As a kid, I loved being terrified and mystified by the television show, Unsolved Mysteries. The theme music, the voice over of Robert Stack, and the 80s visuals were all exactly what a kid like me wanted to scare the ever-loving shit out of myself. And there were plenty of nights where I wondered how the fuck I was going to fall asleep after that nightmare of an episode. Maybe I was just a weird kid.
In 1993, an episode aired that caught my attention because I knew the name of the victim. The year before, she had been murdered and there was no new information about the case so they turned to the public for help. I don’t know if that episode really did help at all because it was only six months ago that the killer was finally arrested.
When I finally read the articles about the arrest, I wondered if this would be just the first in a long line of cold cases to be solved. Earlier that summer, there had been hints of another cold case that had “new developments” though nothing more had been/has been released on the subject.
I was kind of right.
Another cold case was solved in the last month, just not the one I was keeping an eye out for. I only knew about this unsolved crime because of an article done early last year where the victim’s sister was interviewed. I can remember reading that article last year and thinking, how are they going to solve that?
Well they seem to have anyway.
On March 11th, a man was arrested for the 31-year-old crime. Based on the news coverage, it sounds like the suspect has all but confessed what with his story changes and all. Again I began to wonder if the cold case with developments from last summer would get an update finally; I had been following it since I was a teenager and if there were “new developments” then it stood to reason there were new leads.
But so far nothing.
I began to wonder what it must be like for the victims who have to wait so long for justice. Could their souls really move on if that’s their belief system anyway? Or do they wait around their families and around each new police detective assigned to their case, hoping that someone will finally confess or that some clue will blow the case wide open?
What made my questions worse was the knowledge that unsolved murders are a dime a dozen according to the county’s cold case database. It’s a long and depressing list, some recent and others not so much. Some will most likely never be solved; others may still have a chance.
One of them stuck with me after reading the victim’s name. More so even than the case with developments last summer. I can’t stop thinking about it. I remembered the name whispered by the adults when I was a kid and I can’t stop thinking about him.
The murder of Danny Croteau happened a decade before I was born, but all of the adults in my family remember it. This subject matter will be difficult and I have to warn you all here for triggers for sexual abuse and the Catholic scandals. For those not willing to read about this for mental health reasons, skip down further past the second picture below to the third paragraph in that section. (In addition, I have ceremoniously desecrated the name of the priest in this post.)
One of the things that the newspapers like to highlight the most about Danny is that he was an altar boy. Most articles reference this fact either in the title or within the first paragraph. They’re hoping to drag the reader in, to illustrate that a pure-hearted innocent was murdered. They also want to remind as many people as possible the abuse of power from the priest when they begin to pepper the details into their articles.
What they’re forgetting is that Danny was more than this two-dimensional news article image. He was an altar boy – an important position according to other kids who also held the role – but he was also a kid. He was a Boy Scout and maybe, if he had lived, he would have one day become an Eagle Scout. He helped out an elderly neighbor for nothing more than milk and cookies. According to one childhood friend, he was the kind of kid who would give you the shirt off his back if you asked him with no questions on why.
He helped his parents out around the house. He did chores and maybe he complained about the doing of them, but he did what he was asked. His family was big with a total of six kids and his blue-collar worker of a father working two and three jobs at a go to make ends meet.
But beyond all of that, he would go out and play with his friends. They would play pickup games of whatever sport in the street: baseball or wiffle ball. He would go fishing at the local watering holes and talked about, maybe, one day being a priest. He wanted to go to Africa, not as a missionary, but as a scientist. He would stay out late in the dark, hanging out with his friends and doing what kids did back then.
Danny Croteau had hopes and dreams. The articles rarely remind you about the fact that he was a kid and he had his whole life ahead of him to plan out. His life was cut short and the secrets that slowly spilled out after he died would, eventually, lead to one of the biggest scandals in the state of Massachusetts.
