Ever since the body of 13-year-old Danny Croteau was found floating facedown in the Chicopee River in 1972, investigators had set their sights on Richard R. Lavigne, the priest at the Catholic church where the Springfield youngster was an altar boy.
The day after Danny’s body was found, Lavigne was spotted walking alone along the riverbank as police surveyed the crime scene. When questioned, Lavigne posed a chilling question.
“If a stone was used and thrown in the river, would the blood still be on it?” he asked, according to a police report. Danny had been killed by a crushing blow to his head, likely with a rock.
Lavigne was never charged in the boy’s death, although he was convicted of crimes against other children in the 1990s and classified as a sex offender. But on Monday, authorities said Lavigne had implicated himself in the killing to investigators in the weeks before the disgraced former priest died on Friday.
“Regrettably, due to Lavigne’s death, there will be no prosecution or trial,” said Hampden District Attorney Anthony D. Gulluni, who authorized state troopers to seek an arrest warrant for Lavigne hours before he died. “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.”
Gulluni said the disgraced priest spoke to investigators for a combined 11 hours in the weeks before his death. He never admitted directly to killing the boy, but acknowledged he had brought him to the riverbank on April 14, 1972, and was the last person to see him alive, Gulluni said. He also admitted to physically assaulting Danny there and leaving, before returning a short time later and seeing the boy’s body floating in the river.
At a news conference, Gulluni played recordings from the interviews Lavigne had given to a State Police investigator in the weeks before his death.
At one point in an interview, Lavigne told an investigator he gave the boy “a good shove” along the banks of the Chicopee River, a tributary of the Connecticut River. Asked why, Lavigne said “because he was being . . . ” before his voice trailed off.
Lavigne later said he saw Danny floating face down in the river and recognized him by “the way he was dressed.”
“I don’t remember what I did” after seeing the boy in the water, he said in an audio recording of an interview played at the news conference. “I don’t remember telling anyone.”
“I just remember being heartbroken when I saw his body . . . knowing I was responsible for giving him a good shove, you know?” he added.
Danny’s brother, Joe, said that hearing “the voice of a sociopath like that guy is bone-chilling.”
“I’m awfully glad that my parents will never hear this,” he said. Croteau said the family, while disappointed Lavigne will not be charged, believes “there’s a higher power, and he will face that higher power now.”
Danny and his four brothers served as altar boys at St. Catherine of Siena parish in Springfield, where Lavigne was assigned. Sleepovers at the rectory became common for some of the boys, and Lavigne had some children stay with him at his parents’ Chicopee home, the Globe has reported.
In January, Danny’s brother told investigators that in the weeks before Danny died, he would return from visits with Lavigne sick from drinking alcohol.
Lavigne has long been considered the only suspect in the boy’s murder. He was removed from active ministry in 1991, when he was charged with sexually abusing children. But even after his 1992 conviction, leaders of the Springfield Diocese did not push to have him laicized. Under pressure from Lavigne’s victims and their supporters, the Vatican defrocked him in 2003.
The diocese paid 17 of Lavigne’s victims $1.4 million in a 1994 settlement and paid out an additional $7.7 million to 46 victims in 2004.
William D. Byrne, bishop of the Springfield Diocese, said the news that authorities were poised to arrest Lavigne served as “another reminder” of the church’s past failures and brought “sad closure to a tragic event which I know has hung over our faith community for decades.”
“I was angered and sickened to hear Lavigne’s unapologetic admissions in the heinous murder of this innocent child,” he said.
The probe gained new momentum in March 2020, when Hampden prosecutors created a unit to investigate old cases. A state trooper was assigned to the Croteau case, Gulluni said, and the unit pored over thousands of documents in the months that followed.
John J. Stobierski, a Greenfield lawyer who represented Danny Croteau’s late parents for decades as they urged prosecutors to hold his killer accountable, said that while it was good that investigators finally had the evidence needed to arrest Lavigne, it had taken too long.
“There’s a great injustice done here,” said Stobierski, who has represented more than 25 of Lavigne’s accusers. ”This helps, but it has not told us why it happened and how the levels of power kept it silent.”
He urged Gulluni’s office to release all of the investigative materials it had gathered on the slaying. “The family and the public have a right to know, particularly if there is any documentation of a great corruption in keeping this matter quiet for all these years, unresolved,” he said.
Law enforcement officials estimate that Lavigne molested more than 250 people from the 1960s through the 1990s, Stobierski said. During civil proceedings, it was revealed that secret files detailing complaints against Lavigne and other priests had been destroyed by two bishops, Thomas Dupre and Christopher Weldon, who were both later implicated in the clergy sexual abuse scandal, he said. Both men are now deceased.
“There is something amiss that this could be kept this quiet this long,” Stobierski said. “I think the answers are somewhere in the Diocese of Springfield.”
Mitchell Garabedian, a longtime advocate for sexual abuse victims who has represented some of Lavigne’s victims, said he received calls Monday from victims across the country expressing sympathy for the Croteau family and “dismay at feeling cheated again” because Lavigne was never prosecuted.
He called on Gulluni’s office to subpoena the files of the Springfield Diocese to determine whether they contain evidence that Lavigne murdered Danny Croteau.
“The question arises what did the supervisors of Father Lavigne know and when did they know it,” Garabedian said. “If there is a criminal coverup by the Diocese of Springfield, the district attorney’s office should get to the bottom of it so the Croteau family can heal, the truth can be revealed, and children can be kept safe.”
Lavigne died Friday at Baystate Medical Franklin Medical Center in Greenfield, according to state records. The immediate cause of death was “acute hypoxic respiratory failure,” and the underlying cause was “COVID-19 pneumonia,” according to state records. He was 80.
Gulluni said Lavigne had been a person of interest in the early stages of the murder investigation due to “inconsistent and unusual statements” he made, including lying about the last time he had seen the boy. Witnesses also disputed the priest’s claim that he was never alone with Danny.
Two days after Danny’s body was found, a call was placed to his family’s home and one of his brothers picked up, Gulluni said. A male voice told Carl Croteau, then 19, that “we’re very sorry what happened to Danny. He saw something behind the circle he shouldn’t have seen. It was an accident.” The caller wouldn’t identify himself, but Carl told investigators he recognized the voice as Lavigne’s.
Shelley Murphy of the Globe staff contributed to this report.