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Elderly Priest Accused In 1972 Murder Of Altar Boy Dies As Authorities Planning Arrest

“I just remember being heartbroken when I saw his body going down the river knowing I was responsible for giving him a good shove, you know,” disgraced priest Richard R. Lavigne told homicide detectives investigating the decades old murder of Danny Croteau.

By Dorian Geiger
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A Massachusetts priest, who pleaded guilty to child molestation in the nineties, died before officials could arrest him in the 1972 death of a teenager found floating face down in a river.

The cold case killing of Danny Croteau has been “officially closed,” authorities announced on Monday, following the death of defrocked priest Richard Lavigne, who they suspect was behind the boy’s unsolved killing died on Friday, officials said. He was 80.

Danny Croteau's body was found in the Chicopee River on April 14, 1972. The Massachusetts altar boy died of multiple blunt injuries to the head, according to charging documents obtained by Oxygen.com. Lavigne, prosecutors said, was the last person to see him alive.

In recent months, Lavigne provided roughly 11 hours of interviews during five separate occasions to cold case investigators regarding Croteau’s death, which officials say largely implicated Lavigne. 

“Based on the accumulation of evidence, and in particular those admissions, as a prosecutor I believe that I was fulfilling my ethical duties by moving toward the charge of murder against Richard Lavigne … and I believe we could prove it,” Hampden District Attorney Anthony D. Gulluni said in a statement on Monday.

On April 14, 15, 16, 17, and May 4, 2021, a Massachusetts State police trooper interviewed Lavigne at a medical facility where he was a patient. 

"During all of the interviews, Lavigne refused to specifically admit that he killed Danny Croteau, and at times, was cagey and evasive, continuing his long-running attempts to mislead and distract investigators," Gulluni said.

Lavigne never directly confessed to murdering Croteau before he died, although prosecutors were adamant he was responsible for the 13-year-old’s demise. 

"He made several statements to indicate that he was the last person to see Danny Croteau alive, that he brought him to the riverbank on April 14, 1972, that he physically assaulted him there, and after leaving Danny there and returning a short time later, that he saw Danny floating face down in the river," Gulluni added.

Lavigne told investigators it was Croteau’s idea to go down to the river more than 49 years ago.

“Why’d you go down there with him?” an investigator asked Lavigne in a recorded police interview obtained by Oxygen.com.

“He wanted to see the waterfall up close,” Lavigne responded.

He admitted to giving the 13-year-old a “good shove” down at the riverbank.

“I don’t remember what I did,” Lavigne said. “I don’t remember telling anyone...I just remember being heartbroken when I saw his body going down the river knowing I was responsible for giving him a good shove, you know.”

He claimed he left and later returned to find the child submerged in the river the following day.

“I just saw [him] floating,” Lavigne recalled.

When detectives pressed him on what he did after seeing the teenager, Lavigne claimed he couldn’t recall. Authorities said he never made any attempts to rescue the boy or notify Croteau’s parents or police.

Croteau had elevated blood alcohol levels and chewing gum was found in his pocket. Authorities also found “blood-stained soil” and “blood-spattered rocks” on the shore of the river. Both Lavigne and Croteau’s blood types were identified as being present, however, DNA testing was ultimately inconclusive.

Under questioning, Lavigne also painted Croteau as an eccentric young boy who craved attention. He described the 13-year-old as a “charming” and “nice little kid” but repeatedly attacked his intelligence.

“He was a strange, interesting kid, you know, not too bright, always trying to make jokes about things,” Lavigne said in the recorded interview. And if you didn’t answer, he’d increase his voice. You’d turn around and you’d feel like saying, ‘Will you shut up?’”

Father Richard Lavigne Ap

Over the years, authorities had gathered other compelling forms of evidence they said linked Lavigne to Croteau’s death.

According to prosecutors, Croteau’s brother, Carl Croteau Jr. told authorities that someone, whose voice resembled Lavigne’s, called the family days after the teen’s death apologizing for the alleged murder. The individual in question claimed the boy’s death was an “accident” before hanging up.

In 2004, Lavigne also allegedly confided in an acquaintance that he’d received an unsigned, anonymous mailed letter he suspected was from Croteau’s murderer, according to prosecutors. He described the cryptic note, which mentions a “boy along the Chicopee River” as “chilling.” The letter reportedly had no return address.

In 2004, detectives executed a search warrant at Lavigne’s Chicopee home to obtain the “suspicious” letter. 

A forensic expert later stated the language patterns used in the letter, which Oxygen.com reviewed, were consistent with writings authored by Lavigne. 

Lavigne served the Diocese of Springfield. He was defrocked in 2003. In 1992, he pleaded guilty to two counts of indecently assaulting two teenage boys.

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