When the local parish priest first came to St. Catherine of Sienna church, he made an impression. The older members were discomfited by this youthful priest, who introduced modern music to the choir and preached against the Vietnam War. The phrase “hippy” was sometimes thrown out and around by the elder members of the church, but they couldn’t deny that he was bringing members back to the Church in droves.
Not only was he outspoken about his political views about the illegal war, he also made himself useful. The Croteaus weren’t the only family to receive the priest’s largess. He made himself useful. He would raid the church’s freezer and bring roasts or steak. He would give them money if they needed help to float the bills. He would babysit the kids, giving the parents a break when they needed it. He was helpful and kind and everyone who were helped out by him remarked that it was a status symbol:
The priest was seen eating at so-and-so’s home the other night, they would murmur. It was a mark of favor. It was supposed to show that he was part of the community centered around the church.
All it did was give him more and more access to the victims he had chosen.
The priest, F/ather L/avigne, had had rumors swirling around his name since before he even entered the seminary. He had been in trouble as a youth for “immoral acts” with children. But the Catholic Church didn’t care or never learned of it. They failed the people who F/ather L/avigne would later victimize.
Danny’s secret was the same secret children at the priest’s previous parish kept to themselves. It was the same secret that other kids in Danny’s church kept quiet. F/ather L/avigne had a predilection for little boys. He would coax them with alcohol and Playboys. He would watch them change into their altar boy smocks. He took them camping and had sleepovers both at the rectory and at his parents’ home in the city next door.
Danny’s secret, most likely, led to his murder, but we’ll frankly never know.
On the evening of April 14th, the day before the fishing season was to open, Danny never came home for dinner. It was a Friday night and his parents weren’t worried. Friday nights meant that the Croteau kids could eat whatever they wanted for supper and could stay out late. When Danny still failed to come home after dark, his parents went looking for him but he didn’t turn up at any of his local haunts. No one could confirm when they last saw him.
So they did the next logical thing: they turned to the police to file a missing person’s report. Unfortunately, Danny had to be missing for 12 hours in order for the report to be filed. By the time the official report was entered at 2:11AM, it was too late for Danny.
On the morning of April 15th, a fisherman showed up at a local spot that’s no longer in use. A guard rail has been put up in the name of safety and there’s no easy parking for locals anymore to fish along the Chicopee River. Back then, you could pull right up to the river and stay as long as you wanted. You just had to be careful of the trash leftover from local teenagers using the area as a party space or lover’s lane the night before.
The fisherman found Danny Croteau lying face down in the river about five feet from the river bank. He called it in and the local police, followed by the state police, were on the scene very quickly. They could see impressions from tire tracks, one of which appeared to have been made in the mud by a car getting out of there pretty quickly.
The mud had been kicked up and it was clear that a struggle had happened. Danny Croteau had fought hard for his life, fighting back against his killer with everything he had. By all accounts, Danny was a big kid and he probably tried to use his size to his advantage. But in the end, Danny lost the battle when his killer picked up a rock and killed him. The cops took impressions and found the murder weapon, which had both Danny’s blood and someone else’s on it. They thought it would be an easy case to solve.
The autopsy revealed that Danny was legally drunk at the time of his murder. It wasn’t the first time the 13-year-old had been either. Two weeks before his murder, after a sleepover at F/ather L/avigne’s family home, he came home feeling ill and was sick a few times. His older brother had a similar experience after spending the evening sleeping over at the priest’s family home, but the priest assured the Croteaus their son got into his parents’ liquor cabinet without permission.
The Croteaus never went to identify the body, F/ather L/avigne offering to do that for them. He said that they shouldn’t see him that way. Maybe he really did want to keep them from having the image of their son like that. He also talked them into a closed casket, again citing that they needed to remember their son as he was and not how he had died.
