Mike McNally is a Massachusetts State Police detective who asks the questions the dead need answered. It took him a few meetings this time, but finally 80-year-old, bedridden Richard Lavigne could hear Death’s footsteps and was ready to unburden himself of a dark secret he had carried in his dark heart for a half century.
Still, being a narcissistic sociopath, Lavigne couldn’t quite bring himself to explicitly admit he murdered 13-year-old altar boy Danny Croteau. Like everything else he did in his sorry life, Lavigne repeatedly framed his homicidal callousness in the best possible light, a gauzy haze that sought to minimize his vain and vile awfulness.
Hampden District Attorney Anthony Gulluni announced Monday his finding that Richard Lavigne, then a priest, had murdered Danny Croteau in 1972 by bashing his skull with a stone that Lavigne threw into the Chicopee River along with Danny’s body. And as he named the killer, Gulluni played the taped admissions Lavigne made to McNally in April and May while confined to a medical facility in Greenfield.
To listen to Lavigne’s voice from the grave, essentially admitting that he put Danny Croteau in his, was chilling, haunting, and unimaginably disturbing.
Under the careful, patient, and unthreatening questioning of McNally, Lavigne belittled Danny, calling him dumb and strange. At one point, Lavigne expressed regret, but repeatedly downplayed what he actually did, making it sound as if it was some kind of benign accident, that he shoved Danny.
Lavigne conveniently left out the part about him molesting Danny for months, if not years, of Danny threatening to expose him, of him bashing Danny’s brains in with a rock before dumping his body in the river.
Instead, he casually mentioned hitting Danny with an object, insisting that he left him very much alive on the riverbank, and was flabbergasted to return to the riverbank and find that Danny had been somehow magically transported into the river, floating face down. Later, he contradicted himself, acknowledging he had shoved Danny, causing him to end up in the river.
“Why did you hit him when he was down by the riverbank?” McNally asked.
“I don’t remember hitting him down by the riverbank, but giving him a good shove,” Lavigne replied.
“Why did you give him a good shove?” McNally asked.
“Well, for the same reason you probably push your son,” Lavigne told the detective.
Lavigne claimed that Danny was alive when he left the riverbank, then returned and saw Danny floating face down.
“What did you do after you saw the body?” McNally asked.
“I don’t remember telling anyone,” Lavigne replied.
“Did you tell the police?” McNally asked.
“I don’t believe I did,” Lavigne said.
“I don’t believe you did, either,” McNally replied. “Did you confide in any friends?”
“No,” Richard Lavigne said. “That’s not something I’d confide in. 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 remember seeing him face down in the river?” McNally asked.
“To my greatest regret,” Lavigne replied.
“That’s your greatest regret?” McNally asked.
Lavigne clarified, saying, “To my great regret.”
It makes you wonder what Richard Lavigne’s greatest regret was. I doubt it was his serial molestation and rape of many children, including Danny and his brothers. The Diocese of Springfield, whose bishops routinely covered up for Lavigne, and kept him on a salary even after he was convicted of molesting children, eventually 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.
Lavigne told McNally he was heavyhearted after Danny was murdered. McNally asked why.
“He was a nice little kid,” Lavigne replied. “Kind of dumb. But charming in a way.”
Joe Croteau, Danny’s brother, was absolutely right when, after Gulluni played the tapes at a news conference Monday, he said, “I’m awfully glad that my parents will never hear this.”
And, yet, it is horribly sad that Danny’s mother and father died without having the satisfaction of knowing that history will know, as they always did, that Richard Lavigne murdered their son.
Carl, Danny’s dad, died in 2010. Bunny, Danny’s mom, died in 2016. They were good, decent people, frustrated that everyone in law enforcement told them Lavigne did it but that there wasn’t enough evidence to charge him; racked with guilt until the day they died that they had happily allowed Danny and their other sons to go off with Father Lavigne, because what good Catholic parent in the 16 Acres section of Springfield wouldn’t be thrilled to have a priest take a shine to their son?
While Gulluni’s predecessors, like every law enforcement official who ever worked on the case, believed Lavigne murdered Danny Croteau, they couldn’t or wouldn’t make a case. Gulluni created a cold case investigative unit and with others in his office, led by Mike McNally, the State Police detective, made solving Danny’s murder a high priority.
Gulluni said a key piece of evidence was recovered by State Police detectives working for one of his predecessors in 2004, when they obtained a search warrant and went through Lavigne’s home with a fine tooth comb. It was an anonymous letter, suggesting that someone other than Lavigne had murdered Danny. Gulluni’s investigators suspected it was written by Lavigne, to throw them off his scent.
On Friday, after a forensic linguist who compared the letter recovered in 2004 with Lavigne’s writings and said he was reasonably sure they were written by the same person, Gulluni authorized State Police detectives to seek a warrant charging Lavigne with murder.
But, just as he cheated Carl and Bunny Croteau of watching their son Danny grow up, Lavigne cheated justice, dying of a COVID-19-related illness Friday night before he could be charged.
McNally said Lavigne told him he was bawling after realizing Danny was dead.
“People are going to blame me, you know?” he told McNally. “And they did, it was the worst experience of my life.”
“I’d sooner forget the whole thing, frankly,” Lavigne told McNally, especially the image of Danny floating face down.
“Do you feel like you’ve put that out of your mind?” McNally asked.
“Yeah,” Lavigne replied. “Pretty much.”
In 2003, the Globe gave me months to work on nothing but the Danny Croteau murder case. I spent a lot of time with Carl and Bunny, sitting in their living room, a portrait of Danny looking over us.
Eventually, I confronted Lavigne as he was painting his mother’s house in Chicopee. I told him I had found a new witness and other statements that implicated him. I asked Lavigne for his reaction, but he demurred. I pressed, saying it was his chance to give his side of the story.
Richard Lavigne smirked, wiping his hands with a rag he had pulled from his back pocket.
“My silence,” he said, “has been my salvation.”
In the end, it was the dogged persistence of a state cop named Mike McNally that broke that silence, getting Lavigne to implicate himself beyond a reasonable doubt in the murder of Danny Croteau.
Carl and Bunny Croteau are buried next to Danny in Hillcrest Park Cemetery. Maybe now, they can all rest in something that resembles peace. They deserve at least that much.
Kevin Cullen is a Globe reporter and columnist who roams New England. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.