presence during several incidents at Lavigne’s home, a church rectory and his parents’ home. In fact, Joseph made a statement alleging the abuse back in 1972 but nothing ever came of it and it was brushed under the rug.4
At a time and a place when few would believe a priest could molest a child let alone kill a child, no charges were ever brought against Lavigne for the murder of Danny despite the fact that virtually every single investigator who worked on the case came to the conclusion that Lavigne was guilty.5 Despite their conclusions, there has apparently been not enough evidence to definitively link Lavigne with Danny’s murder.
Over the years, Danny’s parents came to accept his death but still want somebody to be held accountable. “All we truly want is the truth to come out so we can be at peace. We’ve accepted Danny’s death. We believe he is in heaven. We have to fight with the Catholic church, the diocese, our parish, St. Catherine’s, our pastor, Father (Charles) Gonet. We want Danny’s case to be resolved.”
Lavigne, who still maintains his innocence, currently lives with his mother in Chicopee.
On the 24th of May, 2021, it was announced that Lavigne had passed away. His death had come before the District Attorney could arrest him for the murder of Danny. In the weeks leading up to his death, he had agreed to meet with investigators and while he never admitted to murdering Danny, he admitted to being with him the night he died and admitted seeing his body floating in the Chicopee River. With his death, the murder case is now considered closed.
- The Republican, 27 October, 1991 – “Parents Dream of Son, Long for Justice”
- Dedham Transcript, 15 January, 2008 – “New Documents in Altar Boy’s Murder”
- Journal Inquirer, 6 August, 2004 – “Mass. Court Releases Documents from Probe of Altar Boy’s Slaying”
- The Republican, 9 December, 1993 – “Lavigne Faced with Abuse Suit”
- Journal Inquirer, 18 January, 200 – “A Boy’s Death Revisited”