This was just the first of many instances where F/ather L/avigne seemed to do things that would zoom him to the top of the suspect pool. He was found at the murder scene the very next day and when he was interviewed, he asked questions that all true crime readers and police detectives note to be suspicious. They’re the type of questions the murderers ask to check to see how the investigation is going.
But this was Massachusetts and even though the police suspected the priest, there was no way a Catholic priest could do this. Catholicism was the top religion in the state and is still the religion du jour according to the Pew Foundation. They had to tread carefully. Not only was the local DA a Catholic, but no one could believe that a priest would do something so heinous.
F/ather L/avigne lied during his interview, claiming that he hadn’t seen Danny since the sleepover where the child had come home seemingly hung over. A witness came forward to say that Danny had been at their home a week or so before his death and made a call to “his father” to pick them up. It was F/ather L/avigne’s car that came to pick up Danny, not his father.
After the funeral for Danny, presided over by the very man police were beginning to suspect in the homicide, F/ather L/avigne told Danny’s parents he couldn’t be seen with them anymore. Carl remembers being bewildered by the call, which came seemingly out of the blue. They didn’t know that he was a prime suspect or that he had abused their son. All they knew at that point was that the very priest who had helped them over and over again was now claiming he couldn’t help them during the worst moment of their lives.
F/ather L/avigne, with the backing of the Catholic Church, was brought in to pass a polygraph test. He couldn’t have done the horrible deed, of course, if he passed and that would put the whispers floating around the city to rest. For all intents and purposes, it sounds very much like he failed the first test. The newspapers claim it was inconclusive. Two further tests were completed at the backing of the Church and he passed.
F/ather L/avigne was transferred to another local church, St. Mary’s, amid the swirling rumors about his hand in Danny’s death. Most of the kids who had been abused by F/ather L/avigne could believe that he would do it. The priest, apparently, had an explosive temper and they, of course, all secretly knew why the priest would want to do such a thing. The police heard the claims and felt that the motive was not only damning but obvious.
Local opinion is that the police didn’t handle the case well. They seemed to tiptoe around the Catholic Church. This is true, by all accounts. While the police seemed to believe that, along with the local D.A., he had committed this crime, there wasn’t enough evidence to seek an indictment. The Croteaus were not only informed of the abuse their son had suffered, but some of their other sons confirmed they had also been abused. With that, they filed criminal complaints against their priest. But the D.A. said that there was no way they could convict a Catholic priest for the murder…
In the early 90s, when I first heard family members speak about the case, there was new heat on the case. In 1991, F/ather L/avigne was arraigned on charges of sexual abuse of a minor. His congregation was floored by the reports. Men and women and children all picked sides: those who believed the priest could do something so horrific and those who did not. The scandal threatened to destroy parishes – and in fact the parish where the abuse claim stemmed from did in fact break in half – and the first Catholic abuse scandal was born.
I won’t detail the long list of names that came forward, courageous people who spoke out against the priest. I’ll leave this link to the Bishop Accountability page for anyone who wants to explore it.
Suffice to say that the priest who was supposed to finally get his comeuppance for the abuse he had perpetrated, and the murder 20 years before, against the innocent never came. He pleaded guilty, but never spent a day in jail for it. He was never to serve as a priest again, but the Catholic Church paid him every month. He wasn’t defrocked, just retired.
The Croteaus were hopeful that this would do it; they would finally get the justice that their son deserved. The case was reopened by the new D.A. at the time now that victims of F/ather L/avigne’s were coming out of the wood work. They came out in droves, suing the Catholic Church and the priest himself, for the horrors they had suffered at his hands in long-suffering silence.
DNA testing was still in its infancy back then, but evidence collected at the scene was sent to a lab. Blood typing had confirmed that Danny’s blood type and another, Type B, was on the murder weapon and some of that blood was on a piece of rope found at the scene. The lab cleared F/ather L/avigne’s blood from the murder weapon, but couldn’t conclusively do so on the rope found at the scene. It wasn’t enough evidence for the case to go to trial as the D.A. believed they didn’t have enough evidence beyond a “reasonable doubt.” The case went cold again.
In the early 2000s, after I had moved out of state, the case came back under the lime light again. Litigation had been filed by a local lawyer to release the gag order on the documentation surrounding the sex abuse and murder investigation against F/ather L/avigne. The lawyer needed it to determine if the Diocese was complicit for the lawsuits that would eventually be filed. A judge ordered the documentation released to the public even though the D.A. fought hard against it. He claimed it would do more damage than good.
Maybe the D.A. just didn’t want to try or care anymore. After his failure in the early 90s, maybe he couldn’t face another failure or people claiming he had done nothing after claiming he would do something.
But maybe this was all that he needed to try, once again, to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that F/ather L/avigne was guilty of murder. DNA testing had come a long way since the early 90s, something the D.A. acknowledged.
He sent the evidence in for testing one more time and the testing failed to link F/ather L/avigne to the crime. Thirty-two years after becoming the only suspect in the murder (as all other suspects had been ruled out concretely), hope for justice finally died.
Around the same time, a local priest began to refuse to give the tithes from his parish church to the Catholic Diocese until they defrocked the sexual abuser in their midst and stopped paying for L/avigne’s retirement. He was threatened by the Diocese but his parishioners agreed with him. Others joined in the fight, but it was Father James Scahill who pushed and pushed. He won his fight and L/avigne was defrocked.
That was the only justice the Croteaus would ever know.
I can remember an aunt of mine saying emphatically, “that priest did it; he killed that boy!” I was at her house and I came into the conversation too late to make sense of it. I couldn’t understand what they were saying. It haunted me for a while because I couldn’t fathom – as many who viewed the abuse scandals of the early 2000s against the Catholic Church – that someone would do something like that to one of their parishioners.
She mentioned other names – kids she knew who had been abused by the priest. But it was the murder charge she levied against the priest that stuck in my memory. I didn’t understand it all until I saw Danny Croteau’s name on the cold case database for the county. It was the only time I would hear about it before I began digging into the case myself.
I visited the graves of the Croteaus some weeks back. Danny’s been joined by other family members, including his father. He’s no longer alone at least. The bench pictured above was the only thing I was comfortable photographing while I was there, paying my respects to a family who had survived the most horrific thing that I can imagine a family going through. All reports show that, even at the height of it all, the Croteaus never lost their faith.
As I stood before the stone bench on a cold Sunday morning, I tried to understand what it must have been like, not only for the family but for Danny too. His life had been cut short tragically and brutally. Thinking about it in terms of my own son, I am frozen by the intensity of my own feelings on the matter; I can’t describe the feeling at all. I can’t imagine how the family managed to survive at all.
As I thought about Danny the last few weeks while writing this entry and visiting his grave, I wondered about his soul. Was he resting in the arms of God? Or was he watching his family, waiting for them to join him before he went to wherever it is his soul has gone to? Was he angry that justice would never be served and that the likely murderer still lives?
I can’t answer these questions; maybe I’ll never know the answers but maybe one day I will.
All I can do is honor the boy’s memory and remember him. I can remember him as the wild child who hitchhiked where he wanted to go and wrestled at the YMCA. I can remember him as the prankster who stopped before running off that fateful April 14th evening to help his mom bring a rug inside and setting it back in its place.
I can think that maybe he’s a little at peace, even though justice will have to wait until the alleged murderer has to face his Maker whenever that will be. At least he’s back with his father now and maybe, I think, he probably did wind up in the arms of God. His mother always figured he had become an angel and if he did become one, maybe he’s the angel who watches out for those who need protection the most.
I am the soul of the souls of the eternal gods, my body is everlasting, I am he who is on high, Lord of Tatjebu, I am young in my city, I am boyish in the field, and such is my name, for my name will not perish. – Excerpt from Spell 85 from the Book of Going Forth By Day